Interview with Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's On The Town star Fred Haig
This summer the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre are reviving the classic musical On The Town which features a classic score by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Following the ups and downs of Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, three sailors on leave who arrive in New York City with just an out of date guidebook to hand they throw themselves into city life resulting is misadventures around the Big Apple. With a knock-out score of hits including "Carried Away", "I Can Cook Too", "I Got You" and of course, "New York, New York (It's a Hell of a Town)" it's the perfect summer musical to enjoy in the stunning surroundings of Regent's Park.
With rehearsals underway we caught up with Fred Haig who plays the role of Chip in this new production, making his West End debut.
Dom O'Hanlon: Fred, it's wonderful to meet you. You're currently in rehearsals for On The Town – how is it all going?
Fred Haig: It's been great – an absolute coming together of so much talent in the room. It's Drew McOnie and Tom Deering's baby really, I think musically and visually it's going to be really incredible. We're just really excited to get it running together and seeing exactly what it is we've come up with.
DOH: I think I'm right in saying this is your West End debut? What are you most excited about?
FH: It is! I did a play in Coventry last summer having graduated from LAMDA and this is my first London outing. I suppose the diversity of the audiences that will be able to come and see it, because the population and the people who come to visit are so diverse I think you're going to get such an interesting array of people coming through the doors and experiencing the show every night. Also the opportunity to perform at a venue with such a rich history as the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, it's a huge tick off the list of things to do in my career so it's just a privilege. Everything I love about London is everything I will adore about performing this show in London and the excitement that it brings.
DOH: How familiar were you with the show before you were cast – is Chip a dream role?
FH: I wouldn't say it was completely brand new to me but I have never seen it on stage. I was always aware of On the Town the brand as it were – the sailors, the songs and the film with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. There is an imprint on my mind of the film, and I did go back to watch it rightly or wrongly when I knew I would be doing it. It's largely been about getting to know the show as if from new. Drew was very clear about that in the first day of rehearsals – he didn't want it to be a homage to musicals of old, or the film, he wanted this production to only to have been done now, at the Park, by this company and at this moment in time. That was very infectious, he got everyone thinking about how we could make it relevant, how we could make this chime with audiences in 2017 when it was written during the war. It's almost been like discovering a brand new piece, working on it and running it. I came to it relatively fresh.
DOH: How exactly has Drew made the show relevant to a London 2017 audience?
FH: Firstly in terms of the casting, it's a company of people backstage and onstage who look like a city. It's diverse, it's interesting, it's modern and it's relevant. I think that was a big step in the right direction – when I saw the cast I thought this is relevant and good. In tapping into stuff that's already there – three young guys get 24 hours to forget about the war they're fighting. You can appropriate that into your own experience at a most basic level, that 24 hours of enjoyment away from the daily grind. For these three, it's a particular life or death one. It's by no means set in 2017 but I think stuff like that, the themes and motives of these characters just putting them into the mindset of people from today has proved much easier than you'd think. He hasn't had to do much superficially to the production, it's all sort of in there, we've just had to eek it out in rehearsals and working on the characters.
DOH: Drew is certainly the director-choreographer of the moment. What have you found so special about working with him on this show?
FH: I think firstly I've never seen someone choreograph and adapt with such efficiency in rehearsal. I cannot believe how quickly he works. His ability to choreograph both men and women is incredible. He can change his stature and physicality so easily, one second he's choreographing a group of sailors then you turn round and he's working with a group of business men then the next second he's with a group of girls. He's like a chameleon – he adapts to his surroundings and is able to be completely fitting for a different character. He's extraordinary to watch, I'm not surprised there's so much buzz around him and I sure he's going to go from strength to strength and doing a hell of a lot of stuff. He really is a genius, his ability to adapt and convey without telegraphing and signposting it, raw emotion, joy and sadness in movement. He achieves it in simple yet breathtaking ways.
DOH: It's such a dance heavy show, is that the major challenge of the role for you?
FH: To be honest the whole thing is a massive challenge. I'm not a trained dancer, I trained in acting at LAMDA. I'm a massive Michael Jackson fan – I always used to watch and imitate things, although every time I do one of his moves I do it in mirror reverse because I learned from watching a TV screen! It has been a challenge – I like to think I can hold a beat and I've got rhythm. Everyone elevates you to pick your game up – when you're working with such a talented ensemble on all three fronts it makes you step up to the plate and deliver the best you can. Drew is excellent at working with everyone's various strengths as well as working on those things they might find more challenging and up to the next level so everyone looks fantastic on opening. You're spinning plates as always in a musical which is part of the reason I want to do more of them. They're a challenge for any performer, using all three disciplines and making them marry and complement each other. The dancing has been a challenge but bringing it all together has been the beauty and the real challenge of it.
DOH: What are your favourite things about your character Chip?
FH: I think he's fantastically loyal, an optimist at heart which I wish I was more of! He's got a lot of heart and he's a very wide-eyed guy who is just praying that this day in New York is everything he hoped it would be. He comes from a very innocent place and I love the journey he goes on. He realises that the best way to understand New York is to be taken along with it and go along with the journey. There's no point in trying to plan everything, he finds that out. He meets Hildy and she teaches him to just go along with it. I'm a fairly fastidious bloke and I like to plan things, so that's nice for me.
DOH: Are you nervous about relying on the great British summer weather?
FH: I've spoken to a few people who have done shows at the Park before. It's not usually too bad – they're pretty resilient and they do try and get the show on as much as they can. Obviously there is a lot of dance so there are health and safety concerns that have to be taken into account. I'd love for a bit of spitting rain at one point because I think it will inform the show. The change in the weather is what it's all about, we get a little bit of light then it gets darker as it goes on, and that makes it magic. It gives common ground between the audience and the performers. I'm not nervous about it, it's just an unknown quantity but we'll meet those challenges as they come up.
FH: Absolutely excited – it's a massive dream of mine to perform at the National. The fact it's coming along so quickly makes me massively excited. The cast is incredible, the piece is amazing. It was a strange moment as I was auditioning for both at the same time and thought wouldn't it be great if one of these things came off, then ridiculously they both have and I've found myself doing these two very different but amazingly cool shows and doing them back to back. Both of them are dreams come true to be honest.
DOH: What would you say to audiences about what they can expect from this revival of On the Town?
FH: I think On the Town is an opportunity to escape, to forget with these sailors that the world is tough and oppressive at times, but there are moments where you can grab someone by the hand and run through New York. Whatever your New York is, you can run through and meet things with a smile and a song and a dance. Drew McOnie and Tom Deering are young and talented and relevant – they're going to go so much further after this, so I'd just come and see their baby that is this show whilst you can. It's going to be a fantastic marriage of dance, song and drama and be quite unmissable and I hope to be a part of that.
Fred Haig stars in On the Town at the Regent's Park Theatre from 19 May 2017.
On The Town tickets are on sale to 1 July 2017.