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Interview with Thriller Live cast members Haydon Eshun and Reece Bahia
When you're asked to think of a long-running West End show your mind will immediately flit between the two Cameron Mackintosh 'megamusicals' that have graced the West End for over sixty years between them. Perhaps you'll first think of The Mousetrap at the St Martin's Theatre which is not only London's longest running play but the longest running theatrical performance in the world.
Another hit musical graces Shaftesbury Avenue where it has been steadily playing for the past eight years. This past weekend Thriller Live celebrated its 3,358 performance at the Lyric Theatre where it smashed the long-held record of the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar to become the West End's 15th longest running musical.
“It's such a feel-good show, there's no storyline, it's just good energy and good vibes” explains leading man and long-serving performer Haydon Eshuyn. “That's why people keep coming back, it's a celebration.”
Just as the show itself prepares to officially celebrate another birthday in the West End, Haydon himself has cause to celebrate as this evening's performance will mark his 2,542 in Thriller Live which is believed to be the longest run by a lead role in a West End musical.
“It feels like it has been a long time but it's such a fast paced show the years have just flown by” he laughs, as we meet in his dressing room before an evening show. “I've had so much fun, it doesn't seem like a job, it's been great. I feel like being an artist myself it made me return to where I started, performing live in front of an audience, singing great Michael Jackson songs and performing to audiences.”
Thriller Live remains unique in the West End as it's not technically either book musical or jukebox musical. “It's a celebration” I'm continually reminded, “a celebration of Michael's life and work. He left an amazing legacy and we're carrying the flag and keeping that memory and the energy of his performance alive. He was one of the greatest entertainers of all time – when you come to this show you know you're going to see entertainment, so I think it's important that we give it our all every night. Because it's such an energetic show you just want to go out and have fun, and this is a show where you can and that's why it's lasted. And of course, it's great music.”
Haydn and I are joined by one of the show's newest performers Reece Bahia who talks about joining the show as one of its youngest cast members. “I saw the show in the first year that it was on and Haydn was in it!” he laughs. “I was only about ten or eleven and I thought if I was ever going to be in a West End show, it would be this. I was brought up on Michael Jackson and the Motown era so it was really what I thought to be the most suited to the way I sound and how I sing. I get told I sound like Michael Jackson a lot when I'm not in the building, but it's important that it's not an impersonation show, it's a celebration of his music. We try to keep similar to his arrangements and how he would sing the tracks but you put your own voice and style on it.”
Both Reece and Haydn would describe themselves as artists and performers before musical theatre actors, and this distinction helps them both bond alongside other members of the company.
“It's always great to come to work and be surrounded by people who know the business really well, not just the musical theatre business but the music business too” explains Reece. “Their advice and showing me the ropes was perfect, there's no better way to learn than being hands on.”
“It's so important with this show that we become a family instantly” Haydn continues. “We kind of gel and know each other on a personal level as well as being performers and associates. It's important to bond really early when people join”.
Whilst the show doesn't fit the traditional model of a West End musical it presents a different set of challenges to the entire cast who not only have to get to grips with performing the iconic music but also live up the audience's heightened expectation when they come to see the show.
“It's always challenging as people do come to hear Michael Jackson”, Haydn explains. “They don't know what to expect but they know it's a Michael Jackson show. I think there's very few of us who actually sound like him, but it's very natural to sound like him singing his songs because he was very percussive and very soft. I've always loved that sound a style myself so I feel like we're heavily influenced in his sound and the way he sang – it's hard not to sound like him! I love singing his songs, it's a gift.”
“Michael used to sing his songs in five different keys depending on how he felt when he was in concert but we don't have that – we're up in the rafters!” laughs Reece, reflecting on his performance track that includes songs such as “Dirty Diana” and “She's Out of My Life”. “Personally I wouldn't class it as musical theatre, just because the format is a concert – it's not necessarily singing, acting, dancing, jazz hands. It's very much a big party and a celebration. The beautiful thing about Michael Jackson songs is that you don't have to really try and act them – you can get your own feeling out of them when you're singing, you just tell the story of the song. It helps that we have such an athletic team of dancers – they are going hell for leather every night, flipping across the stage – If anyone doesn't know what to expect that triggers it and then they get it, it's good that it happens so early.”
In a show that is wall-to-wall with hit songs, each guaranteed to get the audience up on their feet, dancing and singing along, I wonder if it's possible to pick a highlight of each performance.
“It's picking the moments where you feel like you're sounding great and you feel good and the staging is right”, Hayden explains. “For me “Remember the Time” is a great segment for my track in the show. It's very tiring because I go from one song to another to another – but that's a great moment for me because I get to dance and sing full out. Because the show changes pretty much yearly, songs, costume, choreography it kind of keeps it fresh. The audience a lot of time tell me it's different each time, I think it's evolving and getting better and better as the years go on.”
“Gary gives it a facelift every now and again” explains Reece, “so that's good for the people on stage so it doesn't get tired. I think that sets us apart from a lot of other shows.”
Unlike other shows in the West End, Thriller Live actively encourages audience involvement, and that's something that both Haydn and Reece agree makes the production so special.
“It would be strange if the audience weren't on their feet and making noise” Reece claims. “I like it, by the end of the show everyone is on their feet and going crazy. That's what sets us apart from other shows, it makes people feel like they're part of what's going on on stage. Everyone is having a jam and having fun.”
For Haydn in particular this freshness keeps the show alive. It's an extraordinary feat to perform eight times a week in any show, but to do that for over 2,500 performances is extremely unique for a performer of any discipline.
“I feel this has opened my eyes to musical theatre” he explains. “I feel like being an artist you never think about doing musical theatre because you're wrapped up in your own thing. This has opened my eyes – I'd love to do other things. I want to get more in acting, it's all about challenging yourself. Unless you do it you won't know. For now I love this show so haven't thought about anything else, but it's opened my eyes to that world.”
For Reece the West End can't quite compete with the appeal of the music industry and performing and producing his own musical. His début EP 'Addicted' was co-written and produced with Darren Martyn and has been a valuable introduction into the musical industry. “Music is definitely where I want to take my career” he adds, “I write and perform my own material and I'm working hopefully soon with new producers. It's a blessing to be in London – to be able to gig and go out and sell myself as an artist as well as the Thriller Live team is brilliant”.
For now however both Reece and Haydn are just delighted to be performing such fantastic music to appreciative fans night after night in London.
“Any time you get that comparison to Michael is a big compliment in itself. It's one of the few comparisons I don't mind” Reece smiles, explaining that he's frequently mistaken in the street for Bruno Mars or Zayn Malik. “There was a lady outside of stage door yesterday who said during 'She's Out of My Life' she closed her eyes and she thought she was listening to that track. For me that's a massive compliment.”
“Someone came up to me last week and said they had watched Michael in the nineties and she felt like she was watching the concert again which is a massive honour.” Haydn comments. “That's what we want to give – that great memory of his great music. That makes you want to push and push and do great shows so people have that memory of his legacy”.
Thriller Live continues to run at the Lyric Theatre in London's West End.