Jac Yarrow interview: 'The entire Joseph process has been a surreal one'
More than one critic - myself included - reached for the superlative "a star is born" when describing the West End debut of Jac Yarrow in the title role of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: "He received a spontaneous standing ovation on the first night at the end of his rendition of "Close Every Door"; but this is a performance that will open every door to him from here on in."
Opening night was just four days ago when I met him backstage at the London Palladium, London's premiere home of variety and lavish musicals.
I immediately quip there's nothing like starting out at the top, to which he self-deprecatingly shoots back, "It's downhill from here!'', before quickly adding, "I hope not!"
It's certainly been a whirlwind. "It's been the craziest couple of months in the world. It's hard to get my head around it still. I was talking to someone the other day who asked me if it had sunk in yet, and I said I don't think its going to sink in till about three months after we close and I'm able to process what just happened."
The show runs at the Palladium to 8th September, and the very next day, he'll graduate with a First-Class degree in Musical Theatre from Arts Educational Schools in west London, where he has spent the last three years training. And, in a small way, I was part of that training myself: I teach the first-year musical theatre students a course in musical theatre history (which includes a class fully devoted to the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, so I hope that stood him in good stead for his first job!).
"I'm such a theatre geek and nerd," he tells me today, "so I fully knew people like Audra McDonald and Barbara Cook that you used to talk about, but you would also teach us things I didn't know."
It was also here that the journey that has brought him to the Palladium partly began. "I knew that I wanted to go to ArtsEd from when I was about ten years old. I came to see The Wizard of Oz here and I knew that both Danielle Hope and Sophie Evans [who were the winner and the runner-up in the TV contest to play Dorothy, and played the role in turn] had gone to Arts."
Now a scholarship is being funded, in his name, to cover the next three years of fees for a student who is joining the school in September. "To go full circle to come to the Palladium myself and to have a scholarship named after me is amazing - and it's all down to the generosity of Michael Harrison, our incredible producer, who has been so instrumental in all of this for me."
It was at ArtsEd where Harrison discovered Jac back in February when he was starring in his final year show, the UK premiere of Newsies, and Harrison commented of funding the scholarship: "It seems fitting that we got Jac from there, and through him we'll help someone else."
Harrison came to see it at the urging of Jorg Betts, an agent who spotted Jac in an earlier student show Once on This Island. "After the show, he said that I should come audition for Joseph. I thought, 'he's just saying that'. But about three or four weeks after that I went in and sang "Any Dream will Do" and "Close Every Door", to a whole panel which included the director [Laurence Connor] and choreographer [Joanne M Hunter] for the first time.
"A few days later, I did the songs again with notes Laurence gave me, and it was filmed and sent to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice! Thank God they didn't come to the audition - I would have been terrified."
Then followed an agonising wait to hear back - about two weeks before he heard anything - but how did it feel to finally hear that the job was his? "Just like this whole process - surreal. Something just clicked, and I thought, right, the work starts now! I knew it was going to be full-on, and I'd have a personal trainer and a nutrition plan to get me in shape for 8 shows a week."
It may be his professional debut - but not his first time singing the songs on a stage. "When I was about seven, at a Saturday stage school called Stage Centre in Cardiff [where he was raised and his family still lives], we did a mash-up revue of songs from Joseph and Sweeney Todd. I was in the Joseph section and played Joseph!"
Was it intimidating to know that he'd be working with Jason Donovan, who played the same role on the same stage 28 years ago, to massive acclaim? "It was at first, but he is such a lovely guy. Since day one, he has been so supportive and so generous with his advice. On the first day I sang Close Every Door in rehearsal, he was the first one to wrap his arms around me. I never felt any pressure from him."
On the first day of rehearsals, only Jac, Jason [who plays Pharoah] and Sheridan Smith [the Narrator] were called, "so I got to spent more personal time with them and have a chat and get to know each other. Then the next day the full company was in, we had the set model reveal - it was the most exciting day."
One of the nicest thing about the job is that Harrison also found four more of Jac's ArtsEd year to play other supporting roles: "They knew they were doing the show before I did, and I knew they were doing it before they knew I was!"
Quite a few of their contemporaries are also already employed in other shows too, but everyone else not already working was invited to the first night of Joseph, and Jac was delighted that some of them were even seated on the front row: "All you can see is the front row, so seeing familiar faces there was so lovely. It made us all feel more comfortable."
That first night, he admits, was "terrifying" - but it was also "everything I wanted it to be and so magical. I made my entrance coming up on a lift, and when I heard the audience cheering as that happened, my legs were shaking under the coat! But as soon as the show started, I felt relaxed."
And how did the spontaneous, mid-show standing ovation that greeted his rendition of "Close Every Door" feel like? "I end the song looking away from the audience, but then the applause went on a bit longer than usual, so I tilted my head and saw people stood up and started to cry. It's one of the moments I'm going to remember for the rest of my life - when does that ever happen?"
His mum and sister were actually seated behind me that night, and were both in tears. "I bet you were in the splash zone!", he quips. "But it has been amazing to watch them watching me achieve a dream!"
ArtsEd has been instrumental to that journey, he adds. "If you apply yourself and just listen, you do improve - you just have to trust the training because it is top-notch. That's not just in class but as a professional - I walked into the Palladium knowing how to deal with the sound team and the backstage crew, too, and that's all thanks to them." I see direct evidence of this as we walk around the theatre, and he greets members of the stage and sound crew by name.
Now he's settling into the run of the show itself, there's still plenty of work to be done. "We're still having rehearsals as we have kids in the show, and there's a brand-new team going in this week who've never done it before, so we'll be rehearsing with them tomorrow. It's still full-on."
He's already in discussion for future projects when this job ends - "it's nice to have the option of seeing what's around" - but insists that his overriding focus is on the here and now. "I know it sounds corny but I'm so focused on this because it is such a huge thing. I'm trying to soak it up while I can, because these remaining eight weeks will just fly by. I'm just trying to take in every minute - like sitting in this bar with you now!"
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the London Palladium until 8th September.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat tickets are available now.
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