EMMANUEL KOJO was thrust into the spotlight, fresh from drama school, less that two years ago, in The Scottsboro Boys, and has been working almost continuously since.
He joined Musical Theatre Review’s Aura Simon, breathless and exhilarated, from a matinee performance playing Joe in the Sheffield Crucible production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s timeless masterpiece Show Boat, now transferred to the New London Theatre.
You graduated from Arts Ed in 2014, going straight into The Scottsboro Boys; Kiss Me, Kate; and now of course, Show Boat. You’ve been named as one of the ‘Faces to look out for’ in 2016, so what’s the pressure like for you right now?
I think it comes with a lot of pressure, especially when you’ve not been out of drama school for long, so it’s taken me a while to get used to certain things. The business is hard. I suppose I was kind of thrust into The Scottsboro Boys, but it was something I wanted to do so badly, to get to do that and to also work with serious professionals like Brandon Victor Dixon. It was a great first show and one where I was able to learn from people who are the best at their craft. I’ve been really, really lucky in the work that I’ve been able to do – working with Opera North was another example, and then doing Show Boat, which I never thought I’d get to do this early on in my career.
And in such an epic role, too!
It’s such an iconic role for me because [Paul] Robeson is the reason I started singing. I’ve known ‘Ol’ Man River’ since Robeson, since I was introduced to classical music, so it was something I’d always, always wanted to do, but I never thought it would come round so quickly…
Absolutely, because of course the role is usually sung by a much older actor. How have you found the process of connecting to him?
I think it was really with the help of Daniel [Evans, the director] and the creative team. In the audition, I was being seen for an ensemble part. And I said to them, I know I’m way too young, but I know ‘Ol’ Man River’, if you’d like to hear me sing that? And they said: ‘Sing your audition song, first.’ I always take ‘Lonely Room’ from Oklahoma! – so I sang that, and then they responded by saying: ‘Oh! okay, sing ‘Ol’ Man River,’ and it just went from there!
We went in and workshopped it, and they advised me not to try and play the role as an older man, to just be my age. Before that, I was singing it how Robeson did, which is too hard to sustain eight shows a week.
We got to workshop it to create our own version of what it was. People sometimes just listen to the beautiful melody, rather than what you’re trying to say, because everyone knows it. But there’s so much underlying texture in the song which I think we tried to bring out during the show.
It’s such a powerful show in its theme and content. Is that something you found easy to connect to, or did you have to dig deep?
I think, because of my background, and working on The Scottsboro Boys, I found it quite good to connect with. I mean, during rehearsals for Scottsboro, Brandon brought in a book called The Black Book, which is an account of slavery in the Southern states of America. Some of the things in that book are horrific, some of the things that people went through… For me, that’s kind of changed certain things that I’d like to to work with. I want to tell stories that people aren’t necessarily familiar with.
I’m very much inclined to dark pieces in a way. I love making people feel something and I love people leaving, having felt. Every time, after Scottsboro, or after Show Boat, people come up and say they didn’t know this or that, and people are shocked. For me, it’s so rare, beautiful and sad to tell the stories of these dramas.
Some people have the opinion that musical theatre has to be frivolous, or simply feel-good…
I think it’s kind of getting lost in all of that – people aren’t taking risks when it comes to musical theatre nowadays. People are just creating the cheap thrill of just being entertained, having a great time, and you don’t really leave with a message.
I mean Show Boat is entertaining, it’s funny – it’s a very funny play, it has all of that stuff, but at the heart of it is soul. I think that’s what makes it so gorgeous – it has such an amazing story that a lot of people connect to, but then also they connect to the beautiful songs and the orchestrations.
When you hear strings in a musical, they go straight to the heart, and I think there aren’t many shows that have those big string parts; a lot of new musicals just kind of miss out on a story. A lot of stuff nowadays is either one or the other – great songs, or great book. It’s up to people to give new writing a chance. It’ll take time, but we’ll see.
From your perspective, is there a piece of new writing that just hasn’t got the exposure it deserves?
I know somebody was trying to write a Martin Luther King musical, and I think that in itself is a very iconic thing. To do that, you need to do extensive research, the music has to mean something, musical theatre is still theatre at the end of the day. And sometimes there’s a little bit of snobbery that ‘musical theatre is just prancing around’, and it’s not, it’s telling a story through acting, and song, and dance. If someone connects with the story, everything will fall into place.
I watched Jekyll & Hyde at the Old Vic. Wow. I mean, that was dance, and telling a story. Danny Collins was in it, and to watch him in that, where there was one spoken line in the whole thing… I followed everything. I mean, that’s what it needs to be. I was able to follow the entire story purely from their movement, and it wasn’t just ‘I’m going to do a beautiful line here for the sake of it’, it was ‘I’m dancing because this is what I have to do’. That’s what good theatre is, you are doing something because you have to do it, not because it looks or sounds pretty.
Obviously, you have your big moment every night with ‘Ol Man River’, what other parts of the show do you live for?
There are many, onstage and offstage! During the the wedding dance you feel like you’re having this absolute high, Alistair David’s choreography just lifts you and makes you feel something, it’s amazing. I’m in awe of a lot of people – Gina Beck, Danny Collins – I’m just a super-fan, I’m just a fan of the entire cast. Gina and Chris [Peluso]’s’ ‘You Are Love’, and Gina’s ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ reprise, which she sings in Act II, Sandra [Marvin] singing ‘Hey, Feller’, The Trocadero between Alex [Young] and Danny [Collins], and then Rebecca [Trehearn]’s ‘Bill’ kills me. I’m always sat somewhere listening to it because it’s just so beautiful and heartbreaking. I’m not seeing what she’s doing onstage but I can feel what she’s doing. It’s rare to have a show which has so many moments of brilliance.
Do you have a routine before you go onstage?
I tend to play certain things from the show to myself. I play the ending to myself before every show. Even before ‘Ol Man River’, I’m singing before I go on. There’s loads of different things, drinking honey and lemon and ginger. I’ve not been well for about four weeks, so I need to relax and get better. Vocally, it’s a very tiring show, and especially because my voice isn’t fully developed yet, because I’m only 24.
Have you always had that bass voice or is it something that you’ve worked on?
Yeah, definitely, growing up, I was born in Ghana, and lived in Austria, so everyone thinks they’re Usher, they think they’re R. Kelly, so I was singing more R&B. Then when I went to college, my teachers said ‘try and listen to more classical music’, and, with my background, I replied: ‘Nah, I don’t think classical music is cool’, and then I started listening to it and I completely found a love for the classical world. When I’m stressed or need to relax, I listen to Mozart’s Requiem. I know that’s a bit dark, but listening to ‘Dies Irae, Day of Wrath’…
It’s pure catharsis, isn’t it?
Yeah, it just sends you somewhere and takes you away. I wonder, who are those people now, who’re going to be the new Mozarts?
They’re there, somewhere!
It’s just, nowadays, I don’t listen to ‘music’ at all, I just think it’s dreadful. It has no soul, it’s just to entertain. If anyone asked me ‘what’s in the charts?’, I have no clue.
I’d say you’re probably not the only one. Okay, quick-fire round. Weirdest audition?
So this was at ArtsEd, an audition technique class. I walked in and I had a hat on, and the tutor said: ‘So, what’s your pet?’ For ages I didn’t understand, then I realised he meant my hat, because I was holding my hat as if it was a pet… weird!
What was the first thing you ever did onstage?
Godspell, at my old high school.
Amazing, what did you play?
The Devil! I know.
What would be your dream show, with your dream team?
Dream show, Porgy and Bess. I’d love to play Porgy, I’d love Audra McDonald to be Bess, or Sandra Marvin, she’s my show-wife. Who else? Cynthia Erivo, Norm Lewis. I’d make Paul Robeson Porgy actually, to just listen to him again. There’s a lot of people. We’d be sat here for a while.
What role would you never play, but would love to?
Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder. I mean, she is incredible in that part, she’s absolutely phenomenal.
Advice for anyone entering the business?
Trust yourself. You have to believe in yourself because other people will try to put you down. I’m very bad for doubting myself all the time. I have friends around me, thank God, that slap me awake and tell me to stop beating myself down.
It’s also so important to look after yourself because mentally it can be so hard and so draining. I always say in life in general, learn to love yourself, not in a vain way – just learn to appreciate what you have and don’t try to change it, because you are the way you are for a reason!
Tickets for Show Boat are available HERE (booking until 27 August 2016).
Readers may also be interested in:
Show Boat – New London Theatre – Review
Interview – Gina Beck embraces the sweeping melodies of Show Boat at the Crucible Sheffield