Interview – Oliver Tompsett in The World Goes Round – The Songs of Kander & Ebb

Oliver TompsettThe World Goes Round, the compilation revue of songs by John Kander & Fred Ebb, had a great reception at Chelsea’s Pheasantry last year. It returns to the St James Studio from 2 to 7 February with a cast including OLIVER TOMPSETT, at only 34, a veteran of the musical stage.

Tompsett is best known for playing Fiyero in the West End production of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria, Galileo in We Will Rock You at the Dominion and Drew in Rock of Ages at the Garrick. A popular concert artist in his own right, he has also released an album, Sentimental Heart.

Here he gives us the lowdown on his career so far.

You probably knew the songs of Kander & Ebb before you performed them at The Pheasantry, but had you ever sung any of them before?

Sadly, the only song I had sung before by Kander & Ebb was ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’ with my best friend at college as an ape in a dress. I am a bit gutted that I don’t get to sing it again in this show with Steffan [Lloyd-Evans] as the ape – he would make an excellent ape and look amazing in a dress!

Kander & Ebb have such a wealth of great songs from shows including Cabaret, Chicago, The Rink, 70 Girls 70, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Flora the Red Menace, Zorba, Woman of the Year, The Act and The Happy Time, as well as the films of Funny Lady and New York, New York, from which comes the show’s title song. Do you have a favourite show of theirs, perhaps one in which you would like to appear?

I really like what I have heard from Kiss of the Spider Woman, but to be honest, after hearing all the other songs that are used for The World Goes Round, I think I would be happy to be in any of them.

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Oliver Tompsett with Debbie Kurup, his co-star in The World Goes Round at the St James Studio, London. Pictures: Roy Tan

Of the songs you get to sing in The World Goes Round, do you have a particular one that stands out against the rest?

I get so tired of the sound of my own voice on its own but I love to blend and harmonise with a group. Our show has some of the trickiest and tightest harmonies I have ever had to tackle in my career, so either the song ‘Coffee in a Cardboard Cup’ or our five-part harmony rendition of ‘Cabaret’.

How easy are the songs of Kander & Ebb to sing, compared to, say, the work of Stephen Sondheim?

I think that both composers are brilliant lyrically and musically, but the songs of Kander & Ebb retain their intelligence and complexity without losing that little hook that makes them all stand alone out of context away from their particular shows. I think that Sondheim works best when watching the whole of one of his shows.

Heading the cast with you is Debbie Kurup, from Chicago, Anything Goes and The Bodyguard, plus Steffan Lloyd-Evans, Sally Samad and Alexandra Da Silva, and a live on-stage band. Is this the same line-up you had at The Pheasantry?

We have added a reed player for those sexy sax moments and cheeky jazz flute riffs, but yes, the gang is back together. It is great, because the voices of these guys have always been bang on. It was never a question of whether we would sound good or not, but how could we bring this song cycle to life in a cabaret setting. We have had such a giggle with our musical director Kris Rawlinson and we have all co-directed and choreographed a few numbers to enhance the wit that lies within the songs already.

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Oliver Tompsett as Fiyero in Wicked

You have notched up many musicals in your time from Into the Woods, West Side Story and Tommy at ArtsEd, through Madness’ Our House, Mamma Mia!, Kismet, Rock of Ages, We Will Rock You and, of course, Wicked in the West End. Do you enjoy the variety of music styles from traditional Broadway, to rock opera, to pop, classical and straight rock music?

It’s a shame that not many people enjoy variety as much as me, because I got pigeon-holed all the time. Before Wicked, I was seen as the traditional musical theatre guy for KismetWest Side Story and a little show called Over My Shoulder set in the 1930s. That was at the Wyndham’s Theatre. During my Wicked days, people saw me as the Disney pop prince and would never think of me as the rock guy, whereas now… I am the ROCK GUY! I love to change people’s perception of me, which is why I did the all-tap-dancing part of Phil Davis in White Christmas in Leeds. So yes, variety is the only way to stop people putting you in a box, but breaking the reputation is tricky. I love to sing whatever you put in front of me – people may enjoy me singing one style over another but I love it all, as long as I can feel something from it.

Although you have played in straight drama, such as The Royal Hunt of the Sun, at the National Theatre, did you always intend to have a musical career?

I think growing up and training I was naive to think, “I want it all… I want variety,” which is why I wanted to train in all three disciplines of stagecraft: acting, dancing and singing. I long for the day when I can jump freeely between a TV drama to a musical to a straight play above a pub. And then maybe, just maybe, if I can fit it in, go and do that film for Steven Spielberg that he is always pestering me about [laughs]. Although I have come to a point in my career where I am holding out on long-running musicals to try and do some more straight acting work, if you asked me would I rather have a career in straight theatre with no musicals or a career full of musicals with no straight theatre, I’d probably sway towards the latter.

When did you start writing your own songs? Is it something you have always done from an early age or more recently for your debut album Sentimental Heart?

My brother is an incredibly talented musician, songwriter and producer and in our adult years we have grown closer and decided to work together. I would demo his songs and he would listen to my input. Although he is really the brains behind the outfit, I have a wealth of singing and melody experience which gives me an edge that I like to think helps me find something in a song that can enhance the lyrics. I think I wrote my first song that I actually recorded when I was 20, so still a novice really.

Do you plan to write more songs and perform them in concert?

I am constantly being asked if I will do a concert of my own, but the problem is I like to do things properly and it’s a commitment when putting your own writing out there. Plus life always gets in the way – not in a bad way but sometimes when it’s your job to sing there never seems enough free time to work on something that you feel is worth sharing. It’s stupid, but I will probably get round to organising one when people stop asking!

Do you have many unfulfilled ambitions in your work? Would you like to move into films and television or stay with music which is obviously your first love?

I did a short film playing the lead last year where I was filming for four weeks in Germany. It’s an action thriller, black comedy, 24 style musical! I know – I think it’s going to be genius and it’s due for release in summer 2016. It was my first real on-camera experience working opposite some highly established TV actors and, if I’m honest, I thought this is a breeze. Long hours, yes… but I watched back most shots we did and was surprised at how good it looked and how comfortable I felt. I guess everything happening around you in a real location with blood and sweat pouring down your face makes finding the truth that much easier, when I guess standing on a stage with 100 lights and 2,000 people watching you and having to break into song and dance every five minutes couldn’t be further from real life. I understand that it’s a different craft and I might look rubbish in the final edit but honestly, these straight actors don’t know how easy they’ve got it [laughs].

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Oliver Tompsett in Rock of Ages. Picture: Roy Tan

You have experienced long runs in a musical. Did you find it difficult to sustain your performance over a long period of time in, for example, Wicked?

Wicked? No. Fiyero is a cough and sneeze of a role compared to the lead girls. I guess after three years I had explored all the good acting choices and some bad ones started to appear in the selection process, but hey. Rock of Ages? Yes. Drew is hands-down the hardest male sing there is. I’m not sure people appreciate what some performers put their bodies through when taking on these huge roles – eventually your body breaks, your voice breaks, your spirit breaks and you have to take time off. You pick yourself up and then you go back to work.

What are your plans for the immediate future after The World Goes Round?

To enjoy our limited run of The World Goes Round and strive to improve each song every night. I have had a bout of bronchitis and it has sadly knocked me and my voice out for this week’s rehearsal, but I am looking forward to the challenge of that extra bit of discipline that I will require to maintain the high standard that this team and production has shown in the past.

Compiled by Michael Darvell

* The World Goes Round – The Songs of Kander & Ebb is at the St James Studio, London from 2 to 7 February. The show is devised by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson, and is produced by Neil Eckersley with musical direction by Kris Rawlinson (www.stjamestheatre.co.uk).

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The cast of The World Goes Round – (left to right) Debbie Kurup, Oliver Tompsett, Sally Samad, Steffan Lloyd-Evans and Alexandra Da Silva. Picture: Alex Murphy

OLIVER TOMPSETT – in addition to his roles in Wicked, We Will Rock You and Rock Ages, the actor has starred as Phil Davis in White Christmas at West Yorkshire Playhouse to huge critical acclaim and is a regular concert performer singing both his own material and that of other composers; a recent example being Jason Robert Brown Live at the Royal Festival Hall.

Other theatre work includes: The Royal Hunt of the Sun directed by Trevor Nunn at The Royal National Theatre; Munkustrap in Cats in Cyprus; Mamma Mia! at The Prince of Wales Theatre; Our House at the Cambridge Theatre; Caliph in Kismet at The Arcola Theatre; Harry Lytton in OVER MY SHOULDER at the Wyndham’s Theatre and Tony in West Side Story at the Canizzaro Park Festival.

Oliver has just finished filming his first movie called The Hard Way. Shot in Germany, he plays the lead role of Jake.

Other concerts/cabarets include: Christmas in New York and Notes From New York in various venues including The Trafalgar Studios and The Prince of Wales Theatre.

* Readers may also be interested in:

The World Goes Round – The Pheasantry – Review

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