“As a producer, I want to change the face of British musical theatre and show the world what we can do on this little island with this great art form. No small task, ha, but somebody has got to do it!”
At the time of the interview, Michael Peavoy had just made his West End debut in the hit musical Billy Elliot and was playing Billy’s older brother Tony.
He originally trained as a chef but soon realised that acting was what he really wanted to do. He subsequently trained at RADA and received the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Award. Shortly after graduating, Michael made his professional debut in a NT production of Hamlet.
Michael is very passionate about new musical writing and his new company Michael Peavoy Productions is “all about producing and promoting the best of new British musical theatre“.
Despite his busy schedule, Michael kindly answered the following questions about himself, his career and his company. Enjoy!
You trained as a chef. What’s your favourite dish?
You know what, I worked in some amazing kitchens alongside some incredible chefs – but you can NEVER beat a good bit of fish and chips! If I’m working and earning I’ll treat myself to a portion of mushy peas as well. I love a good Eggs Florentine in the morning.
What made you change your mind about your career choice?
Performing was always something that I loved. Be it in the local scouts or in high school shows that we used to put on. But where I come from in Salford, opportunities to explore being on stage were few and far between. I did initially go to college to do a BTEC in Performing Arts at Pendleton College, but at the time the course was very young and didn’t really have much of a structure, so it felt like a bit of a waste of time. So I did the chef thing as a result of dropping out. It was when I went back to college to do Business Studies a year later, this is having trained as a chef for a year at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester, I would take part in the season shows there and the bug got me again. It was doing Into the Woods with an incredible cast that got me. Sondheim alongside the likes of Faye Brookes (now Elle in Legally Blonde on tour) and Charlotte Harwood (about to be seen in Loserville at WYP) was just too good a thing to not want to do for the rest of your life. So I dropped Business Studies and joined Faye and Charlotte on the Musical Theatre BTEC course which had now grown and developed into a wonderful little training.
Did anyone in particular inspire you or have you got any role models?
I have a few. My GCSE drama teacher Julie Flowers was the first person to say to me ‘you could be on stage‘ so that set the ball rolling, I suppose. And her classes were what kept me going through school. Neill Bennet and Gary Willis who ran the courses at Pendleton then played a huge part in encouraging and surrounding me with really driven young performers who I had a great time training with. I should also mention Johnny Kerrigan. He was a friend of mine who we sadly lost after battling with cancer for a year. I was 17 at the time and that really made me realise that I have an opportunity to go and do what I want to do and live the life I want to live. So everything I do now, I always have Johnny there in my head driving me on. It really put things into perspective and I remind myself all the time how lucky I am to be able to do a job I love.
You went on to study at RADA. Did you enjoy your time there?
RADA was incredible. To be surrounded by the level of talent was mind-blowing at times. I was lucky to be in a year full of extremely driven individuals, so I was able to learn of a lot from people. My only acting experience prior to RADA was at college, so to see people at that level working and learning alongside me was a blessing.
While still at RADA, you received the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Award. Wow! How did that make you feel?
It was a shock!! Like I said, it was Sondheim’s Into the Woods that made me want to do this, so to be honoured in his name was a real treat. And his work really means a lot to me and is the reason I love musical theatre. Plus, it’s a really great event and recognises the ability to perform a song and not just sing it – which sounds like an obvious thing, but I by no means had the strongest voice in the competition and, according to the judges, it was the performance on the whole that won me the prize. So I was really flattered!
After graduating, you joined the cast of the NT production of Hamlet. This was your professional debut. Please share a memory or two.
First day of rehearsals with the meet and greet. I’d been out of drama school for two weeks and there I was in a room with my hero Rory Kinnear, James Laurenson, Claire Higgins – I could list the whole cast. I suppose that moment that I realised – ‘I’m actually doing this’ – was one that will stick with me for a long time. Plus, opening night. I had the first line! So to dive onto the Olivier Stage in a Nick Hythner production of Hamlet at the National Theatre – you can’t ask for much more, really.
You recently made your West End debut at the Victoria Palace Theatre as ‘Tony’, Billy Elliot’s older brother. How did you feel when you found out you’d landed the role?
I was over the moon! It wasn’t a show that I had seen before the audition process started, but I had been auditioning for Julian Webber, the director for a few weeks prior to being called in for Billy Elliot. So I went to see the show and was just blown away. I’m not a fan of huge commercial musical theatre. It has its place, and I completely get it, but I’d much rather see a play. For me Billy Elliot, whilst obviously being part of the West End Musical machine, is a Lee Hall play with a few great songs and the most incredible bunch of kids. So it was a no-brainer when I was offered the role.
The role of Tony is a demanding one. Please describe ‘your’ Tony. How have you made the role your own?
It’s a tough one, because you have to remember that this show has been around for a while now. So whilst I wanted to make Tony MY Tony, I had a jigsaw that I had to fit in to. I hope my Tony has a lot of clarity. For me, the story of the miners is what the show is about, so I hope that I represent the generation that fought against Maggie Thatcher and their argument and their struggle. 90% of what I do on stage seems like a fight, like Tony is constantly playing devil’s advocate to Billy’s story, so its a difficult part in that sense because everybody is on the side of Billy. It’s easy to forget that what Tony is fighting for is the livelihood of the people of Easington and every miner up and down the UK who eventually lost their jobs and had their lives ruined by the Thatcher regime. I suppose because I represent a real population, a real group of people who really did go through this, I want to make sure every night they are represented as truthfully as they can be. I suppose that’s what I hope ‘my Tony’ does.
How do you cope with the emotional aspect of Tony’s journey each night?
I’m not the kind of actor who gets too caught up in roles. Rory Kinnear was interviewed during Hamlet and he said that ‘acting isn’t a therapy session, its a job‘ and I think that stuck with me. It is, emotionally, really hard work, and I do go to places to make those emotions as real as possible, but it is a job at the end of the day and if I couldn’t detach from the role, I’d be a mess! And I’m young yet, so I don’t feel like I have any excuses to economise my performance, so I try to give 110% every night, albeit really tiring. Two show days are hard work!
What’s it like to be working with incredibly talented child actors?
It’s the best. It never ceases to amaze me how talented they are. Those days when you’re tired and you have two shows and you think to yourself ‘this is going to be hard work‘ you look at what those little buggars have to do and it sorts you right out!
What’s your favourite Billy Elliot song? And your favourite scene?
Solidarity. I think it’s a piece of storytelling genius. And my favourite scene is probably the toilet scene between Billy and Debbie with the infamous line … I won’t spoil it for the people who haven’t seen it, but it makes me laugh every night.
Why do you think Billy Elliot is such a popular show?
Because of the genuine heart, I think. People come to see a big glamourous ‘West-Endy’ musical, and the first scene of the show is set in a dirty old miners’ welfare and it’s full of chunky miners and completely devoid of Jazz hands. Then all of a sudden there’s a man in pants hammering away and a Dad who is falling apart and can’t cook a sausage and a grandma who is completely losing it – I think it shocks people in a lot of ways. But when the kids get going and we see Billy start to learn about dancing, it’s just incredible. It really takes your breath away watching those little buggars do what they can do. Also – Lee Hall knows how to write a bloody good story and Stephen Daldry and Peter Darling have created this incredibly detailed world that you just get sucked into.
So on the one hand you are starring in one of London’s long-running and most popular musicals; on the other hand, you are very passionate about new musical writing. What sparked your interest in new writing?
I’ve performed at quite a few new writing evenings over the past few years and it’s always a really exciting thing, stepping onto a stage and representing a writer. After watching the Sondheim Society competition the year before I won – which is also paired with the ‘Stiles and Drewe Award for best song’ – I got really interested in which song would win. So that started it off. I got to listen to a lot of material when choosing what song I would sing in the final and it was a really exciting prospect to be the first person to sing these songs in front of an audience. So that’s where it all came from. I’ve met so many wonderful writers of the past three years and I’ve been lucky enough to sing a few of their songs. It’s frustrating that the only real opportunity we get to do new material is in the form of a concert.
Please tell us about Michael Peavoy Productions?
Ah yes! It’s my new company and we’re basically all about producing and promoting the best of new British musical theatre. That’s kind of it! As I was saying, it stems from a frustration from both myself and the composers that new musicals just aren’t getting out there. I think there are many reasons for that. The lack of funding in the past from the Arts Council has meant there hasn’t been anybody nourishing new writers, however, they are now funding the brilliant Mercury Musical Developments, who we work in association with, and Perfect Pitch. Two brilliant companies who are there to develop the work. We have a long way to go to catch up with the US. But we have to start somewhere and I hope that what we’re doing will be the catalyst to really get it all going. And I’m surrounded by some incredibly talented people who are enabling that to happen, special mention to Steve Marmion and Charlie Briggs from the Soho Theatre and Danielle Tarento who is an incredible force and will be integral to this movement. I should also mention Mr Michael Haslam, my Musical Supervisor and Robert Jackson, my associate – the passion of us lot together, I hope, will mean that we can really drive this thing forward and change the face of British musical theatre.
Michael Peavoy Productions will host the Craig Barbour Award alongside the Opening Doors: Festival of Firsts on Sunday, 13th May 2012 at Soho Theatre – a very exciting event for anyone interested in and involved with new musical writing. What can you tell us about what will be happening on that night and why people should book tickets ASAP?
Ok, so we have the Craig Barbour Award starting at 5 pm. It’s a new award for composition and we’ll be seeing ten composers performing two songs each as they battle it out for the award. Not only do they get a nice trophy, they’ll receive a cash investment and we’ll also be producing an ‘audience with’ at the Soho Theatre for them to showcase their work. Very exciting times! Then in the main house theatre at 8 pm our audience will have the opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball of musical theatre and see extracts from 3 new shows from 3 stunning writers. It’s going to be a really important day for new writing and if anybody out there is interested in seeing what the future holds for musical theatre, they should come along! We have a stellar cast for both events, Lucy May Barker, Gavin Fowler, Nigel Richards, Jack Shalloo, Dani de Waal, Chloe Hart to name a few, it would be great to kick off with a bang! So come along!
Are there any other exciting future projects you’d like to tell us about?
There may be …… I can’t reveal too much at the moment, but there are a few plans in the pipeline. For now, come along to Opening Doors and you’ll have a taster of what is to come!
What are your long-term ambitions?
I honestly just want to work. I’d love to emulate what Bertie Carvel has done in musical theatre, then again I’d love to get on TV and create a role in a brilliant drama or play a part in a big Hollywood film. I’d be content with a few more roles like Tony! As a producer, I want to change the face of British musical theatre and show the world what we can do on this little island with this great art form. No small task, ha, but somebody has got to do it!
What roles would you love to play and why?
I’m desperate to play George in Sunday in the Park With George at some point – well, I’d be happy with any of Sondheim’s leading male parts! Give me Sweeney Todd, or Franklin Shepherd anyday. Then again I want to play Richard III and I want to play Henry V – As you can tell I want to do lots.
Is there anyone you would really like to work with?
I’d love to work with two directors – Mike Leigh and Howard Davies. The standard of work they both create is mind-blowing. And to go through Mike Leigh’s process is a bit of a dream of mine. Maybe its because he’s a Salford boy as well.
If you could go and see any West End musical or play tonight, which one would it be and why?
I’d go to see Matilda again because it’s incredible!!
What is something embarrassing or unexpected that has happened to you on stage?
I had an awful moment in the penultimate scene in Billy Elliot – this is quite disgusting so if you have a weak stomach, you’ve been warned! My final speech is quite an emotional one and I have to use lots of breath to support the level of vocal effort. One night I used a little bit to much and it decided to come out via my nose and bring with it… well you can imagine. So there I was, mid-speech, mid-tears and snot all over my face. You can imagine how the Billy reacted, which doesn’t help!
What do you like to do to chill out?
Play computer games and laugh at my girlfriend. She’s very funny.
And a few quick-fire questions for you…
Wine or beer? Beer.
Singing or dancing? Singing (if you’ve seen me dance you’ll know why!).
Ballet or Opera? Opera.
Pets? Love ’em, though my dog Fred passed away a few years ago at the old age of 16. I’d love to get another dog soon.
Your favourite book? I loved reading Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia. SO interesting!
Pub or Night Club? Pub.
Favourite holiday destination? Egypt. Purely for the beauty and wonder of the historical sites.
And anything else you might like to add, maybe a message to your fans?
Keep supporting new writing! Some of it is just incredible. We have to keep encouraging the great writers and giving them a space to play in. If we don’t we’re going to end up with stages full of jukebox musicals, and shows like Wicked and Parade will disappear because nobody will want to write anything original! So get out there and find new writing. If it’s bad, stick with it, because the only way we can improve is by learning from our mistakes.
Thank you very much for your time, Michael and all the very best for your exciting projects!
Interview by Sandra Palme (Twitter: @LondonTheatre2)
Follow Michael on Twitter: @Michael_Peavoy