Jason Donovan interview: War of the Worlds, TV, giant Neeson

Juliette has a chat with Jason Donovan about his theatre work, including his new role in The War of the Worlds

A new DVD/Blu-Ray of Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds… The New Generation is coming out next week, featuring 100% less slightly creepy holographic Richard Burton, but 100% more 11-foot tall holographic Liam Neeson. Alongside some new faces, the returning cast includes Jason Donovan, formerly the Artilleryman, now playing Parson Nathaniel. We sat down to chat with him about the show, about singing versus acting, and about what’s scared him the most in a long and varied career.

You were in both the original War of the Worlds stage show and in the New Generation show; can you tell us what to expect from the new generation of the show?

The new generation is not that dissimilar to the old. It’s like a fresh coat of paint, put over a very well-crafted house. I think Jeff was pretty cautious not to screw with what had already been very successful. There’s just more of a modernisation of the backing track rather than any structural changes to the show.

For this new show, the giant floating Richard Burton head has been replaced by an 11-foot tall holographic Liam Neeson, is that right?

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That’s right. I keep telling all my producer friends that work in Hollywood and all these high-up places that Liam Neeson and I are besties and I’ve just been working with him on War of the Worlds – but he didn’t say a lot, he’s a very transparent sort of character. He didn’t let you in very much.

Is the holographic Neeson as creepy but impressive as the Burton head was?

I think the Burton head had a little bit more eeriness to it, but both are slightly odd.

You’ve got to reinvent the brand a bit if you want to keep touring a show like this, you can’t just keep pushing out the same old show every second year. You want to gain an audience, and it’s a great piece of work.

You play Parson Nathaniel this time around, a character on the edge of sanity. is that something that’s quite difficult to portray through song?

I think as with a few characters I’ve done it just sort of happened, it came to me. I’d watched Rhydian Roberts play the character – who is a friend of mine – the first time around when I did the show, and he did a great job. I just sort of saw something else there. He’s on the verge of insanity, he’s talking about all the evil of people coming through in the form of aliens, so it’s like a message from God.

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He starts out a bit crazy and gets worse?

Yeah, and that’s how I steered my interpretation of the character – it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one, but I think people quite enjoyed it and got it.

Do you have a preference between playing the Artilleryman in the old War of the Worlds and Parson Nathaniel in this new one?

I was a little bit not sure initially about playing the Parson, because the Artilleryman seemed to work so well. The producers were the ones that were really keen to have me on board but see me do something different. I also think they wanted to try and mix things up a little bit to make it a bit more interesting to sell tickets. So it took me a while to warm [up to] playing he Parson, but I think I did it pretty well.

We’ve also heard that this new generation show features 35-foot tall Martian fighting machines firing real heat-rays?

Yes, and the generation before that had exactly the same Martians, but that’s a good thing because Martians is what it’s all about!

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It’s a really exciting show. You have to appreciate and understand the music to really totally get it I think, but for those who love the record, they won’t be disappointed when they see the show. And you have an incredible 30, 40-piece orchestra on stage that just brings that score to life.

Does the fact it’s based on a concept album mean the music is even more front and centre than in a traditional musical?

I think you’re right and I think it’s more of an album than it is a theatrical piece.

However, the characters and the songs make it slightly theatrical. It’s not dissimilar to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in that sense, it has that epic [quality] but it still has that character, storyline – Tommy is another example, a record that is based around lots of songs.

How does doing a show like this with integrated holograms and recorded narration and heat-rays compare to a more traditional stage musical like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat or The Sound of Music?

That’s an interesting question. Well, you’re playing to a bigger audience – when you’re in an arena show, you’re playing to 15,000 people. In essence, you could put Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] in an arena show and it would be the same sort of show no matter how big or small it is. But [with an arena show] you don’t have to do eight shows a week! You do one show and you play to 15,000 people as opposed to doing a month playing to 15,000 people. I know which one I’d prefer – to get it done at once!

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It’s just more dynamic. They’re very different beasts, theatre and arena shows, but the essence and the core should always be a strong story and great music, so they’re very similar, but different. That doesn’t make any sense! But you hear what I’m saying.

Are you a fan of science fiction and fantasy in general?

I’m not a massive fan of science fiction if I’m completely honest. I’m not a Trekkie, that’s for sure. But I appreciate why people are interested in it.

You’ve done work in so many different areas, is it fun to try out different genres?

Yeah, variety is really important to me. I’m very lucky in my career to have had that. There’s still a lot of stuff I’d like to do. I’d like to do more television, more straight acting per se, but there’s still time.

Would you particularly like to go back to TV drama?

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Yeah I would. That’s my spiritual home, and that’s how I got into being in musicals and doing all that stuff, so I’d like to come full circle.

What sort of genres do you enjoy watching?

I like a great film, I love to go the theatre, I love a musical. I love to be entertained, I’m not prejudicial when it comes to that sort of stuff. I don’t watch a lot of TV series, I tend to get a little bit bored with them. I prefer a solid sit-down for an hour and a half and watch something from top to tail as opposed to something that just keeps going on and on. Having said that, I’d love to work in TV drama – give me a couple of seasons on Homeland and I’d be beside myself!

You’ve done a lot of live work, both on stage and on TV, like Strictly Come Dancing. Do you especially enjoy live performance of all sorts?

I think as a performer it’s what keeps it exciting. There’s nothing like the applause at live performance, there’s nothing like that adrenaline. That helps you with your other craft as well. Performing is all about confidence and confidence comes from live work, you’ve just got to get out there and gig.

Is there a big difference between theatrical work and arenas and live performance for TV like Strictly?

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Well, Strictly is really nerve-wracking. I find that quite difficult. There’s 11 million people watching that show, so in a funny way, that is more stressful than theatre, because the camera can go [anywhere]; in high definition these days, you can spot everything. I would say it’s pretty much the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.

What else has really scared you over the course of your career?

My first initial introduction into the pop world and singing live and doing that stuff, that was pretty stressful, pretty anxiety-driven. The beginning of my theatre career in Joseph, that was pretty stressful. But I’d say Strictly is probably the most [stressful] thing I’ve ever done.

Of all the work you’ve done, what are you the most proud of?

That’s like saying which child you like the best! All my work I’m proud of. All of it.

What’s your biggest unfulfilled ambition?

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To do some good quality television and film. To write a hit song. That’s probably slowly slipping away because I don’t spend enough time doing it, I used to do a lot more of it. It’s always been a bit of a hobby for me rather than something that I work at. Friends of mine spend every day writing songs and they’re going to have a bigger chance of a hit than I have.

Do you have a preference between potentially working in British TV, where you’ve got very short contained series, as opposed to American, where you’ve got really long seasons that take up most of the year?

I’d take any one of them! I wouldn’t mind. I’d prefer to work in the heat of a Californian summer than I would the winter of this country, the UK. Catering is a little bit better in America, I hear.

What’s next for you?

I’m still doing Priscilla at the moment, that goes for another six months, on and off. I’m trying get some work in television and see if that’s where I can go next.

War of the Worlds and Priscilla must be very different shows…

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Very different shows. But that shows the extent of how far I can stretch myself as a performer and my versatility. I can go from being a camp drag queen to a nutty priest.

Are you ever Method about your roles?

No, I just get out there and do them. I’m quite focused when I’m onstage. I’m not someone who just breezes through it, it’s never been an easy process for me. The problem with performing is, unlike an instrument, you can’t just tune it up. An instrument needs to be played, but [with] a body, sometimes it’s tired, sometimes it’s sick, sometimes the sound is not right, sometimes you’re just feeling weird, so there’s a whole lot of things in play.

Are there any roles in this show or any other show that you’d really love to do but you haven’t had a chance to do yet?

I think there are a lot of theatrical roles out there. I’ve always been a fan of Cabaret, I’ve always liked Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which is just starting its life out in the West End. But we’ll see. At the moment I’m just happy trying to entertain this idea of maybe thinking beyond theatre. I love doing theatre but I think you need to have another story. It’s important to try and develop other roles, rather than just become a musical theatre man, and acting is something I’m really keen to try and get back to.

Was it a surprise the way your career turned out, that there was so much musical theatre and less acting as time went on?

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No I’m not surprised, because I’m an actor who sings, and I had a singing career, so it would seem to make sense. It’s just ironic that, 25 years on, that’s probably one of the things I’m most known for.

One of the things that I really am proud of is the fact that maybe through that line of work and that theatre work, starting with Joseph all those many, many years ago, that I’ve hopefully built up a reputation with the buying audience out there, who comes and sees shows and likes to sit in theatres and watch people perform, whether it’s War of the Worlds or Priscilla or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Sweeney Todd. Hopefully they know that if my name’s on the ticket, they feel reassured that it’s going to be a good show, a quality production. That’s something that I have carved out and I’m proud of that.

Might that encourage audiences into theatres who wouldn’t otherwise go?

Hopefully, there’s no point doing it if there’s no one watching it! You’ve got to have that aspect of a name, someone who can deliver the goods and also has that drawing power, and that’s a reputation that I’m proud of and that I’ve built.

Do you think that’s even more important, as people have less money, to have a name that they can rely on?

I think you’re right, I think it really helps get people in the door, and once you’ve got them in the door hopefully the show is of quality enough to speak for itself, but initially you’ve got to get people in.

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Jason Donovan, thank you for talking to us.

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds… The New Generation, is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 25 November through Universal Pictures.

Tickets for the brand new 2014 live tour go on sale November 22 priced from £38.50 and will be available via thewaroftheworlds.com/tickets or at www.livenation.co.uk.

Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist, writer and Trekkie. Read more of her thoughts on the pop culture career of the Greeks and Romans at her blog, Pop Classics.