Talking Theatre: Danny Mac Discusses Sunset Boulevard at WMC - Part 1
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award®winning masterpiece Sunset Boulevard comes to Wales Millennium Centre this February. The show features Ria Jones, who received standing ovations every night when performing at the London Coliseum, as Norma Desmond and Strictly Come Dancing’s Danny Mac as Joe Gillis.
Sunset Boulevard tells the story of faded silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond who lives in her mansion in a fantasy world. Impoverished screen writer Joe Gillis, on the run from debt collectors, stumbles into her reclusive world and is seduced by her and her luxurious lifestyle. Joe becomes trapped in a claustrophobic world until his love for another woman leads him to try and break free, with dramatic consequences.
Sunset Boulevard features a much-loved score from Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton including Sunset Boulevard, With One Look, As If We Never Said Goodbye, The Greatest Star Of All and The Perfect Year.
Simon Button recently chatted to Danny Mac about the show.
What are you most enjoying about playing Joe Gillis?
I love the level that he starts at in the show. I think it comes with age, but with a lot of the characters I've played previously they've been young men discovering themselves and stuff whereas this guy is a man and he's already been through it all. He's kind of at the end of his tether in this situation already and that's just when the show opens so from that point you just build and build.
It's been so great to take on a character who already has so much substance and already has so much stuff going on. To build from there is a real gift, plus it's one of the few parts you can play in the theatre – either in a play or a musical – where he just doesn't leave the stage.
I think I leave the stage maybe twice during the whole show so there's not much time to step out of the character. You jump on that treadmill and you keep on running straight through to the end, which means the character's journey feels so much more substantial and full. You go on that journey and you take the audience with you from start to finish.
How would you sum him up as a character?
He's wonderfully flawed. He hasn't gotten everything right but he thinks he has. Everything is told from his point of view and he doesn't really see his mistakes; he thinks it's him who is doing everything right and everyone and everything else is failing around him when actually it's him who is making the wrong decisions. That's where it leads to at the end – you see his downfall because of that and I think it's what brings about his demise. He's dug his own grave essentially.
William Holden was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film version and many big names have played the role in the musical. Have you watched the movie or YouTube clips or have you avoided that so you can give your own take on it?
I've approached the character like it's brand new, which is really nice. I knew of the show and the basic story but I didn't know the details of it. It was from listening to the soundtrack and reading the script that I realised it's a role that's impossible to say no to.
I actually told my agent I wasn't keen on doing a musical straight after having done On The Town over the summer, but then I listened to the soundtrack and read the script and I phoned my agent back and said 'I think we need to rethink this because this character is just fantastic'. I've watched the film because stylistically the show has grown out of the movie, not just in terms of the film itself but also the era in which it was set and the time it was filmed.
The show is very true to the original conception. Once you take on a role you still go on your own journey and with it being a musical rather than a straight play it's already an accentuation of the original. But I haven't seen anyone else play the part so it's been nice to bring my own take on it. Nikolai Foster, our incredible director, was fantastic about encouraging me to do that. We agreed on a lot of stuff about the character and he's so generous as a director in guiding us.
There were times when there were things we didn't agree on and it was so liberating to argue or discuss it throughout the rehearsal process. Not every decision I instantly made I subsequently stuck with because that's the whole point of the process. Joe's probably the most thought-out overall character I've ever had the pleasure of building and that's what's so great about being able to play him. It's also why I ended up extending my run as Joe into 2018 because I kind of wasn't ready to give up this role yet. I want to be able to share it for longer with more people because it's something I feel such a great ownership over.
What are the big challenges about the show for you as a performer?
I have an incredible duty to tell the story as essentially the narrator of the show. There are impeccable performances from the entire the cast and it's based around four main characters – namely Norma, Max, Betty and Joe – but I've got to narrate the story so it's about getting every bit of information over and serving the piece and everyone else's performances in the right way.
Vocally you have to be fit and healthy because it demands every part of your expertise and abilities. There's no half-efforts, you have to commit fully, and for the length of time that Joe's on stage it's a big ask but also a truly wonderful responsibility and one I'm really enjoying taking on.
You're clearly in great shape but have you buffed up for the Act Two opening number where you emerge from a pool in just your bathers?
If anything I've had to do the opposite because going to the gym actually hinders me vocally. It's about trying to find a healthy balance – eating well and keeping fit to a certain degree. I've not been to the gym as much as I have before but I do like to maintain a level of fitness.
It's good for working in general because if you don't keep fit you start getting sick and that whole thing snowballs. But the most important thing about this job is going out and doing it justice, and vocally it's been a massive challenge.
What have you learned from working with such a skilled performer as Ria Jones, who plays Norma Desmond in the show?
She's incredible and she's the reason the show is going out on tour. She is such a success story [having been Glenn Close's understudy in the West End and appearing when Close was off sick] and also Ria created this role in its original conception with Andrew Lloyd Webber some 26 years ago. It's only now that she's old enough to play it and it seems so poetic that it's come full circle and she's able to do the show. She's an absolute triumph in it and such a joy to work with. My Joe would be nothing without her Norma.
It's wonderful to work with Ria because she's someone at the top of her game who still carries so much love and respect from everyone she's worked with. I mean, the amount of people who congratulated me on getting this role but also sang her praises...
Everyone talks about her in such high regard and that's something that inspires me – to be a decent, professional person who people speak highly of in terms of their abilities but also just as a colleague. At the same time she's a star, no doubt about it. She's not just a really nice person who is scraping by, she's a fantastic lady and has got all the talent. She won't be taken for a fool, but she's the most fun in the room and the nicest person. She leads by example.
- Sunset Boulevard runs at Wales Millennium Centre from February 26 to March 3. Danny Mac will not be performing as Joe Gillis on Monday 26 February. For ticket information visit www.wmc.org.uk
- Come back tpmorrow for the next part of this interview with Danny Mac in which he discusses appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, touring with Sunset Boulevard and visiting Cardiff!