Yesterday I wrote here about my favourite leading women in British musicals, and today it’s the turn of the men.
It’s a surprisingly shorter list; the competition doesn’t feel as fierce. We simply don’t have as many above-the-title leading men to celebrate. It’s why the arrival of someone like Alfie Boe, crossing over from opera to the theatrical stage for the first time in Les Miserables when he played Valjean for the 02 25th anniversary concert and then did a stint in the West End run, makes such an impact.
It’s also why Michael Ball remains unchallenged as the king of the West End musical, having built up a serious career bit by bit from juve lead (the original Marius in Les Mis) to leading man (and currently giving the performance of his career in the title role of Sweeney Todd). John Barrowman also came through musicals, but has achieved celebrity through television; I hope we’ve not lost him, though, as he’s too good a leading man to disappear from the stage.
Regular readers of this blog will know what a fan (and now friend) of Philip Quast’s I am; I vividly remember, long before he became a friend, seeing his Divas at the Donmar cabaret show in 2002 and thinking that he was the foremost leading man of musicals around, partly because of his miraculous voice but also because of the outpouring of emotion you can hear in it. It’s one thing to produce a pure, rich sound, as he so brilliantly does, but pouring his heart and soul into it, too, is another. He lives the songs, doesn’t just sing them. But after two decades in London, he has now returned home to his native Australia; I hope we can find ways to lure him back to the West End from time to time.
Great voice, acting and looks: the male triple threat is hard to find. But it is something that both Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser bring to the theatrical party, and is establishing them each as two of our best young leading men. The same is true of Julian Ovenden and Michael Xavier, and I love them both, too. Another triple threat (and also triple treat!) is David Thaxton, who like Ovenden arrived as a fully-fledged leading man at the Donmar Warehouse, seemingly from nowhere — Ovenden in Merrily We Roll Along, where he was paired with the also wonderful Daniel Evans, and Thaxton in Passion. (Evans, now artistic director at Sheffield’s Crucible, is one of our most versatile actors, and it’s great that he’s not given up musicals entirely: last Christmas he was stunning as Bobby in Company at his home theatre).
Male leads who are also serious dancers are even harder to find, and again means that another cross over — from Royal Ballet principal to musical theatre star — Adam Cooper is the leading man of choice when it comes to roles that require proper dancing. His Singin’ in the Rain co-star Daniel Crossley is also a serious contender in the dance stakes.
Vocally, special shout-outs are due to two singers. John Owen-Jones, who holds the record for giving the most performances of any actor to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera in the West End and is now reprising it in the current UK tour. is a thrilling vocalist; but my other singer of choice is one whose last West End role was Sticks, a pig in Shrek, so is hardly principal man, but Stuart Matthew Price is one of the best singers around at the moment. Glenn Carter, absolutely brilliant in the title role of Southwark Playhouse’s Floyd Collins recently, is another fine, fierce singer with a hugely tender side .
Then there’s Bertie Carvel, in a class (and possibly gender) of his own at the moment in Matilda the Musical, that had someone on Twitter yesterday say to me, “Surely the best leading lady on the West End right now!” But Carvel’s been marvellous outside as well as inside a frock, as he showed when he played the lead role of Leo Frank in the Donmar’s UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade.
Someone yesterday also pointed out how white my list of female performers was (and I’d like to publicly state now that the omission of Sharon D Clarke was purely an oversight: someone so good I simply take her for granted nowadays, and who is the best thing about the West End’s Ghost).
On the male side, though, I will happily name Clive Rowe (who now does plays as often as he does musicals, but was a knockout Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Mr Snow in the NT revivals of Guys and Dolls and Carousel respectively), David Bedella (warm-up man and the Devil in Jerry Springer - the Opera, and now to be found in the Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy where he previously appeared in Sondheim’s Road Show) and Raza Jaffrey (who I once dubbed “the most exciting new leading man to emerge in a London musical since Hugh Jackman became an overnight star in the National Theatre production of Oklahoma!” when he played the lead in the premiere of Bombay Dreams ten years ago, and is now back in the West End in Chicago after achieving TV fame in Smash and Spooks).