Showbusiness – it is a risky business indeed, as Daniel Boys well knows. Having paid his dues as a jobbing actor, in and out of work, he considered giving it all up for something more secure. But, thankfully, he didn’t. Instead, he finds himself taking over the lead role of Princeton in Avenue Q, the icing on the cake of a highly successful year. He tells Caroline Bishop about his change in fortunes.
Daniel Boys knows he has a hard act to follow. Even the dressing room at the Noël Coward in which we meet is not yet his, but that of Jon Robyns, who, along with Julie Atherton, Simon Lipkin and the other original cast members of Avenue Q, has developed a cult following for this quirky comedy musical about leaving college, finding yourself and falling in love with a furry puppet called Kate Monster.
Excited though he is, Boys is well aware of the shoes he is stepping into as he replaces Robyns to play Princeton and Rod from 3 December. “The cast here at the moment are so fantastic and they’ve created a huge fan base,” he says. “People have nothing to compare them to, so whatever they do the public think is great. Of course we are trying to bring our own interpretations of the character, our own ideas, and of course the fans will be like ‘oh, Jon didn’t do that’. I hope we win them over and I hope they appreciate that we want to make it our own.”
Boys’s first lead role in a West End musical is an unusual and highly demanding one. Acting and singing may be par for the course, but Avenue Q also requires that the actors learn the new skill of puppeteering to bring their puppet alter-egos to life. The audition process involved attending puppet school, where the potential cast members had to learn to manipulate and voice these rather large, Sesame Street-style hand puppets. It is much harder than the current cast make it look, says Boys, and it is physically demanding too – the constant arm ache from lifting the puppets necessitates a weekly massage.
“It’s amazing how much we have progressed,” says Boys of himself and his fellow newbies, including Rebecca Lock who plays the twin roles of Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut, and Mark Goldthorp as Nicky and the porn-loving Trekkie Monster. “Now I’m thinking more about the acting, whereas before I was constantly thinking ‘what’s the puppet doing?’. But now I don’t really think about that,” he says.
In fact, it seems the new cast are already so accustomed to the puppets that they treat them like human co-stars: “This morning I noticed Rebecca put Kate on and went ‘morning Kate’. You find yourself becoming really obsessed with the puppets, it’s quite worrying! They are just so real. When you’re doing a scene and you look at the puppet you completely believe that they are alive, it’s very scary.”
Which gives Boys a particularly good excuse for a bit of fun: “You find yourself, as soon as you’ve got the puppet on, saying things through the puppet that you’d never dare say – being offensive to someone in a jokey way. If I said that as Daniel I’d be punched. [But] it’s not you saying it, it’s the puppet!”
“You can forgive a puppet for doing anything” he adds, which is just as well, given the hilarious – and rather graphic – sex scene in the show in which Princeton and Kate fall into bed after one too many absinthe cocktails. “I’m dreading my parents seeing it!” Boys laughs.
Actually, he says his family – which includes two older brothers and a younger sister – are all very excited about coming to see him in his first West End lead role. Hopefully that won’t increase the pressure on Boys, who, as well as feeling the need to live up to the existing cast, is nervous for another reason. “It’s really exciting, but it is also very scary…because of the Joseph thing I feel like I’ve got to prove something to people now.”
“You find yourself becoming really obsessed with the puppets, it’s quite worrying!”
He is referring to Any Dream Will Do, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s televised search for an actor to play the title role in the West End production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Boys was one of the 12 finalists in the weekly live sing-off, and came sixth, with Lee Mead eventually winning the programme.
Like Mead, who was trained in musical theatre and had understudied major roles in the West End, Boys was also one of the experienced participants of the competition. A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 28-year-old Boys has six years of experience under his belt, with roles in major UK and international tours including West Side Story and Grease, a couple of stints in the ensembles of West End musicals, and a spell as alternate Mark in Rent. But he was nevertheless struggling to get a break that would propel him onto bigger things.
“It’s been very tough,” he recalls. “It looks like I’ve done a lot on my CV and I have done a lot, but in terms of West End stuff this is only my third West End show and my last one was way back in 2003. Since then it has been very difficult. I’ve done lots of shows since but they’ve all been very short, an eight-week tour or something. So I have been out of work a lot. And obviously as an actor that’s very frustrating, and there have been many times when I’ve thought, d’you know what, I don’t think I can do this anymore, the whole insecurity of it.”
So when Any Dream Will Do came along, Boys made the media savvy move of applying. “I kind of feel a bit guilty about it but it’s just the way the business is going, you have to nowadays have a bit of a profile about you. I thought, I’ll just see what happens, and maybe it will help my career. I was lucky enough to get onto the programme and I really do think it’s helped me – this year has been probably the best year of my life career-wise.”
Subsequently signing with the same agent as series judge John Barrowman, life for Boys since the programme finished has been “a real whirlwind”. He performed alongside Bryn Terfel, Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans in Sweeney Todd at the Royal Festival Hall in July, led the cast in new off-West End musical I Love You Because at the Landor in September and October, and now finds himself preparing for Avenue Q.
Though he has loved the opportunities that have come his way since the TV show, Boys does admit it is frustrating that he felt he needed a media profile in order to progress in an industry he was already trained for. “It’s very sad that that’s the way that the business has gone. Like I say, part of me does feel a bit guilty that I’ve given in, but if it was the only way I was going to work… I thought, well I want to work, I love musical theatre, and if it’s the only way that it’s going to happen for me then I’ll just have to play the game.”
“There have been many times when I’ve thought I don’t think I can do this anymore, the whole insecurity of it”
The legacy of playing the game, however, is that most people now know him only for Any Dream Will Do, and may assume he got Avenue Q on the back of it. In fact, Boys originally auditioned for Princeton back in January for a planned cast change which didn’t, in the end, materialise. Re-auditioning this autumn, he stresses he was treated like any other auditionee, working his way through the process and reaching the final three, from which he was chosen by the show’s American producers. “I’d like to think I got it on my talent and not because I’m Daniel from Any Dream Will Do, and I’m sure that’s the case. I hope that’s what people realise,” he says. “Of course I’m going to have this ‘he was the guy from Joseph [label]’ but I do want to shake that off as soon as I can and just become known as Daniel Boys the actor.”
Perhaps though, that is the price you pay for instant fame. Like Mead, Connie Fisher (the winner of Lloyd Webber’s search for Maria in The Sound Of Music, who was famously languishing in telesales despite being trained at Mountview), and fellow Any Dream-er Ben James Ellis, who is currently playing Link in Hairspray, the trade off for using reality television to get himself noticed is that Boys will surely be associated with it for a while yet. And perhaps he shouldn’t be too quick to shake off the tag. Though the primary reason for getting the part in Avenue Q must be talent – the demands of the role mean it couldn’t be anything else – the exposure and the agent Boys got from his dalliance with reality TV can only have helped, which was, after all, the point.
Despite the benefits Boys gleaned from it, he is in two minds as to whether Lloyd Webber’s format should continue to a third series. “Although I’ve taken part in one, it does worry me, how long this is going to go on for. Will the West End eventually be cast from reality TV shows? Obviously I don’t want that to happen. But at the same time it is bringing people into the West End, because it was going through some difficult times; it’s great the West End is doing so well. And in a way it’s creating musical theatre stars, which we don’t really have any more. We had Elaine Paige and Michael Ball in the early 90s, but no one of our generation, so I think it’s good that youngsters are being made aware of musical theatre and hopefully Lee and Connie and myself will end up having good careers from it.”
That, for Boys, is the essential thing. Determination may have propelled him most of the way – he fended off pressure from schoolteachers to go to a conventional university in order to attend drama school instead – and love for the job kept him from giving up in the unstable years since leaving Guildford. But in such a tough industry as musical theatre the media exposure of a reality show gave him the chance to single out his name from all the other young, talented, experienced actors out there and that extra boost towards the long career in musical theatre that he has hankered after since watching Starlight Express as a young child.
Finally, about to step onto the Noël Coward stage in his first West End lead role, it seems worth the hard slog. “I’m very proud of myself that I haven’t given up,” he says. “Lots of my friends have, and it is a risky business and I don’t blame people who do think I can’t take this anymore. But there was just something inside me which said no, don’t give up. I think if I had given up I would always think I wish I’d stayed.”