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Jeremiah James

Published 17 December 2008

Currently on stage at the Savoy theatre in Carousel, New Yorker Jeremiah James talks to Caroline Bishop about his whirlwind 18 months in the UK.

American actor Jeremiah James met his wife, actress Kelley Dorney, while they were both working in a Disney stage show of Cinderella. She was Cinders and he was Prince Charming. “We met there and became best of friends and then fell in love afterwards,” says James, before breaking into laughter as he acknowledges my raised left eyebrow. “People either go ‘oh that’s very sweet’ or they go ‘my God this is horrible.”

He certainly looks the part. Tall, with dark floppy hair, a wide smile and the outline of a well-honed torso visible beneath his fitted navy T-shirt, the 28-year-old is no Buttons. Due to his current role, he sports large sideburns grown to the middle of his cheeks, which on someone else might look like fancy-dress stick-ons but on him look rather fetching.

His life is pretty charming at the moment, too. By day he is one quarter of theatrical vocal group Teatro, by night he is performing alongside opera diva Lesley Garrett in Lindsay Posner’s new production of Carousel at the Savoy theatre.  

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 show – once voted best musical of the 20th century by Time magazine – has a storyline that in terms of all-American sentimentality is on a par with the way James met his wife. Set in 1873 in Maine, New England, Carousel centres on James’s character Billy Bigelow, an anti-hero who falls in love and is killed off in the second act before two angels give him the chance to go back to Earth and redeem his sins. “When reading the synopsis of the storyline, [you] really do go, hmm, that’s kind of cheesy,” admits James. “[But] it’s not cheesy in any way, it sounds so clichéd but it’s really done so beautifully. The audience is just a mess at the end. I think anybody could say, at the end of the day, you have had somebody you might have lost and you didn’t quite have the chance to say everything you wanted to say. That basic feeling touches everybody.”

Beneath the sentimentality lies a character that in 1945 was considered groundbreaking in the realm of musical theatre. His popularity with the ladies may give Prince Charming a run for his money, but Billy Bigelow underscores his good looks and natural confidence with a dark, angry streak that leads him to mistreat his adoring wife Julie and become embroiled in a plot to steal from a local man. “He’s one of those personalities that knows he has a severe problem in dealing with emotions and all that sort of thing, he’ll lash out but can never say sorry and can never truly convey how genuine he feels,” says James. “I was nervous undertaking this character because he has to be redeeming to some degree, I mean people still have to like him and still find him attractive, he can’t just be this nasty brute who walks around or the show would kind of flop on its face.”

“I always wanted to be in sports or be a police officer, something very guy-like”

 
James raves about the direction of Posner and his ability to bring a sense of reality to a musical that is very much of its time; nevertheless, presenting a wife-beater in a sympathetic manner in 2008 was never going to be an easy task. Just one particular line grates, says James, one delivered by his co-star Alexandra Silber, who plays Billy’s wife Julie. “She has to say, ‘yes it’s true, somebody can hit you really hard and not have it hurt at all.’ When she [Silber] read the script the first time she was like, ‘oh that line is awful’,” says James. “But she delivers it so beautifully and it goes in context with the show and her character.”

Thankfully, James appears to have all of the charm but none of the nastiness of his character. He gets on famously with Silber, a fellow American with whom he plans to go out for turkey sandwiches following our chat. It’s Thanksgiving, and James is grateful to have a co-star who understands the feeling of being far from home.

His family now lives in South Carolina, but James – his real family name is Schalberg; he began using his middle name at the start of his career – grew up in New York and then Los Angeles, where he got his first taste of musical theatre thanks to his dancer sister. It wasn’t something he had considered; as a teenager he was more into American football than theatre. “I always wanted to be in sports or be a police officer, something very guy-like,” says James, before hastily adding, lest he offend, “not that this isn’t.” But when his sister asked the 14-year-old to help out in a show that needed more boys in its chorus line, he reluctantly agreed. “I said alright, I’ll do it, as long as there’s no dancing in the show. She lied to me and said there wasn’t and then it ended up being one of the biggest dancing shows ever to be on Broadway – Anything Goes. I was quite shocked by that; when they said ‘Jeremiah did you bring your tap shoes?’, I was like, my hoosywhatsees? I don’t do that man.

“But I stuck around and after that I just fell in love with it,” he continues. “I remember the first night I was on stage, just hearing the audience, even though I was sailor boy number five in the back row, basically taking up space, I had never experienced anything like that. And then after that it was like, I want to do the next show and the next show.”

His love of the stage cemented, he went on to spend three years at the Hamilton Academy of Music in Los Angeles, before racking up credits in US productions of The Full Monty, Hello Dolly, Evita, Honk, Guys And Dolls and Crazy For You. Then came Oklahoma!, the US touring version of Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre production that was to prove his path to the UK.

It was while playing Curly in that production that James caught the attention of talent manager Jonathan Shalit, who invited him to audition for Teatro, a vocal group he was putting together as musical theatre’s answer to Il Divo. James had never been to the UK before when he was flown over for the audition, which resulted in him being selected, along with three Brits, to form the group that would sign to Sony BMG. Feeling like “the luckiest dude in the world”, James upped sticks in June 2007 and moved from New York to Chiswick, popping home to marry his Cinderella in October of that year before the pair returned together to London.  

The group’s first, eponymous, album was released in November 2007. A conglomerate of popular show tunes in new arrangements, it aimed to promote musical theatre to the unconverted. “What we did was try and put a pop twist onto the music. And some theatre people won’t like it, but that’s alright,” says James, who compares the group to the Rat Pack. “The majority of their music is all show tunes. Frank [Sinatra] sings Soliloquy [from Carousel] I can’t tell you how many different recordings. We didn’t want to hand people the same thing that they would hear on a soundtrack; to us there was no point. So we wanted to give them a new spin on old classics, a lot like the Rat Pack did, in their own way.”

“I was nervous undertaking this character because he has to be redeeming to some degree”

The four members of the group are all experienced musical theatre actors in their own right – Simon Bailey is currently playing Raoul in The Phantom Of The Opera, Stephen Rahman-Hughes starred in Bombay Dreams and Andrew Alexander appeared in Beauty And The Beast – and intend to continue working in the industry as well as performing with Teatro. “We really wanted to be able to branch out and do both because that was where our passion lay,” says James. “This has just been an amazing opportunity from beginning to end; to be a part of Teatro and one weekend doing a concert and then being here performing eight shows a week is just incredible.”

There have been minor blips in the fairytale; it took time for James to adjust to his British colleagues’ unfamiliar ways of working. “The American mentality is 100% all the time, you know, go go go, and the British mentality is much more laid back. So for me being the only American in the group was difficult in the beginning… We never had any big rows or big fights, but I could say something and you could kind of see them go ‘was he being really rude there?’” he laughs.

But his Teatro bandmates are now his “dearest friends” and, aside from missing his family back home, James is relishing the experience of living in Britain. He raves about the history, the culture, the “soccer”, and his only gentle gripe is the lack of all-night shops which led to an early chilly night in his Chiswick home without bed sheets. In fact, he has an all-pervading enthusiasm for his adopted country that seems devoid of cynicism. He even has the good grace to say, about visiting Milton Keynes and Woking on tour with Carousel, “It was really nice to get out and about and see parts of England that I hadn’t seen yet.”

He intends to stay in the UK after Carousel to continue his work with Teatro. The group is recording a new album this month which he promises will have more up tempo numbers than the last and “show the diversity of what musical theatre is”. Meanwhile, his wife Kelley has just been invited to workshop Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera. Things have worked out pretty well for Prince Charming and his Cinders. “It’s been a whirlwind,” says James, flashing that wide grin, “but incredible.”

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