Everybody's Talking About Jamie - London

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie Star John McCrea on Making a Splash in the West End, Broadway Dreams & More

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie Star John McCrea on Making a Splash in the West End, Broadway Dreams & More
"Everybody’s Talking About Jamie" star John McCrea
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the new British musical about a teenager’s triumphant redefinition of himself as a drag queen, has also been a major triumph for its leading actor, John McCrea, who was more or less unknown before the show opened at the Apollo Theatre and has since become the toast of the town. McCrea spoke to Broadway.com about newfound stardom, swapping genders on stage and his determination to come to Broadway.

How does it feel to be at the center of the gathering excitement surrounding this show?
It’s a really wonderful feeling, not least to be in such great company. Our show feels to me like the really sweet little musical that could but also a bit like the young carefree 16-year-old that wants to come and shake things up and cause a bit of mayhem.

What do you think when you look up at that huge picture on the marquee of you as Jamie?
It's a lovely feeling, but I also see it more as Jamie than myself—sometimes I look at him as if he's a completely different person. 

Do you see this as almost a test case for the commercial viability of new British musicals?
Because I’ve been so deeply embedded in the industry for so long, it’s hard to have an outsider’s perspective. But I think there is a yearning, yes, for a new British musical that can be loud and proud from wherever it comes, and the fact that we’re a pop makes our show current. We’re always looking for musicals for new generations.

As you settle into playing a 16-year-old drag queen from Sheffield, how are you adjusting to the heels?
Because I’m quite tall anyway, it didn’t make too much of a difference, and also because I had done Angel in [the musical] Rent before, I was used to the heels. As with anything, practice makes perfect. There are some women that take to heels and others that don’t, and it’s the same with men. I decided to wear the shoes as much as possible during rehearsals—even when bleeding, it does wonderful things for the embodiment of your character. You feel so much confidence running through you.

Is it helpful for you to clock the comparisons that have been made between this show and many that have come before?
I can see how comparisons are helpful from a marketing perspective, but the fact is we’re more working class than Kinky Boots, say, and a lot glossier than Blood Brothers: there’s a shitload of glitter in the gray. Comparisons are inevitable in whatever you do, but come and watch the show and you’ll see how different it is.

Did you fret at all as you move through your 20s that you might be getting too old for the role?
Those were my exact thoughts! I remember having that exact conversation and thinking they’re going to have to recast because I’m getting really old [laughs]. You do worry that you might be past it, so it’s lucky that we got it on just in time. 

What’s your response to those who think the musical could be a bit tougher or grittier?
I was having an interesting conversation about that today, in fact, as to whether the show is not dramatic enough or maybe too easy. My response is that we are presenting a real-life situation; all of this actually happened. If you think it’s too easy, refer back to the documentary [Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, shown on BBC Three in 2011], and you’ll see that’s how it actually went down. There’s no replacing a real-life story, much as we’d all love to see Salome or Hedda Gabler.

  Ah-ha: what’s your take on maybe someday doing those two roles?
[Laughs.] I would love to play Hedda Gabler! I’m really interested in gender-swapping within roles. Of course, we’re all aware that there are not enough wonderful roles for women, but one day when the tables are turned there are many female roles that I would love to play. 

You mention the source documentary: how connected have you and your colleagues been with the real-life Jamie Campbell?
What’s interesting is that the show was written without any input from Jamie and then when he read the script for the first time, he was blown away. He was like, “It’s as if you’ve been following me, it’s so spot on.” He’s now 22 and does drag every so often but publicizing our show has become his main occupation, and why not? He knows his story better than anybody will ever know it. We’re so blessed to have Jamie and his mother Margaret on board.

Do you have an equivalent in your own life of Jamie’s sense of having been an outcast?
No, I’m actually the complete opposite! Because I went to a theater school and have been surrounded by kids and adults who wanted to do exactly the same thing as me, I’ve been fortunate enough never to feel that way—though I fully realize as a young gay man myself that I have a responsibility to speak for those people in the audience who may feel much closer to the outcast.

So, it’s not as if you, at age 25, are here playing an older version of yourself?
People’s common misconception is that Jamie and I are very similar whereas we couldn’t be more different: I’m not 16, I’m not an only child, I’m not from the north of England, and I don’t come from a single-parent household. So many factors about us are completely different, which is part of why it feels so creatively liberating.

Are you from a performing family?
Not at all: I come from a military town and a military focus so this [desire to perform] was completely new to my family at the time, and way out of left-field, but I’ve been doing it for so long that it isn’t new to them anymore! None of my family perform, though I do have nephews and nieces who are showing signs of greasepaint in the veins. I’ve got a nephew who’s only four who looks as if he is dreaming really big; maybe he can do the Jamie revival!

Did you grow up a musical theater geek?
Not especially, though you’d think so given that I performed in West End musicals as a child: I was doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Palladium with Michael Ball when I was eight. But the one and only time I’ve been to New York, in October 2016 for my 24th birthday, I had plans to see lots of things, like Hamilton, but they didn’t work out and the only thing I ended up seeing was Rachel Weisz in Plenty. I’m not really a huge musical fanatic: I would always choose to see a play first.

Nonetheless, would you be interested at some point in stepping into Kinky Boots to play Charlie Price, a heels-wearing English character who of course is considerably older than Jamie?
Never say never but that’s not necessarily top of my list. I saw it and really enjoyed it, but I don’t know what I could bring to it. I’ve been so spoiled by originating a role.

How long will you have been with this venture all told by the time your contract finishes?
Four and a half years by that time through workshops, out of town in Sheffield and now the West End—unless, of course, we decide to come to Broadway, in which case I’ll be clinging on to the role for dear life, even if no one wants to pay me. I’m sure stranger things have happened in New York!