Jay McGuiness Dusts Off His Dancing Shoes for the West End's Big the Musical

Jay McGuiness Dusts Off His Dancing Shoes for the West End's Big the Musical
Jay McGuiness and Matthew Kelly in "Big the Musical"
(Photo: Alastair Muir)

Jay McGuiness was a member of the popular English boy band The Wanted and won the 2015 edition of Strictly Come Dancing, the U.K. precursor to Dancing with the Stars. But he is currently returning to his musical theater roots as Josh Baskin, the manchild at the engaging heart of Big the Musical, the 1996 Broadway show readying for a London premiere on September 17 at the Dominion Theatre; Morgan Young directs. Broadway.com caught the chatty performer prior to a two-show day during previews to talk about the different chapters in an ever-varied career.

How does it feel to be revisiting a musical in which you first appeared on tour three years ago—only for it now to be reaching the West End?
For me, [Big] felt like unfinished business. After we did our stints in Plymouth and Dublin, we hoped the show would transfer to the West End but the set is so big that we had to hold out for one of the biggest theaters in London, which has meant for the past three years our show has felt like the one that got away.

Do you see yourself now portraying a somewhat different Josh Baskin from the one you played late in 2016?
Yeah, I think so. The first time I played Josh, I thought it would be a real walk in the park. Now that I’m 29—nearly 30—Josh is able to get a little bit older and I can take myself a little bit more seriously so that when Josh is hurt, it’s more impactful.

When did you become aware of the popular Tom Hanks film about a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being big, and then becomes so, given that you weren’t alive when it came out in 1988?
I knew it from television. When I was growing up, Big was one of those movies, along with Huck and Mrs. Doubtfire, that was always on Channel 5 in the U.K. where they would play old movies until late night, when the porn started—by which time I’d gone to bed [laughs]!

What did you remember most about it?
Obviously, the piano scene sticks in my head because it was so visual and I thought at the time that I got all the jokes, though perhaps, looking back at them, I hadn’t. When you’re a kid watching the film, you still think the joke is on the adults, but it’s only as you get older that you realize Josh himself is making a series of errors.

Is that piano sequence especially exciting to perform on stage?
I do really enjoy it, and because I’ve done a lot of dance, I went into this thinking it would be like a dance piece—except that there are 2000 people watching you. Me and Matthew [Kelly, his co-star] think of that scene as a challenge, but it’s almost as if it writes itself: the scene keeps building and building.

Does playing Josh make you want to retrieve your inner adolescent?
Except that the 13-year-old Jay McGuiness was so shallow, and I don't mean that negatively. I was just floating around with zero ambition and no worries; I don't think this show would be very interesting if it were about me.

Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh in
Big the Musical (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Were you intimidated at first by playing American?
I’ve always really loved accents, actually, and American is probably one of the easiest for most Brits, or for most people. Our accent coach says that the word “important” is one I’ve got to work on but that everything else is O.K. and that I have a nice cadence. You can let me know!

Does this show feel as if you’re going back to your roots, given the successes you’ve had as a boy band singer and as a TV dance personality?
What’s really interesting is that now I’m doing what I trained in. A lot of the people I knew when I was 16 and in drama school in Nottingham are really happy for me to be doing this, more than when I was touring in America or Asia. They were with me during all that hard work so they recognize how much this does feel like a return.

Didn’t you live in America for a while?
Yes. As soon as the boy band part of my life finished, I moved to L.A. and spent two years in California where way less people came up to me and I think I could let [The Wanted] experience fade away without too much pressure. I wrote some music and traveled a little and just filled my time with people and shared experiences as opposed to being on a mission or building a brand.

What made you return home to England?
I missed the rain! And I missed my family who was I aware were getting older. My manager called me and asked me about doing Strictly Come Dancing and because I’d done dancing at college I thought, “This is it! I’m still technically a star!” [Laughs.]

What are the dancing challenges in Big?
When we first began work on this, our choreographer, Helen [Rymer], was heavily pregnant, which really helped me out because we started off slow. Now she’s had two babies, and all I can say is that I hope I’ve made her proud. There may have been a time with this show where perhaps we overstretched [the dance] but we’ve since pulled it back. We did get told at one point, “You’re not putting on Chicago!”

Speaking of Chicago, are you a theatergoer when you’re not in a show yourself?
I actually really enjoy shows and love watching West End ones. I tend to go and think, “Yeah, I could do that one,” and then there’s the big song at the end and I think, “Maybe not.” I watched The Book of Mormon and thought, “I want to play every one of those guys; it looks like such fun!”

Given the competition, how would you place Big against the many other musicals now on in London?
I think it’s actually very different. There are a lot of contemporary musicals exploring fascinating and very dark things, but there are one or two that have that grand old-school sound, and Big is one of them. We’re not trying to do anything other than make you smile, laugh and tug on the heartstrings.

Is the title daunting, insofar as it prompts the audience to expect something big?
You know what, I do understand that! We already had that with The Wanted, where we all thought, “What happens if this goes badly and people write that our band is unwanted?!” I was ready for that to happen but it didn’t. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.