Popular London musical star Alex Bourne is best known for his long and successful runs in We Will Rock You and Buddy, and now the strapping 6'4" performer is wowing audiences in the dual roles of Fred Graham/Petruchio in Trevor Nunn’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate. Broadway vet Hannah Waddingham co-stars as Lilli Vanessi/Kate in a production that transferred from the Chichester Festival Theatre to London’s Old Vic, where it is running through March 2. Bourne took time over the holiday period to talk about being tall, channeling Howard Keel, and brushing up his Shakespeare, among other topics.
This seems the right time to do Kiss Me, Kate. After all, there were three productions of its Shakespearean source, The Taming of the Shrew, in London last year.
I know, though I didn’t have a chance to see any of them, partly because we were down at Chichester. But my mother had a bit of a clear-out in her attic and came upon an old program for a Royal Shakespeare Company [Shrew] that I actually saw, with Sinead Cusack as Kate and Alun Armstrong as Petruchio. I was very young then, so don’t remember that much about it.
It must be interesting to do this particular musical directed by someone [Trevor Nunn] steeped in the classics.
I think Trevor’s done Shrew about four times, so he knows it inside and out. He also knows what bits will get the biggest laughs. What he did with us was put back in bits that were taken out in 1948 so that there would be more of the original text in our production—some extra scenes and elongated bits that allow us to focus on the Shakespeare a lot more.
That's a nice change, since musical theater actors don’t always also get a chance to do Shakespeare.
That’s true. I haven’t really done any of the sorts of plays that I imagine my character, Fred Graham, might be doing in his career. That was one of the reasons I was very excited to do this: I thought people might take me a bit more seriously, and that different kinds of offers might come my way. If this acts as a transition to me getting offered straight theater, that would be absolutely amazing.
You and [co-star] Hannah Waddingham seem to be offering a throwback to an era of lush singing that isn’t of the Pop Idol variety.
That’s what we’re trying to do or, should I say, the sound we’re trying to make, and it’s what this show is about: They really don’t write them like that anymore! Where else do I get to sing a proper baritone role? From Miss Saigon onward, it’s all about screaming top B-flats all the time, so I’ve spent my whole career singing out of my range. Suddenly here’s a show, and a part, that sits perfectly! [Laughs.]
More than one person has told me they thought you were channeling Howard Keel [Fred/Petruchio in the 1953 film].
Well, we’ve got a similar legit-sounding baritone voice, and it’s all about how the songs should be sung, as well. I certainly don’t feel as if I’m doing an impression of Howard Keel, though he was one of Trevor’s boyhood heroes. For Trevor, it’s not just about the Shakespeare connection, it’s about the Howard Keel connection!
It’s also not easy finding someone to play opposite Hannah [who stands nearly six feet tall].
Trevor had always wanted Hannah for this role, so it became about finding someone tall enough to play opposite her romantically—and that was me! It helped that Hannah and I have been friends for 15 years and she had always said that we must play opposite each other,
There’s the interesting question with this show as to how good an actor Fred Graham actually is—or is he just a self-glorifying ham?
In other productions, the Shakespeare scenes have tended to be a bit over the top and the feeling was that Fred wasn’t actually that good. But Trevor wanted Fred to be brilliant and his show to be brilliant and his production to be an authentic Shakespeare production acted brilliantly, so we tried to do the best job we can given that most of us had never done Shakespeare before. A two-day Shakespeare workshop with Trevor Nunn is no bad thing! [Laughs.]
Is it true you’ve done Kiss Me, Kate before?
Yes, if you take into account that I was about 11 at the time, and it was one of those ridiculous productions where they didn’t have enough men in the company, so they got this tall young guy to play Hortensio [laughs]. I actually got offered the last West End production, directed by Michael Blakemore with Brent Barrett and Marin Mazzie. I had been contracted to take over from Brent and started to learn the role, and then they decided that they weren’t going to go ahead with the re-cast. That was very disappointing at the time, but I’m pleased for many reasons that it didn’t work out because it meant I got to be part of the creative process on this one.
Besides, it’s not as if you sat idle last time around.
Not at all. The second we got the call saying Kiss Me, Kate was being pulled, my agent put a call into Disney and I ended up doing Beauty and the Beast in its last year, so it was all meant to be.
What’s astonishing about your resume is how devoted you’ve been to certain shows.
You mean that I did four years in Buddy and six in We Will Rock You? [Laughs.] The thing with the Queen musical is that it absolutely flew by. I did the first year and then—bang!—another contract, and it sort of went from there: I kept doing it and they kept paying me. But that also coincided with what can be a funny age for guys when it comes to casting in your late 30s or early 40s.
Any specific shows on your “must-do” list?
I’d love to do a lot of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff, including South Pacific, though I’m maybe a little young for that still. Or Ben in Follies. And though I’ve said that I would love to do a straight play, I don’t ever want to leave musical theater!