Alexander Hanson has appeared in many Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, including Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and an arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar—but only now is the actor originating a Lloyd Webber role. In Stephen Ward, Hanson plays the title character: the doomed osteopath who was at the epicenter of the Profumo sex-and-politics scandal that shook British public life a half-century ago. The ever-engaging Hanson took time to discuss the ongoing enigma that Ward remains this many years after his death and to reflect on some potent Broadway memories and a bevy of fabulous leading ladies.
You’ve done many Lloyd Webber musicals but Stephen Ward must feel a breed apart.
Oh, it does! It’s certainly different from Jesus Christ Superstar, which is the most recent one that I did. I guess the most similar would be Sunset Boulevard because that had the same creative team in Don Black and Christopher Hampton. But even then, this one is more a play with music.
And as with Joe Gillis in Sunset, Stephen Ward is narrated by a central male character who happens—semi-spoiler ahead!—to be dead.
I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re absolutely right! And of course there’s the added parallel of Stephen and the young girls [Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies] for whom he’s a Svengali-type figure, which, of course, makes you also think of the Phantom. That must be an Andrew thing.
On some level, it’s a story of society turning in on itself.
Sure, and I think the clue to understanding Stephen’s relatively short life [he died in 1963 at the age of 50] is that he just lived for high society. He loved hanging around with the movers and shakers of society—film stars and royalty and aristocracy—and he basically had three pretty powerful pass doors into that world. And because he was an exceptional osteopath, he treated the right people, so it then wasn’t a surprise when he started befriending Lord Astor and had all these young women around him. Stephen was able to make himself indispensable within the world he wanted to be in.
Except that for all his love of female companionship, his sexuality remains opaque.
It certainly helped that Stephen knew how to talk to women and that in his own way he was very feminine. But I think if he had actually been gay that it would have come out by now: There are plenty of guys out there who are very in tune with their femininity, particularly in our world [of the theater], who aren’t necessarily gay.
What has it been like to open a Lloyd Webber musical cold on the West End?
When I’ve taken over in the past, the show has been set and everything has been explored so you just go in and start from that point. But with a new musical it’s very fluid and also Andrew is incredibly canny. He’s a very passionate man and he cares deeply about his stuff so he knows the process whereby a song will be taken out or put in or the lyrics will change depending upon the dynamic between the piece and the audience. He also wants you as a performer to bring what you feel to the table, as well.
That must be quite empowering.
It’s almost like doing a TV or a film where you are given the day’s schedule and suddenly you realize that all the dialogue’s changed. As long as the show is still in process, you can’t pin it down!
Were you conscious of this musical occupying an unusual place within his canon?
What I realize now is that there is a certain type of [person] who comes to see a musical, whether by Andrew Lloyd Webber or anyone else, and they want dancing girls and big tunes and that’s what they want. And Stephen Ward isn’t that. It kind of subverts the Lloyd Webber genre. But then there’s another constituency who love this show because they feel it’s grown up and is dealing with a serious subject and has maybe told them something new. The older generation, in particular, come in already knowing something about the Profumo affair, and the reaction from them has been pretty amazing.
Tell me about your wife, Samantha Bond, who is currently preparing to star in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in the West End.
She’s like a pig in sh*t. She’s just loving it! She’s always wanted to do a musical comedy, and that is precisely the right one for her. She’s living the dream.
Were you living the dream when you starred in A Little Night Music opposite Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch?
I remember going with Angela to the second preview of Promises, Promises and it was like going to the theater with Jesus! They all wanted to touch the hem of her garment. God, she’s a classy dame.
What about Elaine? Did you send her a card for her recent 89th birthday?
No, but I did send the odd message via her dresser at the time. Elaine’s not on e-mail, so communicating with her can be tricky. But God, I love her—I absolutely love her. She’s completely different from Angela. Elaine is cantankerous and moody and, of course, has diabetes. But there's no doubt she is quite, quite brilliant. They were—and are—extraordinary ladies, both of them.