As part of the Original West End cast of Kinky Boots, Arun Blair-Mangat covered the role of Lola including in their appearance at West End Live and has recently finished performing as Damien in Leave to Remain at Lyric Hammersmith. Arun has written his own musical, Qu4rter, which workshopped last year in London and is continuing to work on it with future plans. With new musical & Juliet heading to the West End in November after a run in Manchester, Arun will be joining the cast and has recently spent a week showcasing the production. Catching up with Arun last month, he tells us about writing Qu4rter, playing Damien in Leave to Remain and his upcoming role in & Juliet.
What was it like playing Damien in Leave to Remain?
That was a really fun role for me because I’m often cast as the nice guy, the best friend or the love interest. Damien was all of those things to an extent but he was also quite villainous and manipulative. There was unrequited love but he didn’t have his best friend’s interests at heart, so to be able to go into that mindset and inhabit that role was really cool for me because I never get to do anything of that ilk. To do a new musical working with Kele Okereke and Matt Jones was so cool because although the script was written, they adapted it around every actor playing the role so it was really nice to be able to give a sense of what I understood and then bring that to the table as well, I really loved it.
What originally drew you to the script?
The fact that it was so current. The title was indicative of something completely different, I actually thought it was going to be about Brexit so I was like ‘ooooh what’s this? Let me have a little gander!’ when my agent sent it through. It was really fresh, really contemporary, really relevant and really lovely in the sense that it was also telling a white American contemporary narrative with a British Nigerian one and it was a gay love story which is quite rare actually without it being a coming out story, so that’s what drew me in.
How was it working with Robby Graham again after working with him on Angels In America?
That was lovely to be reunited because Angels was such a mammoth beast so I didn’t really get to interact with Robby that much because it was quite peripheral. Although we had a long rehearsal process, it was actually quite quick, especially as understudies we were there to absorb and make sure we knew all the blocking and all the lines. Obviously, we got to know each other but not nearly as well as we did on Leave to Remain which was great. I saw Robby at the audition so that was really nice. I hoped I was going to get it but you never know with these things and it worked out which was really good. Robby’s so visceral and so physical and he really accommodates the actor, he was really free which was lovely.
Angels in America had long running times; what’s it like to perform in a show like this?
Hahaha it’s like a marathon. I got to step in a couple of times in rehearsals which was really cool and to be working with Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough and Russell Tovey, all of them, it was amazing. I was in awe of Amanda who played The Angel, she’s an exceptional actress. It’s like anything, once it becomes normality you have to pace yourself. It’s like a Netflix mini-series condensed into a theatrical show. The rest is just as important as being present. I really admire Russell, he was insane, he could just walk off stage to his dog Rocky and then back to it and I was like wow that’s cool because obviously some actors are method and they carry their character offstage as well as being on stage, and that’s fine, whatever process works for you but he was really able to switch in and out of the worlds. I’ve learned a lot from just watching that process.
How was the response from the audience to the recent workshops of & Juliet?
It was so cool! I don’t know what I expected really. I think it was amazing because it was almost like we did a little Off West End trial run – we did five sharings with 500 people (100 people every day). It was a real mixture of people that don’t necessarily go to the theatre, some people who work for different theatre companies across the country and then we had some nice industry folk as well to give their opinion. I think we had everyone on their feet at the end of every performance which was amazing. I don’t think the creative team ever expected us to have a fully realised show at the end of the workshop process, everyone was off book, everyone was full out performing and really excited, it was such an infectious, electric energy in the room, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. To be in that shape at a workshop stage and then for us to have these months to collate more information and let it digest and ruminate before we come back in July is great. There’ll be more tweaks and amendments for sure, it’s chopping and changing every day.
I can’t wait for everyone to hear the music, even just the clips of Miriam-Teak Lee and Oliver Tompsett are unreal. What’s important is that we did the workshops to share it with people to get feedback – the team really want to iron out any kinks. There’s a great array of characters in this show, I’m excited for the audience to get to know them. It’s one of those things, a bit like In The Heights, where you can go back and just follow one person’s journey, like Vanessa or you might follow Gabriela Garcia as Nina… Not that it is at all similar to In The Heights but it’s one of those musicals where it’s a tapestry of characters so I’m really excited.
What are you most looking forward to for starting the run?
To do it again with everyone. I feel very grateful to be working with such a dynamic company, it’s a super wide age range, super diverse talent pool, we have people who are incredible authentic hip-hop dancers who then have incredible voices and I’m like, where have you been all my life?! They’re exceptional. Then we have people like Cassidy Janson and Olly (Tompsett) leading the company, who are masters in the craft of musical theatre and are really instilling a sense of humour and heart. Also, the inimitable Melanie La Barrie who’s in Wicked at the moment as Madame Morrible – she’s next level, she’s incredible. I feel like having people like that as the heartbeat of the company really resonates throughout and the morale is really high and supportive and people have different strengths. There’s a guy called Kieran (Lai) who’s an incredible performer and he’s tricking and ticking and tutting in his lunch break and teaching other people who don’t know how to do that. It’s this sense of sharing skills and wanting everyone to sharpen their skill sets and better each other and improve and learn from each other, it’s really cool because it doesn’t happen in a lot of jobs.
I feel like I’ve been very lucky this year, even on Leave to Remain it was like a family. I got on really well with Tyrone Huntley, Billy Cullum and everyone but me, Ty, Billy and Aretha Ayeh formed a little unit and we were inseparable – we’d hang out after the show, before the show, during our break… non-stop! People were like, “are you guys okay?”. It was weird but I feel when you get that, it’s really rare and it’s really lovely and to go from that straight into & Juliet the workshop where we were having a party every day, it didn’t feel like work and this is when you’re winning. Me and Jordan Luke Gage looked at each other one day and we were like: we’re singing Max Martin music and getting paid to dance and sing to this incredible music… it’s cool!
How did you find your time in the West End cast of Kinky Boots as well as covering the role of Lola?
That was awesome and like a rollercoaster. I was twenty-three and I’d been working for a while but in lots of tours and had not worked in London since I was eighteen, so it was a substantial period of time. I did a degree in that time as well. So, the next chapter of my career started in drag, which I never thought I’d do, it wasn’t something that was on my radar. I never thought I wouldn’t do it but I didn’t really think that it was on my horizon. My friend said I should watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and I said I thought that was about cars and they were like, “you have NO idea!”. I started watching that as research and I thought it looked amazing but also super hard.
I had never auditioned in heels because I couldn’t find a pair that fit me and then I bought a pair of crazy stilettos and they wouldn’t let me wear them because they were too dangerous, they were like, “you’ll break your ankle!”, so I booked the job not knowing if I could do it in six inch stilettos, which was hilarious and terrifying all at once. We got to first week and I was still doing everything in trainers and everyone was looking at me enviously because their feet were bleeding but still no one had found shoes that I could wear. When they came up I put them on and was like ‘what is life’ but I ran with it and within a day or two I was jumping up and down. I had to make sure that they moulded to my feet and it was painful. I do not envy any woman, man or gender non-binary person who chooses to wear heels!
I learned a lot on that show, I learned how to pace myself on top of opening the show, promoting the show and covering because Lola is such an iconic, epic role and so much is expected. It’s not just vocally, you’re changing heels almost every other scene, changing corsets, dresses and wigs and that is a lot. I’m so glad I did it, I learnt so much and being able to learn from Matt Henry was amazing as I’ve known him for years and he set a wonderful example of how to be a leading man, and Killian Donnelly who’s playing Valjean in the Les Mis tour at the moment, I definitely learnt how to be a leading man from him. Not that I am a leading man but I learnt how one would be and how one should or could be, I think they really set an example. It was fun being an angel and getting dressed up. Having fun with all these people every night was cool and it’s a feel-good show. Jerry Mitchell’s really good at making people feel good in theatre, he directed Legally Blonde, he’s directing Pretty Woman on Broadway which will be coming next year, he choreographed Hairspray and he’s really good at keeping everything energetic and fast-paced and telling a story with humour and heart and it’s a high-heeled hit of a show. Covering Lola was amazing, it was really cool and I think it’s really helped me in my career.
What do you remember from your first professional stage role?
I was very wide-eyed, I was eighteen, I’d done five A-Levels and I’d left school. I was very lucky and went into a tour of a new show and I really enjoyed it. I remember thinking it was a lot because we were moving at one week at a time venues and I think my parents were probably like *gasps* but it’s no different to me going to university so I think it’s the fact that I wasn’t settled in one location that maybe unnerved them. It was a small cast, we were very close, it showed me that this is a possibility and this is a career path that I enjoy. It was a new musical so I was very lucky, they were making melodies to fit my voice so that was exciting and that showed me what was possible. Having that experience made me realise that I do want to lean more towards doing new work and pushing forward in that way.
I definitely would tell myself now: ‘don’t be so hard on yourself’ and ‘when you’re sick, go off’. We had no understudies so I guess it was different but there was a whole week where I was so ill but I didn’t know any better so I just powered on through. I was younger but it’s hard if you don’t have anyone saying to rest or pull it back or maybe do a little vocal line slightly down. I think had I known a little bit more, I probably would have been able to adapt a little bit better.
How was it performing at Shakespeare’s Globe?
That was cool. I’d never been there until I worked there. It’s actually surprisingly intimate, it’s all encompassed and it’s a circle, it feels a lot smaller than it actually is. One thing I would say is never underestimate the bipolarity of the British weather! It was the height of summer 2014 and it rained in the middle of shows and we’d just carry on. It would be scorching hot, people were fainting. We did Titus Andronicus which was very bloody and very graphic, one woman fainted and fell on her nose and broke it. When people were standing in the yard, there are no seats, so if you go lightheaded you’re on the floor. So that was an experience! It felt very immersive, it felt like they were part of the show. it’d be cool to work there again but I feel like I need climate change to chill out a little bit more before I go back outside hahaha!
You appeared in various TV shows last year, how different do you find filming to stage work?
I’m a big fan of Jessica Chastain and I remember she said that the only difference is that on screen a camera is your acting partner, so when you think of it like that, you’re adapting to performing to a partner in close proximity, so I don’t need to project as much or shout as much. I really learned a lot from Charlotte Riley on Press, she was so still and so steric. I don’t think of it being too different, I just think of my scene partner being a little closer, so they’re not ten feet away on stage, they’re ten centimetres away. That way I can just adapt my vocal level, gestures and my facial expressions. I’m quite gestural anyway, I use my hands a lot and I’m quite expressive so my main thing is to make sure that works well on screen. It’s something I’d love to do more of but I need to try and squeeze it around theatre jobs. It’s hard at the moment but it’s definitely something I’m really excited about doing in the future.
Can you tell us about your musical Qu4rter that workshopped at The Other Palace last year and are there plans for a full run?
Yeah, I’d love to tell you about that. I’ve been writing since I was six/seven years old. I wrote my first musical idea when I was at school at sixteen and it was about school kids. I wrote a novel at twenty-one and I’ve always been writing. It wasn’t until I was working at the National doing lots of workshops with new productions that I was really inspired to tell a musical story set in London that is very current, very real and very authentic. I started writing some themes and some scenes and some song ideas and that was June/July 2017. By October, I had a draft and I did a table-read with some friends in a room. The feedback was really helpful, really insightful and really positive. Then I approached The Other Palace in spring 2018 and they said they loved it and they’d love to put it on and do a reading and support and nurture a new musical.
I really wanted to tell a story that highlights diverse twenty-somethings, LGBTQ as well, who were really just finding their way, I think it’s really important. We look at our parents and what they were able to achieve in their twenties and it’s not relative to what we’re now able to do and it’s shifted so significantly. I feel like we need to start talking about that discussion because the expectations and the societal pressures are not the same – thirty is the new eighteen, what people are achieving at thirty is what maybe our parents have done at eighteen/nineteen. It’s important that we are shining a light on that and shining a light on this group of four friends who are just finding their way and navigating their way through London.
Some exciting developments have happened recently, there’s been a massive rewrite. It will take time and energy that’s going to take a lot of my focus. I’ve got a meeting about it this week, potentially doing a workshop in summer, going to do another table-read and there’s loads of new demos and loads of new songs. Hopefully in a year or two there’ll be something to show for it.
Did you have a say in the casting?
Yeah, I did actually. I contacted the casting associate at the National (Jacob Sparrow) and asked if they’d like to cast it and they said yes and asked who I had in mind. I wrote a role for Gabriela Garcia, a role for Jocasta Almgill and I’d written a role for Marcus Collins. I wanted to write roles for my friends to showcase their amazing talent and work and also stretch them as actors. They get to play these modern British characters, it’s great that there are so many American musicals but they’re constantly doing that and I think that’s why I love Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and I celebrate Jamie so much and Leave to Remain and all these kinds of British musicals. Not that we need to just do British musicals but it’s important that we also tell our stories as well as Heathers and Legally Blonde etc, so I wrote that and I wanted it to be diverse and authentic. Marcus played a Scouser, so he was able to bring a part of himself into it. An amazing actress called Lucie Shorthouse was in Jamie and she did the workshop and that was someone the casting director flagged up and I thought that was a wonderful suggestion. We very much worked in tandem with the director as well to collate the cast.
What are your future writing plans?
Ooh good question. I am actually in the midst of writing a TV show so I am busy with that. There are a couple of TV ideas but one of them has taken off quite well which I’m really excited about. I’m also working on an EP slowly, but that will take time.
Arun Blair-Mangat is represented by David Lazenby at Vivienne Clore http://www.vivienneclore.com
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