With the West End transfer of White Christmas opening at the Dominion Theatre in November, Dan Burton played one of the lead roles, Phil Davis, who he’d played at Leicester Curve the previous year. Before reprising his role in White Christmas, Dan was performing in the play The Mousetrap as Giles Ralston at St Martin’s Theatre, and amongst his many other musical theatre roles, he has played Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain, Jerry Travers in Top Hat and was nominated for an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Tulsa in Gypsy. Dan has been part of a number of original cast recordings, and in 2017, he released his debut album, Broadway Melodies, which featured a duet with his friend Lee Mead. Recently, Dan spoke to us about playing Phil Davis in White Christmas, his time in The Mousetrap and releasing his debut album.
You performed in White Christmas at both the Dominion Theatre and Curve Theatre as Phil Davis, what was this character like to play?
Phil Davis is a gift of a character! He’s cheeky, confident, and plays the loveable fool. The role requires you to be a comedic actor, delivering lots of “one liners”. I tried to put lots of physical comedy into the role (inspired by Donald O’Connor). This, contrasting with the moments when you need to play the suave, charming love interest, is a feast for any leading man. I get to portray this in the form of dance too, in moments such as The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing. Stephen Mear choreographed this in a style true to the Hollywood era. Stephen also created some wonderful, high-energy, technical Jazz and Tap numbers, which require singing at the same time. It’s exhausting, but what I believe Musical Theatre is all about and I feel absolute joy executing it!
How was it transferring the show to the West End and returning to the role?
It is always an amazing experience to transfer a show to the West End. I have been fortunate to do this on a few occasions in my career with shows like Gypsy and The Pajama Game. You get to revisit a piece that you have worked so hard on and get to try and make it even better, usually modifying and reinventing parts for a larger audience. The main thing I really worked on was playing for the size of the house. You have to make your performance bigger, whilst maintaining the realism to reach the very back and very top of the auditorium. I think my use of physical comedy really helped, I worked really hard on defining these moments. They were almost choreographed. I rehearsed them within an inch of their life! Hearing a reaction from a large audience such as the Dominion is always going to be exciting!… You know you’re doing a bad job if there is complete silence!
Can you say about playing Giles Ralston in The Mousetrap last year at St Martin’s Theatre?
Absolutely! I am a big Agatha Christie fan. It was so refreshing to do a straight play in the heart of London’s West End and becoming a part of record-breaking history, playing one of the lead roles in the longest running play/show in the world. Firstly, you are having to fill the shoes of some of the most credible actors who have performed in this play, for example, Hugh Bonneville, Sir Richard Attenborough and Patrick Stewart. Secondly, having to just concentrate solely on acting, there are no glitzy show numbers to dance or songs to sing, just one craft to concentrate and execute in an intimate environment nine shows a week! I really enjoyed learning about working without microphones. Finding the level to fill the house but without shouting, working out how to make those intimate moments still intimate but for all to hear. Diction is key and really using the support from your diaphragm, not too dissimilar to singing, so that you could sustain the vocal energy nine shows a week. Most musicals normally take around four weeks in a rehearsal room and a week of technical rehearsal. For The Mousetrap, we had two weeks to learn the show from our first script read as a company to our opening night! Terrifying, but you get so much self-reward for managing to achieve that!
What drew you to the production and how did you prepare for the role in a play opposed to a musical?
Well, being an Agatha Christie fan, when the casting came up I jumped at the chance to play Giles Ralston. It was something I definitely wanted to tick off my bucket list!
I love challenges, and in preparation I did a character study on the role, the era and the news articles at the time the play is set. This contributes to creating the world in which I would be living in for the next six months. Day-to-day life is different from musicals to plays. With musicals, you have to be onstage for a fifteen-minute physical and fifteen-minute vocal warm up, along with any creative notes to keep the show tip top all prior to the half-hour call. For The Mousetrap, there are no set scheduled warm ups, you just have to be in your dressing room by the half-hour call. However, I personally prefer to be in my dressing room an hour prior to the half, to do my own warm up, to look over notes from the previous performance, to adjust, tweak and perfect, and to say hello to all the people I will be performing with. I think working as a company is vital in any show and I would find it strange to see them for the first time in that day when I meet them on stage to act opposite!
What was it like performing in Guys and Dolls at the Royal Albert Hall?
Fantastic, it was only for three performances and when Stephen Mear rang and asked if I would be a part of it, I absolutely said yes! The show was headlined by some incredible artists, along with an ensemble of triple threat old school seasoned West End performers and some up and coming talented students from Millennium Performing Arts and Bird College. Getting to perform side by side with some old friends took me back years to my early days performing in shows like Chicago, Dirty Dancing and West Side Story. We had nine days to put on this full-scale production in one of the most beautiful theatres with a full orchestra, it was definitely a career highlight. THRILLING!
Having played Don Lockwood a couple of times in Singin’ in the Rain, what do you enjoy most about this character and production?
Growing up, Gene Kelly was an inspiration, someone who left me (and still does) in absolute awe! His strength, style, gracefulness and versatility had no bounds. Any guy who has a passion for old school Musical Theatre would jump at the chance to play a role made famous by Gene Kelly! So, of course, when I was offered the role it was like a dream come true.
This production, originally at the Théâtre du Châtelet’s 2000+ seated opera house, then re-created at the Grand Palais, both in Paris, with set design by Tim Hatley, was a feast for the eyes. Along with stunning costumes designed by the Oscar-winning Anthony Powell. I felt like a movie star wearing them.
From my early days in the chorus of West End shows, I looked up to actor Danny Crossley. He is one of the most credible triple threats we have in the industry. I have huge admiration for him. He was cast as Cosmo Brown, I was over the moon! Getting to perform side by side one of my idols, was like magic every night, in the rehearsal room creating our roles, a joy on and off the stage. I would work with Danny again in a heartbeat!
The most unique element for me was getting rained on every night. The show’s ingenious water system meant that the vast movie-sized stage filled with water, replicating in real life that famous iconic moment remembered by most. Energetically leaping and turning around a set designed in monochrome felt like I was transformed into the era and actually in the original movie! Playing this part, you are aware you have incredibly big shoes to fill, and you only hope that you can capture an essence of what the great Gene originally created. The pressure is most certainly on!
Under the fabulous conducting of Gareth Valentine with Stephen Mear’s glorious choreography, this moment in time is one I will cherish forever.
You’ve been part of a few productions in Paris, what is it like performing there and how different is it to a UK show?
For a start, they have some of the most beautiful theatres, to stand on stage looking out is breathtaking! Both at the Châtelet and Grand Palais, we had huge audiences. Jean-Luc Choplin was responsible for making musical theatre popular, in demand and almost fashionable. The French audiences embraced a taste of Broadway with open arms. They particularly loved the “Claquettes”, which means tap in french. Famous shows featuring lots of tap, such as 42nd Street and Singin’ in the Rain, were a sure hit! Seeing the joy it gave to the French audience was so wonderful. They are also shows that are very visually pleasing, a spectacle, rarely do you see companies that size in the West End. Everything was so grand! The French actually speak very good English but the theatre had electronic surtitles telling the story so that all could understand. I like how inclusive it is. Also, who wouldn’t love experiencing one of the most beautiful cities in the world!
You played Tulsa in Gypsy at Chichester Festival Theatre before transferring with the show to London’s Savoy Theatre, how was it being nominated for an Olivier Award for your portrayal of the character?
It was a massive surprise, completely unexpected! I felt so honoured. I had the opportunity to be the first Tulsa to have been allowed to perform a brand new choreographic version of the number in Gypsy’s history since the great Jerome Robbins choreographed the original version. Every actor playing Tulsa in West End and Broadway productions under the official umbrella of the right holders has had to dance, step for step, what was originally created by Robbins until our production. I’m extremely grateful to our director Jonathan Kent and choreographer Stephen Mear for making sure this could change for me. To then be nominated for such a prestigious award, I felt so proud.
How was it performing for the screened version/DVD and how did the cast prepare for the recording?
For the screened version of Gypsy, they recorded the show live in front of a full house of audiences at the Savoy Theatre, over four performances with multiple cameras in the audience capturing different angles and levels. Lonny Price, who directed the recording of the production, was adamant he didn’t want anything “rained in” for the recording, so when you watch it you see a theatrical live performance – warts and all! There were no retakes, but by doing this over four shows, as a performer you took some comfort that you had four chances to get it right, just in case, by some disaster, you made a mistake or something went wrong! I would be lying if I said, before my big scene at the end of Act One, I wasn’t waiting a little anxiously in the wings thinking of all the notes that you as a performer want to take on in regards to direction, vocal tweaks and corrections, along with any choreographic content, I wanted everything to be perfect! However, as soon as I stepped out onto the stage, I got submerged in the part and naturally everything I had worked so hard on just fell into place. I was invested and so well prepared, that’s the moment when you can then just enjoy!
What are cast albums like to be part of and can you tell us about the ones you have done?
Cast albums are so great to be a part of and to keep as a snapshot of a memory in time.
If it’s an Original Cast album, then usually the show hasn’t been finished yet and you’re shipped from a rehearsal room for the show to a recording studio and you lay your vocals down. It’s great fun! Once your cast album is released and you have a copy, it’s a great keepsake of project you have worked on.
So far I am on the Original London Cast albums of Dirty Dancing, Betty Blue Eyes, Legally Blonde, and the 2016 London Cast reveal album of Gypsy.
You’ve released your debut album – Broadway Melodies – how did this come about and do you have any future music plans?
It actually came about by my best friend Lee (Mead). He had just finished recording an album and suggested I should do one! At first I wasn’t too sure, who would want to buy it? In the end, I decided why not see it as a project for myself, I like to challenge myself, I like to experience and learn new things, if people are interested in listening, that would be just a plus! I then started working out what sort of tracks I’d like to sing and went from there… Lee also sang a duet on the album with me and we had so much fun recording it!
I was really pleased with the success of the album and have been asked to do another. Once we emerge from this crazy time and get back to some sense of normality, I will have a think in moving forward with another.
You’ve recently been part of a lockdown performance of Somewhere from West Side Story on YouTube, what was this like to do?
It was great! To be able to come together with fellow artists and try and put a smile on people’s faces in this bizarre time. I have been fortunate to perform in West Side Story in two separate contracts, once as Bernardo and then seven years later as Riff. The subject matter of the show has such relevance and meaning even in today’s world.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows of all-time?
Okay, just a few that spring to mind are Chicago, City of Angels, West Side Story, Crazy For You, Mary Poppins, Jersey Boys, Starlight Express (the first show I ever saw as a young boy!), Miss Saigon. Fosse.
How did you first get into acting, singing and dance?
I started dancing quite late at the age of fourteen. I had practised Martial Arts at a young age, so had some natural coordination, flexibility and the agile strength. I grew up watching Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Tommy Rall, Bob Fosse, Donald O’Connor and loved their musicality, how they moved, sang and acted different parts all at the same time. I had singing lessons with a local singing teacher. When my voice broke, I found I had this deep voice but I could still hit high notes, it was like I had been given a new toy to play with! I enjoyed trying to sing all different styles.
I originally come from Lincoln and went to a very small dance school (Joanne Haylock School of Dance), I was the only boy in the class for the majority of the time, like a Billy Elliot! I went to my dance classes in jazz, ballet, tap and modern and my amazing teacher got me through all my exams. Jo also sent me to a wonderful ballet teacher, Penny Lazenby, for additional ballet training, giving me a chance to make up for years I had missed out on starting so late, to make sure I was the required level to audition for professional training in London.
I went to Laine Theatre Arts on a full scholarship, and after three years, started my career in hit musical Miss Saigon.
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