With & Juliet opening at Manchester Opera House in 2019, Arun Blair-Mangat was cast in the role of May and transferred with the show when it opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End, which led to him recording the Original Cast Album. Arun was continuing his role of May in & Juliet until COVID closed theatres around the world but he has recently announced that he will not be returning to the musical when it reopens later this year. At the 2020 Black British Theatre Awards, Arun was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical and LGBTQ+ Champion and, this year, he has been involved in three workshops for new productions. As a writer, Arun is currently adapting his stage musical QU4RTER into a musical feature film and is continuously working on other projects. Talking to us, Arun answers our questions about playing May in & Juliet, being nominated at the Black British Theatre Awards and turning QU4RTER into a musical feature film.
Before the pandemic, you were playing May in & Juliet, what is the show like to be part of and what is May like to play?
The show is electric. Getting to perform Max Martin songs reimagined in the context of a pop-Shakespeare hybrid was a lot of fun! Playing May was not only a wonderful experience but it felt really special. It was amazing to be able to illuminate their journey and represent a part of the queer community that isn’t often explored in mainstream musicals.
How was it opening in Manchester and then transferring to the West End at Shaftesbury Theatre?
I loved Manchester and I think it was the perfect place for our out of town tryout. The Opera House is an incredible venue and because it’s so huge, by the time we moved into the Shaftesbury, it actually felt strangely intimate performing to the houses there.
Can you tell us about being involved with the Original West End Cast recording?
Getting to make an OG cast recording with Bill Sherman, Dominic Fallacaro and the legendary Max Martin was the stuff of dreams. IN THE HEIGHTS was one of the first musicals I really got into so working with Bill was incredible. He’s hilarious and such a talent. Dom is a genius! And then Max… well, that was magical. I recorded my solo on a Monday morning (after I had been at a wedding all weekend) but I would record at any time if it means working with him. And we also had the icon that is Felicia Culotta in studio too who just provided all the positive vibes!
At last year’s Black British Theatre Awards, you were nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical and LGBTQ+ Champion, how did this feel and what was it like attending the ceremony?
I’m always very appreciative to be acknowledged for my efforts but I’ve learnt that actually the work, and getting to do good work is the reward. That being said, being recognised by YOUR community means so much more than being validated by a panel of people who often only celebrate what’s fashionable. I’m so glad that we have the BBTAs and, to be honest, we really need them. We can’t keep waiting to be seen. We need to see and celebrate ourselves.
You’ve announced you won’t be returning to the role of May, what are some of your favourite memories from your time in the musical and what will you miss most about being in the cast?
To be honest, the very first reading/workshop back in 2017 was unforgettable. I honestly remember being hooked as I turned the page… waiting to find out what was going to happen next. And when I read May’s story, I was captivated. The way David West Read chose to repurpose NOT A GIRL to convey a gender identity storyline immediately had me enthralled and eager to be a part of the show. I think I’ll miss hearing the band live. I used to go and stand in the pit when I wasn’t on stage and get lost in the intricacies of the orchestrations. That, and the backstage banter with the company!
What was it like doing the workshop and the rehearsed reading of Murder at the Gates?
I’ve loved Steven Sater since Spring Awakening so getting the chance to collaborate with him, James Bourne and Jonathan O’Boyle was awesome. It also reunited me with Evie Hoskins (who read Juliet in the workshop of &J) and now she’s a very dear friend of mine.
You’ve done three workshops this year, are you able to say about any of them and what do you enjoy about workshopping new material?
Creating new work is when and where I am my happiest. Being able to collaborate with creatives is when I come alive and I feel hugely passionate about telling new, exciting, inclusive and innovative stories. I can’t say too much right now, but there are some great productions in the works and whether I’m a part of them or not, they’re going to be fantastic!
We understand you’re developing your stage show QU4RTER into a musical feature film, can you say more about this and how is it going?
It’s evolved so much… in fact, it’s almost a completely different show, haha! But that excites me more than anything. Writing is rewriting and this past year of stillness has encouraged me to be braver and more vulnerable with my art.
What’s it like seeing actors perform your work and how have you found the experience working on the screen adaptation?
I’m always in awe of people who can take text and elevate it in new and wonderful ways. I’m yet to hear the latest draft of my screenplay aloud but I look forward to getting some of my mates in a room and doing a read/sing through.
Was there anything that inspired you to start writing scripts and can you tell us if you are working on anything other than QU4RTER?
I’ve been writing since I was seven years old – I actually remember the first song that I wrote at that age and it still slaps! I’m working on A LOT of projects at the moment and hopefully will be able to share more about them soon.
Do you have any favourite theatre and TV shows or films to watch, and which would you recommend?
I love Spanish TV; VENENO is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, Elite is good fun, Casa de Papel (Money Heist) is excellent… I think TV is truly incredible right now and we’re inundated with shows and content. The Formula 1: Drive to Survive docuseries on Netflix is also a must-see.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I write for pleasure and release, as well as for work. I enjoy getting lost in a novel and cooking whilst listening to podcasts! I desperately need a holiday so can’t wait to travel again when it’s safe to.
How have you been keeping busy during lockdown?
Oh gosh… my family joke that I haven’t really stopped during this period. I’ve been doing voiceover work, teaching online, writing, writing, writing… I’ve taken a step back from musical theatre and am focusing on my own art. But I’ll always sing. In fact, I think I’m finally going to put out some original music this year!!
What are you hoping 2021 brings for your career and what are you looking forward to for when the industry returns fully?
Career-wise I want to keep enjoying creation. And I’m not looking for instant gratification. I am happy to slowly work away and build something. Life is about growth, community and HEALTH! The industry needs to realise that health; mental and physical, is what matters. Everything else is a bonus. My perspective shifted a lot this year and I hope the industry’s does too.
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