For his professional and West End debut, Jake Halsey-Jones was cast as Swing in Hamilton in the West End, also covering the role of Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens/Philip Hamilton until theatres closed due to the pandemic, and he is set to rejoin the musical when it reopens in August at the Victoria Palace Theatre. While theatres were closed, Jake was involved in a number of projects including 42 Balloons, World’s Apart, Untapped Understudies and Soft Sessions: Live in Concert, and with the industry now reopening, he most recently played Tommy in the world premiere of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Shaftesbury Theatre for a limited West End run. Talking with us, Jake tells us about making his West End debut in Hamilton, playing Tommy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and what he’s been up to while theatres have been closed.
How did it feel booking your professional and West End debut as Swing and covering Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens/Philip Hamilton in Hamilton and what were the roles like to learn?
Booking Hamilton was honestly a dream come true. It came at a time when I was feeling particularly low and was struggling to stay positive with auditions. Nothing seemed to be going my way but when my agent called me it honestly felt like the biggest weight had been lifted off my shoulders and a new, exciting chapter could finally begin – a week later I started rehearsals and my life changed massively.
Learning the show was a rollercoaster. Walking into a room full of people I’d admired for years and trying to stay focused on my job was a challenge I’ll admit. I had to get rid of the excited kid in a sweet shop attitude and learn how to be professional really quickly, all whilst actually learning so much demanding music and choreography every single day. When it came to learning the Hamilton and John Laurens tracks, I just had to constantly remind myself to have fun; it’s very easy to forget why you love performing when you’re taking on such iconic roles at the earliest stages of your career. I felt such pressure to always get things right and to not ask too many questions; looking back now having been in the industry for a few years I wish I could’ve told myself that messing up is okay and that asking questions is a vital part of doing a good job. The sheer amount of detailed information we have to take in in order to learn this show is staggering and really challenged my brain capacity and organisation skills. It almost felt like I was in drama school doing a swing project, so actually I was really thankful for the experience and training that it gave me.
What do you remember most from your debut performance on stage?
I remember the moment I got the call to say I was going on so clearly, I’d been so excited and hadn’t felt too much fear or anxiety about it, to be honest. However, I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for the nerves I felt leading up to the actual show. I was emotional about the journey I’d been on in the year leading up to that moment, having left drama school, moved back home and almost given up completely, then eventually re-discovering my love for performing and being cast in this incredible show as my first job. Suddenly you’re in the wings waiting to perform in the most talked about show on the planet and you just have to try and get through it and not get overwhelmed. The actual show felt like a bit of a blur, to be honest, you don’t have a moment to rest or think and before you know it it’s over. I think after that first experience the shows became so much more enjoyable, once you’re comfortable in each role you learn to enjoy it so much more.
Had you seen the show before booking the role and what have you enjoyed most about being in the cast?
I got to see it once with my family the year before I booked it. As a huge fan of the show, it’s just been amazing to be a part of its history, I’ll always be so proud of that. But the cast… what an incredible group of people they are. It’s so rare to walk into such a diverse room; every colour, race, religion and gender instantly welcome and loved. For me, the most enjoyable part of being part of the cast is just the unity; the show doesn’t work without every single person being supportive of each other; it just means that every day I’m surrounded by people where I feel I can be myself, make mistakes, be celebrated, and LEARN.
Having continued in the show until theatres closed due to the pandemic, do you have any stand-out moments or highlights you can tell us about?
The highlight of the pre-COVID run of the show was definitely making my debut as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton. I never thought I’d have the chance to play a leading role in a professional show, let alone a West End show and definitely not in one of my dream shows. I loved that moment so much and I’ll always cherish it. I had so many friends and family in and it just felt like a huge step for me; seeing how proud everyone was is something I’ll carry with me in whatever projects I get to do after Hamilton.
You’ve recently played Tommy in the world premiere of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at Shaftesbury Theatre, what did you enjoy most about performing in the musical and how did the shows go?
Being a part of any new show is super exciting, especially a world premiere of a completely new piece of writing. I was lucky enough to be cast in a really fun role amongst a cast of really lovely, hard-working people which made a really challenging process an absolute pleasure. When I look back on the short time we had on that show I just feel immense pride for what we created in such unusual and difficult circumstances. I also managed to tick off one of my goals on the career bucket list which was to originate a role in a new show!
Can you tell us about performing in Untapped Understudies and what was it like to be part of?
I think any show or concert that celebrates understudies deserves a huge pat on the back, it’s such a hard job so being part of something that recognises that was always going to be incredible. The concert itself was a dream, I got to perform alongside and watch such great people. It was also a step in the direction of theatres reopening which just felt hugely exciting.
How was it performing in Soft Sessions: Live in Concert and having it streamed online?
Harrison and Pamela who run Soft Sound deserve all the praise in the world. They originally approached me about being featured in Episode 2 of their original run of Soft Sessions, and during that filming process I learned what amazing, hard-working humans they were and I honestly had the best time. So when they asked me to be involved in Soft Sessions: Live in Concert, it was a no-brainer, and just like my experience with them before, it was a joy. The entire premise of the concert was that it was our direction and our ideas, this is such a rarity in our industry so it was honestly a treat to be able to be creative and put something together that each performer was super proud of.
What is it like being involved with the concept album For Tonight?
I just feel luckier and luckier each time I’m asked to be involved in new projects. For Tonight is another piece of new writing from the mind of Spencer Williams, who has created a truly unique score. Again, it’s an amazing cast and I was so grateful to be included in that! Due to COVID, we actually had to record at home, so now I’m just super excited to hear the final product once it’s been mixed!
Last year, you worked on 42 Balloons, can you say more about this?
This one was so much fun. It was actually the first job I’d gotten since the pandemic hit in March so I felt unbelievably fortunate to have even been asked. Once I’d heard the songs I was hooked, even the demos sounded incredible so I couldn’t wait to put my own spin on it. You could tell that everyone involved was just so proud to be doing something creative again after such a difficult time and I was no different. The track that I feature most heavily on, 42 Balloons and a Lawn Chair, was released earlier this year alongside footage of us recording it and it sounds phenomenal; there’s something really special about being involved in the first glimpse of what will hopefully be a successful musical one day.
You also workshopped World’s Apart last year as Dylan, what was this like to do?
Man, this was the best thing ever, Paul Schofield and Matt Cavendish have created something really special… Workshops can be really tough, they are really tiring and a whole lot of work but when you’re working on material that is as good as this it’s impossible not to love it. I honestly think this show is going to be massive, from the first moment they played us the demos (which literally sound like the best cast recording ever already), we knew we were working on something that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. As a character, Dylan was a pleasure to work on. When you get an opportunity to really play with new ideas with no fear of looking stupid, I think that’s where you create your best stuff. Alongside the writers and creatives, we were lucky enough to have an insane cast, it just felt like a melting pot of brilliant minds and ridiculous talent. I’ve been lucky enough to be a small part in a show which has a massive future and I can’t wait to see where it ends up.
With Vivo D’arte, you’ve played Melchior in Spring Awakening and Riff in West Side Story, can you tell us about them?
Vivo D’arte creates some really unforgettable shows. We put on both shows at the world’s oldest paper mill, Frogmore Paper Mill, which just adds so much atmosphere and an entirely different feel to shows that people know and love. Putting on shows at the Mill is unlike any experience you’ll ever have, it’s FREEZING, which is a genuine challenge, it also forces you to work unconventionally and just make things work. Dan Cowtan, the founder of the company, is literally the master of this and I’m so lucky to have been able to work with him. Luckily, both shows I got to work on were gritty, dark and perfect for a run-down old space. This company manages to attract incredible performers from all over the country so I was just really grateful to be involved and enjoyed every minute of it.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and are there any you’d like to see but haven’t done so as yet?
I’m a self-confessed Lin-Manuel Miranda superfan. I loved In The Heights so much when it was at the King’s Cross Theatre and obviously Hamilton before I knew I’d be part of the show’s journey. My absolute favourite show of all time has to be Parade though; I managed to see it at the Hope Mill Theatre just after it had opened and it blew my mind, I guess I like stories which have a darker nature to them; The Wild Party being another. Even though it’s come to the West End, I’ve never had the chance to see Dear Evan Hansen so I have to try and make that happen this year!
Where does your love of acting come from and had you always wanted to train at ArtsEd?
I didn’t really know I loved performing and entertaining people until my primary school leavers assembly… I dressed myself up as Freddie Mercury in Queen’s music video of I Want To Break Free and performed the song. I remember just loving making people laugh, then at the end people were telling me I actually had a decent voice and it just snowballed from there really. Despite this, I actually wanted to play rugby ever since I was a kid but I got injured and had to stop playing, this left a gap for a new hobby… One of my best friends just told me to come with him to a local musical theatre group called MYCO or The Musical Youth Company of Oxford. I sat in on one rehearsal and I just loved it and could see that there was a real tight bond between everyone there. To this day, some of my closest friends I have are from my time at MYCO. When it came to training, I definitely went into it all a little naively. I didn’t do much research into which drama school would suit me best, or even if drama school was the right route for me to go down. I tried studying at both GSA and ArtsEd but neither felt fulfilling for me and actually made me lose my love for performing; it was only after I’d had time away to really think about what I wanted to do that I thought about giving it another go. My biggest advice to people wanting to go into this industry is to retain your love for your craft and to remember why you went into it in the first place.
How does it feel having the industry now reopening?
It’s just a huge relief. It’s been about sixteen months since Hamilton closed but that felt so much longer. We’re still not completely out of the woods but hopefully theatre will be back bigger and better than ever soon. I’m just gassed to get back on the Victoria Palace stage in front of our incredible audiences.
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