With The Book Thief open at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, Obioma Ugoala is playing the Narrator in the new musical adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel. The Book Thief runs until 16th September in Coventry before heading to Leicester Curve on the 29th of this month, and it has music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, and the script is written by Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald. Recently, Obioma has finished his role of Bartholomew in Hamnet at Stratford-upon-Avon, and prior to this, he played Kristoff in the original West End cast of FROZEN the Musical, originated the role of George Washington in the London production of Hamilton and played Smokey Robinson in Motown in the West End. Alongside acting, Obioma is a writer and released his first book last year. We spoke to Obioma about what it’s like playing the Narrator in The Book Thief, his time in the musical so far and originating the roles of Kristoff in FROZEN the Musical and George Washington in Hamilton in London.
Can you tell us about The Book Thief and how is it being part of the new musical adaptation?
The Book Thief is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak about a young girl living in 1940s Germany. With Lotte Wakeham directing, we have the privilege to work on this show that is both intensely personal and political set to a gorgeous score with fantastic choreography. What is there not to love?
You are performing as the Narrator, what is this role like to take on and how has it been rehearsing for the character?
Our writers Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald are wonderfully collaborative and thorough so it’s been a robust process of navigating what is the best way to tell this story. It is a time that is very close to a lot of people’s family history so there is a privilege and a responsibility to honour that and do it justice.
Was there anything that drew you to The Book Thief and how much did you know about the story before booking the role?
Like millions of others, I had read the book years ago. But in a climate of rising anti-semitism and scapegoating certain marginalised communities I felt drawn to this piece and what the writers had done with it in a really rare sense. Sometimes you are lucky enough to have the work you want to create line up with the joy of working with tremendously talented people.
What was it like hearing Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson’s music and reading Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald’s script for the first time?
Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson are geniuses. I cannot wait for people to hear this score. It’s genuinely special. I was about 1/4 of the way through reading the script when I told my agent that I had to do this show.
What are you looking forward to most for performing with the show at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and Leicester Curve?
Everyone knows Coventry’s history with World War 2 and so it feels very fitting to be bringing this show to this venue. And speaking of good matches, with the Curve’s history of stunning musicals, we feel lucky to be a part of that tapestry.
Who do you think will enjoy watching The Book Thief and why would you recommend booking tickets?
There are lots of Easter eggs for those who have read the book for sure. But for anybody who hasn’t and just enjoys delicate but somehow epic theatre with soaring melodies and inventive choreo, The Book Thief will be a wonderful night at the theatre.
You have recently finished performing as Bartholomew in the stage premiere of Hamnet at Stratford-upon-Avon, how was this?
What is it with me and book adaptations?!? No, it was amazing. To bring that show to the home of Shakespeare was a privilege and it’s a challenge and a joy to bring these stories to a new, different audience like we are with The Book Thief.
What was it like playing Kristoff in the original West End cast of FROZEN the Musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane and how was it working on a Disney stage production?
I think for a lot of people, Disney is their first theatrical experience. Growing up as a boy of mixed heritage, I didn’t think I would ever play a Disney love interest. So to be on THAT stage in THAT theatre? I would pinch myself every night. Our audiences would be made of kids from eight to 88 and it was heart-warming to see grandparents and grandchildren enjoying it just the same. It’s the magic of theatre.
You also originated the role of George Washington in Hamilton in the West End, what are some of your favourite memories from performing with the show in London?
We had the privilege of doing an educational show whilst performing in Hamilton. It felt really important that this story about rich, genocidal slave owners had some context and wasn’t just lost in intricate rap, emotive orchestration and creative direction. Being able to provide the opportunity for people from marginalised backgrounds to see themselves represented on that stage was an important part of the legacy of that original cast and I’m so glad that those educational performances are still continuing to this day.
How was your time playing Smokey Robinson in Motown the Musical in the West End?
I grew up on Motown music so to be able to step into those rather large shoes was a real blessing. We’d be dancing in the wings and rooting each other on every time we performed. It was a real family feeling.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I think I’ve always been obsessed with how humans think and act and react. By our nature, humans are social creatures. So to be able to tell stories, whether that is in my writing or in the shows I can be a part of, I love exploring the human experience through storytelling. That started from being in the church choir when I was younger and then watching my older brother in school plays (and thinking my older brother was very cool as any younger brother does) I just wanted to do that. And I’ve been lucky enough to have somehow made a career out of it.
You released your first book last year, what was it like to write and how did you feel seeing it be published?
Entirely surreal. But also I am very glad that it’s out there. I think we need to have an urgent conversation about masculinity and how we raise the next generation to move through the world. Nobody wants their child to make anyone else’s child feel small, lesser or diminished. But by the time they are 18, 97% of women have been sexually harassed. How can we have an honest conversation that stops that and creates a safer Britain for us all?
How do you like to spend your free time?
Is it too cliché to say reading books and watching films? I love the cinema. Both alone and with people. But away from that, the time to cook a nice meal and explore in the kitchen is probably my great joy.
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