Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Hardest Male roles in Musical Theatre

Being a musical theatre performer is not easy in the slightest; from the auditions to get the job in the first place, to the constant rehearsals and finally recreating an incredible performance for a paying audience night after night. This is even before you look at some of the challenges some roles might have within them; either emotionally, physically or vocally. Here at Pocket we have teamed up with our friends at and put together a list of characters we think are among some of the hardest. And don't just take our word for it; we've had help from some of our performer friends who have played the roles to give you an insight into what it was like from their perspective. 

There are so many more that could be on this list so if we've missed any, tweet us what you think should be on it! @PocketSizeBlog

Shrek in Shrek

So this role is a pretty big sing for anyone, but the reason we wanted to add this to the list is the challenge it puts onto the actor physically. The makeup and costume are a major part of the show and for any actor to have to do a whole show in those prosthetics, is incredible!

Steffan Harri (Les Miserables & Spamalot) played the role of Shrek on the most recent UK Tour of the production.

"Vocally this part asks for a high baritone - with the ability to sing top A’s comfortably. But it’s the physical aspect of this role that’s the biggest challenge. The costume weighs around 35 pounds. The pressures of the costume were often made worse in the heat of full, warm theatres, so I would often take electrolytes to sustain the correct level of salts and sugars in my body. The transformation into Shrek would take around two hours altogether. The make-up was made up of green foam prosthetics and on a two-show day, I would stay in the make-up for around 10 hours. Additional to this - the role calls for a Scottish accent which needs to be maintained throughout the show."

Rusty in Starlight Express

Although vocally this may not be the most challenging on our list, none of the other characters are on roller skates for the entirety of the show! Rusty is a big lead role in the show and it all centres around him. He has some big ballads in it and trying to control that breath after skating around, I don't know how they do it!

Adam Bailey (Taboo, The Book of Mormon & Priscilla Queen of the Desert) covered the role of Rusty in the Bochum production of the show.

"With most leading roles the challenges come in very rarely leaving the stage. There’s very little time to rest and recuperate so you need to have the vocal and physical stamina to maintain it. Add to that a pair of skates and the heaviest costume I’ve ever worn and that creates a few new challenges! Vocally Rusty is a pretty challenging sing. The actor needs to be able to give a pop-rock vocal that’s also youthful and can sustain a belt up to a top C. I still think of this amazing show and role as a huge achievement in my career!"

Galileo in We Will Rock You

This is a huge sing of a role. He has to perform the lead vocals on most of the iconic and best known Queens songs, so not only do you have to live up to that expectation you've also got to power through the entire show, having huge number after huge number.

Tim Driesen (Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages & Never Forget) played the role of Galileo in Belgium in 2011.

"Repetition was the key to success, even before I started rehearsals I would sing the songs daily to get them locked into my vocal memory. All the songs that are the hardest to sing, come back to back, right at the end of the show: We Will Rock You, We are the champions and Bohemian Rhapsody. I think I put on 5kg during the run cos I used to squirt honey straight from the bottle into my mouth, to coat my throat, right before the final part of the show. The great thing about ‘Rock You’ is that the audience gives so much energy that as a cast you can’t help but take that energy, raise it and give it right back to them. The downside of doing a vocally demanding part like this: your life IS the show: you can’t go out for a drink with the cast/friends after the show, you have to really look after yourself and take care of your voice as -especially for this musical- that’s what gets you paid."

Jean Valjean in Les Miserables

This has to be one of the most iconic characters in musical theatre. Not only is this role a big sing for the actor but it's also a challenging acting role. The show spans over so many years and the emotional journey that the actor has to undertake each performance is not an easy one.

Daniel Koek (South Pacific, Chess & West Side Story) played the role of Jean Valjean in the West End production of Les Miserables.

"Jean Valjean is nothing short of a marathon. The journey from inner turmoil to peace throughout the show is an amazing journey as an actor. Even on days when you think you’ve got nothing left, the score empowers you to tell the story once more. I loved every second of it! #onedaymore"

Trekkie Monster in Avenue Q

Although this role may not be the first to come to mind, the challenges of this role are huge. Not only the characterisation of the characters in the show (as this is a multi-role part) but also the puppetry skills involved and the physical challenge of having the puppet on one arm for the whole show.

Stephen Arden (Spamalot) played the role on the 2014 UK tour.

"This was easily the best and most difficult job I'd ever had to do. Jumping between Trekkie's gravel bass voice then the swallowed dark sound of Nicky to the bright and high pitched Bad Idea bears. It really was vocal gymnastics every night, figuring out how to pitch songs correctly with my voice being so distorted was a challenge. I think the show is more physical than people might realise bouncing your arm up and down in a weird angled Z shape takes it toll on you. Since Nicky and Trekkie are two-handed puppets they require two people to operate them so every move was choreographed so you have to learn that utter synchronicity with another actor to achieve a believable performance. It was an utter pleasure to be part of!"

Jamie New in Everybody's Talking About Jamie 

This new, contemporary show certainly has one of the most challenging male roles in it. Jamie really is the central character in it and when he's on stage, he's certainly never stationary! The energy required for this role makes it a major part for any actor and on top of the vocal and acting challenges, you have to walk in those heels!

Luke Bayer (Fiver & Yank!) was in the original West End cast before becoming the alternate to the role of Jamie.

"Jamie is a really fun role, it's demanding both vocally and physically; Vocally its extremely poppy, flipping between registers and there's a lot of movement. Learning to support your breath whilst doing all the crazy sassy movement is really hard. Walking in those heels, that are so high, is another thing! The minute you think about walking in them you'll fall over. Its also emotionally challenging, by the time it gets to the second half its a real acting part and with it being based on a real person you've got the pressure of that, keeping it true to their story. Its a really fun role but it's hugely demanding, lots to think about!"

Jekyll in Jekyll and Hyde

Not only is this two roles in one but it's also a very challenging score for any singer. The demands for this role are like no other; the singing requires two different types of vocals and the actor must adopt a double personality and be able to flip between roles within seconds. 

Martin Dickinson (Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You & The Sound of Music)  covered and played the role on the 2011 UK tour.

"There are so many aspects to the characters both physically and mentally. Having quiet time before the show was very important, like an athlete you have to gear yourself up to the start. One of the main challenges was Jekyll or Hyde was hardly ever off stage. The challenge for the actor in this role is to be able to lose yourself in the passion Dr Jekyll has in his search for the answers to his research, whilst also being able to remain refined and direct and loving as Jekyll. This role demands all colours of the spectrum and it is this which makes the role exquisite to play with. The roles belonged to Marti Pellow but taking over the roles halfway through the performance was one of my toughest challenges to date. Like going from 0 to 80 miles an hour in a heartbeat. It was thrilling to sing the score. I hope I will return to it one day."

Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris

This role, made famous by Gene Kelly in the movie, is at the top of the list of best male leading roles out there. Gene Kelly is a hard act to follow but what is required in the stage version would even make him a tad nervous. The huge dance numbers, as well as the singing and acting skills required are all standard for a musical theatre performer, but the scale of this role is on a different level.

Liam Wrate (Wicked, Follies & 42nd Street) was the Alternate Jerry Mulligan in the Original London company. 

"Rehearsing the role called upon grasping everything you’d ever learnt in all aspects of training, and more. Acting scenes, singing through the gorgeous songs by George Gershwin then the responsibility of partnering women en pointe in Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet sequences. Gene Kelly immortalised the role in the movie and the stage version is such a great part for a male musical actor. It was a real marathon, but there was a huge sense of achievement when the curtain came down on the last scene and the audience’s response was always so overwhelming."

The Genie in Aladdin

Recreating any of the most loved Disney characters is a huge challenge for any actor, let alone having to perform that role 8 times a week on the West End. With the Genie, it's so energetic and with a long number like 'Friend Like Me', it's a huge challenge to keep the energy up throughout to engage the audience. It's also the comic relief of the show, so having the performance skills to carry that takes a real pro!

Damien Winchester was a swing and understudied the role of the Genie in the West End production.

"One of the biggest challenges in playing the Genie is keeping him constantly energised. He's been trapped in his lamp for 10,000 years and is like a firework when he is finally released. So making sure you show all of his excitement and energy, as well as his emotion, is a constant thought when playing him. Another challenge is being able to show multiple facets and characters of Genie, while still being true to him. For example, in Friend Like Me, you go from Country Genie to Gameshow Genie to Salsa Genie to Tap Dancing Genie, all in the space of a few bars of music. Which is incredibly fun but definitely needs stamina! My main goals when going on for Genie are having fun, staying true to his character and giving the audience a familiar and instantly recognisable friend for the duration of the show."

Strat in Bat Out of Hell

This whole show relies on this role. Not only is it a huge sing but Strat also barely leaves the stage throughout the show. Physically, he is all over the place and it takes a lot of stamina to be able to do that. Add the fact that it's a huge acting challenge, and it's a must-have on our list.

Benjamin Purkiss (Allegro & Broken Wings) was the alternate Strat in the original production, at the Manchester Opera House and London Coliseum.

"The role of Strat taught me a lot very quickly. You need a huge awareness of your voice and also your body. It requires you to really take the time to focus on what you are doing (singing, shouting, moving) in order to recreate the same sound and vocal intensity performance after performance without burning out. It was a huge education for me. Rockstar by day, in bed by 10 at night."

Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar

One of the biggest male sings Andrew Lloyd Webber has written, I think! The vocal demands for this role are massive and the range required is crazy. Also, the acting challenges that come along with this one are big for any actor, especially the way his story comes to an end.

Ricardo Afonso played Judas at the Barbican Theatre and at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. 

"I’m living the best moment of my professional life, it’s a joy to finally be able to play the role of Judas. It’s not that it’s just one the hardest vocal scores for a male rock tenor, it’s the intensity and emotional involvement that each single note requires. Nothing can be half done, felt or sung. And it all happens in the blink of an eye, the stakes get high very quickly, so from the very beginning you need to be invested fully, like a coiled spring. Now, every so often you are surrounded by inspirational people that have similar views, work ethics and brilliantly developed talent that make you feel lucky and humbled to be a part of... That is the case with this production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I will treasure these moments forever."

Lola in Kinky Boots

Not only is this role a huge sing for any actor but they have to do it in a huge pair of heels! If you've seen the show, you'll know the journey Lola goes through in the show and it requires so much energy and presence to pull off the character, plus a sense of vulnerability and emotional heartache. Not to mention the constant costume changes and the in and out of drag!

Toyan Thomas-Browne (Me and my Girl, Guys and Dolls & Wonderland) understudied the role on the UK tour. 

"Lola isn’t just a role in musical theatre. Lola is a role model to every single person who has watched or played in Kinky Boots. Transforming into a completely different being and strapping on thin six-inch stilettos is not something you would necessarily think your average day at work would entail but my god has it been interesting, to say the least. Through getting the chance to cover and play Lola I have learnt things about myself that I didn’t even know I could do. From Lola’s extensive word vocabulary to the way Lola conducts themselves physically in a room, it is been a journey. Playing such a powerfully demanding role has been one of the hardest things I have done to date but I am so grateful that I have been given the chance to do so. It’s not been a straight forward journey and there’s been many of bumps in the road and I am still this moment learning new things about my Lola but I have enjoyed every single second. Lola isn’t just a part. Lola’s a way of life that everyone should live by. Never letting anyone tell you who you ought to be."

Leo Frank in Parade

This score is beautiful and to take on the challenge to sing it is a huge one. This role in particular has to have the balance of innocence and guilt, keeping the audience guessing throughout the piece. A massive challenge for any actor. 

Alastair Brookshaw (Caroline, Or Change, She Loves Me & Sweeney Todd) played the role of Leo Frank in the 2011 production at the Southwark Playhouse.

"The levels of tension – both physical and vocal – that Leo’s angst and neuroses require add a very specific challenge. His is a high energy nervousness, and when added to the emotional toll of being lynched every night, playing Leo Frank can feel like a mountain to climb. Ironically, though, for a role that can feel so physically demanding, another challenge is his passivity. Things are done to Leo, and things are done for him, but he never drives the action himself - arguably the only time he is truly on the front foot is in the imaginary ‘Come Up to My Office’ scene in the courtroom - which can make it tough for the actor to chart his progression as a character. All that said, Parade is such a perfectly written show that in some ways it’s an easy role. Every scene is beautifully crafted and there’s not a single line that the actor has to ‘make work’. The final picnic scene with Lucille is one of the most beautiful five minutes in musical theatre. Leo is a tough role, but also a total joy to play."

Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton

Unlike any other role on this list, this one requires a completely different skill set. This role has to rap unbelievably fast whilst also having to pull off the singing side of the role too. And he has to do a French accent! 

Waylon Jacobs (We Will Rock You, Memphis & The Lion King) was a standby in the London production, he understudied the roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.

"The challenge with Lafayette/Jefferson is the sheer amount of material you have to learn and how quickly it's delivered, also then adding a French accent in Act 1 and changing into a southern mother f***in' democratic republican for Act 2, it's a lot for the memory game, then add this rising quickly to become one of the greatest musicals of our time, multi-award winning, a cast album that's been listened to by millions. People, especially the fans of the show, know it back to front, so you have the extra pressure of not being able to slip up for a moment before you get caught out. Having said that what Lin, Alex, Tommy, Andy, and Steph have created is stunning, they have done so much of the work already they make our jobs easy, as long as we stay truthful to what the material they created, it flows easily, the details are all in there, it sits in the body and just feels right. It's a gift to have been given this opportunity and when I'm under the weather, feeling down or tired, the show lifts you and I will always treasure that."

George in Sunday in the Park with George

We all know Stephen Sondheim's music is not the easiest to perform, so any role of his is going to be a challenge for an actor. With this role, the actor needs to portray the emotionally closed-off painter without alienating the audience. He really carries the show and can make or break it. 

Philip Quast (Follies, Les Miserables & Evita) was the original George in the West End production in 1990.

"I can’t read music so the dots drove me nuts. And, alas, I’m one of those sad people who clap in 1& 3 so the syncopated stuff turned me into a grandad dancing. But Steve (Sondheim), when he came on numerous occasions, quietly showed me how it was all written in speech patterns. Once I understood that - how American speech patterns are different to the English- it dropped into place. Every role I’ve played since, be it plays or film or musicals, has been influenced by what the work taught me and still teaches me. It is so packed with intellectual rigour and heart. I’ve attempted to ‘connect’ and join the dots ever since, to keep moving on, and to remind myself that process and ‘the doing’ is all. Once you sit back and admire your work you can kiss your arse goodbye."

Honourable mentions! 

Some other roles we couldn't fit on our list! Let us know your thoughts on Twitter on what roles should be included too! Maybe we'll do a part 2...

Emcee in Cabaret, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Bobby in Company, Charlie in Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot in Billy Elliot, Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me if you Can and Evan in Dear Evan Hanson.
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