From finally getting to visit Aberdeen’s Maritime Museum, to treading the boards as a Broadway producer, Jason Manford’s forthcoming tour is a dream come true, writes Andrew Youngson
When it was announced recently that Jason Manford was set to appear in a UK tour of Mel Brooks’s The Producers, I presumed he was going to be playing the role of bombastic swindler Max Bialystock.
Sure, the 33-year-old Manc comedian is too young and too thin to play the part made most famous by Zero Mostel and then Nathan Lane in the film versions of the show, but he certainly has the comedy chops to do it justice.
But no, it’s the role of excruciatingly nervous accountant Leo Bloom that Jason will inhabit when the tour heads for Aberdeen next June.
“It’s great playing somebody that’s so far away from your character,” Jason told me, not long before he was due to don his tap shoes for an early rehearsal for one of the show’s intricate dance routines.
“I mean, Max Bialystock is a great part – he’s always wisecracking, with great lines done with that sort of New York Jewish humour. But that’s quite close to a stand-up as it is. So playing someone that’s different from you is great. And anyway, Leo has all the best songs – apart from Springtime for Hitler, of course. And he also gets to change. He’s the only character that’s on a journey. He changes from this studious accountant to a producer on Broadway.”
Known most for his stand-up and appearances on TV in the likes of 8 out of 10 Cats, Jason has surprised audiences with his theatrical skills in recent years. Since publicly expressing an interest in treading the boards five years ago on the Jonathan Ross Show, he has sung live in concert, on TV, and most recently combined those skills with his mean acting ability in a west-end production of Sweeney Todd.
So what drew him to the tour of The Producers, I asked?
“I know it’s a cliche, but it’s a dream come true. When I did Sweeney Todd, I just thought ‘it doesn’t get any better than that’. I had been a offered a couple of other shows, but nothing amazing, so I didn’t know where to go when you’ve done the best. And then this came up. By a complete coincidence, they were talking about running it when I had a gap in the diary. It just all made sense and seemed all too good to be true. It still feels like that,” he said.
A massive fan of the film and stage adaptations of The Producers, Jason has seen some major stars perform in the musical since it launched on stage in 2001, including Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Peter Kay and John Gordon Sinclair. While all were fantastic in their respective roles, he believes that “the star is the show”. The musical is as outrageously hilarious as the original 1968 film, which follows the story of Max and Leo who come together to produce the worst musical on Broadway – Springtime for Hitler – in a twisted plan to escape to Rio with the proceeds.
With the addition of fantastic songs such as I Wanna Be a Producer, Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop and, of course, Springtime for Hitler, the show is widely considered to be Mel Brooks’s magnum opus.
And while Jason’s slightly nervous of the tap dancing which comes with those massive musical numbers, he can’t wait to wrap his vocal cords around the tunes.
“That’s the best part about the Leo Bloom songs – they’re an excuse to do those old Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that you don’t often get to do because people are a bit savvy now. And because you do them ironically, you get to add in those little warbles that you don’t get to do any more because everyone sings so earnest and normal.”
Although he hasn’t started the tour yet, Jason’s love of musical theatre is already setting his mind spinning on to future roles and productions he might want to move on to. So what’s on his wish list of roles, I wondered?
“I was speaking about this the other day, actually,” he said thoughtfully.
“As a comic, part of me feels a little restricted to only doing comedy parts, but after doing Sweeney Todd and now this, it makes me wonder what else I can do. And when my dad asked me this question the other day, I said: ‘I’d love to play Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. How good would that be?’ And my Dad said: ‘At the end of the day, Frank Spencer was the Phantom of the Opera. So if Michael Crawford can make that change, then anything’s possible.’”
In the meantime, though, Jason has a UK tour to attend to in the squeaky-clean shoes of nervous Nelly Leo Bloom. It’s a different format of touring from his usual stand-up, so he’s looking forward to being able to spend a bit more quality time in each city he visits. For example, he was in Aberdeen recently for the Press and Journal’s Energy Ball, but it was a fly in/fly out engagement. When June hits, he’ll be able to take in all the sights. Top of his list? Er, the Maritime Museum, it seems.
“What will be nice is that I’ll have my family with me for a lot of it. We’ll be a bit like the von Trapps that way. So it’ll be nice to explore cities in a lot more depth than I do on tour, because I often only come up for two nights at the most,” he explained.
“And I’ve always included Aberdeen on a tour, as far away as it is, because it’s always a fun night. There’s certainly an appreciation from the audience, kind of an ‘aw, thanks for coming all the way up here’, sort of thing. And I do like a good maritime museum, and I know they’ve got a good one in Aberdeen.”
The Producers, starring Jason Manford, will be performed at HM Theatre, Aberdeen, from Monday, June 22, to Saturday, June 27. Show times are 7.30pm, Monday to Saturday, with matinees at 2pm on Thursday and 2.30pm on Saturday. Tickets are available from www.aberdeenperformingarts.com or by calling 01224 641122. Other cast announcements are still to be made, although comedian Ross Noble has just been confirmed for the tour, taking the role of Franz Liebkind.