You wouldn’t think much could faze Russell Watson – after all, he’s performed for monarchs, Popes and presidents and worked with music icons from Luciano Pavorotti to Paul McCartney.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise when he admits taking on the role of slick lawyer Billy Flynn in the show-stopping musical Chicago was “challenging” – comparing it to jumping on a moving freight train.
“When I first came into the show it had been running for six months and was already fine-tuned so that was quite a challenge”, said Russell, who had two weeks of studio work to prepare for his first performance.
“All of a sudden you’re on stage in front of 2,800 people at the Liverpool Empire when you’ve been rehearsing in a room with three people for two weeks and there’s this massive array of dancers and so on, all moving all around – wow, it’s like a freight train.
Russell is giving his Billy Flynn a dark and sinister edge
“They run so fluidly, they know exactly where they need to be and we were coming in with very little idea, so that was quite challenging.”
But now Russell is very much part of that freight train and having fun exploring the character of Billy Flynn as Chicago prepares for its run at His Majesty’s Theatre this week, from Tuesday May 29 to Saturday April 2.
“He is the polar opposite to me – unless I’m on stage – he’s very confident, with a swagger,” said Russell, who has been hailed as one of the world’s greatest classical singers as well as a hugely successful crossover artist.
“I’ve watched various different people play different sections of the role online, before I took it on and some have made him more of a comedic and pleasant chap with a bit of a risqué side to him.
“But I saw him as very confident with the ladies, very confident in his whole demeanour, but when you peel back the layers he is a highly unpleasant character. He completely contravenes the opening song lyric – All I Care About Is Love – in fact he cares nothing for love at all. All he cares about is cash.
“I think that makes him quite a dark and sinister character and I wanted to capture some of that dark soul within him so that he’s not too likeable. But not so much that at the end of the show people are going ‘boo!’”
Simplicity of Chicago makes it a fantastic musical says Russell
As well as Russell, the show boasts a glittering cast including Coronation Street’s Faye Brooks as Roxie Hart, Three Degrees legend Sheila Ferguson as “Mama” Morton and West End star Djalenga Scott as Velma Kelly.
Russell says Aberdeen audiences are in for a treat from the classic story of murder and corruption set in the roaring 20s in Chicaco.
The slick and sultry show includes songs such as Razzle Dazzle, All That Jazz and Cell Block Tango, all with legendary choreography by Bob Fosse.
“The reason it’s so brilliant is because it’s not over-complicated,” said Russell about the show that has won Tony Awards, Oliviers and a Grammy.
“It’s the simplicity of the show and the stage set up that makes is so fantastic, combined with the brilliance of the ensemble. They are multi-talented human beings.”
It is still one of the most popular shows of all time, packing audiences in wherever it plays. So, what’s the secret of its success?
Russell said: “It’s impossible to put your finger on it and say ‘this is why’. But when something has the ability to transcend time the way this show has, you know there’s something great happening with it.
“I think it’s lasted because it’s a fantastic show, first and foremost.”
He’s no stranger to longevity himself, having been a household name for more than 22 years now. Russell won a local radio talent contest, then broke through from singing in northern men’s club to a recording and performing career that made him a global sensation.
Singing with Sir Paul McCartney made Russell go ‘whoa!’
“I wasn’t contemplating whether or not I was going to be the biggest star in the world, I was thinking I just want to progress, I don’t want to be working in clubs all my life, I maybe want to progress to doing theatres and maybe musicals.
“I wasn’t in my wildest dreams expecting the success with the first album in 2000. When it did materialise it was like a whirlwind, the most incredible and manic period of my life.”
His debut album, The Voice, was at number one in the UK charts for a record-breaking 52 weeks and also reached the top of the US charts. Dubbed the “People’s Tenor” he has performed for the Queen, the late Pope John Paul II, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and the Emperor of Japan.
Not only that, he has collaborated with artists such as Pavarotti, Meatloaf, Lionel Richie and Sean Ryder.
“I think Paul McCartney was probably the one where I went ‘whoa’,” said Russell.
“I used to sit in my bedroom with a pal of mine, we both had a couple of guitars playing Beatles covers. I would do McCartney he would do Lennon. So here I am, all these years later, on stage with Paul McCartney at the Nobel Peace Prize awards singing Let It Be at the end of the evening. It was like ‘okey-dokey’
How to get tickets for Chicago at His Majesty’s Theatre
Not that his journey has been a smooth one. He has survived two pituitary tumours in his brain, the second one leaving him in a critical condition after emergency surgery.
Back to full health, his brush with death has left him with a simple philosophy on life.
“Just be kind, more than anything. Time with family has become more important too, because it was nearly taken away.”
Now he is relishing everything life has to offer him, including the possibility of more musical roles in future. But for now he is looking forward coming to Aberdeen to perform at His Majesty’s with Chicago.
And he has a simple message for people coming to see Chicago at HMT.
“It will absolutely take you on the most incredible journey,” he said.
“It will definitely make you laugh and definitely make you open your eyes in certain places. It’s just a fabulous show.”
For more information and tickets for Chicago go to aberdeenperformingarts.com
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