This week we went down to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to catch up with the West End's newest Willy Wonka, Jonathan Slinger, to find out how he's settling into the famous chocolatier's shoes in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - The Musical.
Read on to find out what is involved during a top level audition for a West End musical, as well as examining the challenges of reinterpreting such an iconic character of stage and screen. What are Jonathan's memories of cult musical 'Urinetown'? What does he hope will be the next big Roald Dahl stage adaptation and has this Willy Wonka actually got a sweet tooth for chocolate in real life?
Hayden Thomas: So Jonathan, you're two weeks into your run in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now. How's it all going?
Jonathan Slinger: Yeah it's going really well, thank you. I'm having an absolute ball with it. It's absolutely exhausting. Musicals I think, in general, are a new thing for me. When I did my first one - I've only done two now - the first one I did was Urinetown last year and I couldn't work out why I was so exhausted the whole time. Somebody pointed out to me that with musicals, you're using both sides of your brain at the same time. So you have your left hand feminine, intuitive, emotive side, which is the acting side, but you've also got to have this metronome going at the same time - having to count beats and count rhythms - and that's the other side of your brain. That's not something I'm used to doing at all.
HT: Does that get easier with time?
JS: Yeah I think you just get better at it. It's like with anything, with practice you just get better. I look around me at the people I'm working with who have done a lot more musical theatre than I have and it's something that they can just do now. So hopefully, over time it will get easier, yes.
HT: Can you tell us a bit about your audition process?
JS: Well, I was quite fortunate really. I got an email saying that Sam Mendes would like me to consider the part. I was in Australia at the time, so I had to come back. I said to them that I couldn't make any decisions about it until I have seen the show and then I would know whether or not I would like to do it. And they were fine with that. So I got back one and a half weeks later and saw the show and decided it was something that I would be interested in. Then I met up with Nicholas Skilbeck, who is the original music director of the show. We spent about forty minutes together and he said: "Look, I've just been sent to see you to find out whether or not you can sing it." So we banged through a couple of the numbers and that was it really. I then had a brief meeting with the associate director - Sam Mendes' right-hand woman - who is a very talented girl called Kate Hewitt, and we just had a brief chat. I think she just wanted to check that what I wanted to do with it wasn't wildly, massively different to what had been done previously. (Laughs) I didn't want to "black up" or do something deeply politically incorrect. And that was it. But I asked some of the members of the cast and some of the ensemble members have done nine to twelve rounds of auditions for the show!
HT: So when you saw it, did you think it might be a real challenge to put your own stamp on such an iconic character, following on from such acclaimed screen and stage interpretations by Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp, Douglas Hodge and Alex Jennings?
JS: It is a challenge, yes. Because he's so difficult to pin down as a character, because he's so multifaceted and there are so many layers to him, there are so many different ways of playing him. So actually you can kind of do anything with him really. In a way, I felt I could start again a little bit and have my own ideas. Fortunately the creative team here were very openminded about what I wanted to do with it within the constraints, obviously, of the structure of the show. I couldn't just decide to completely change the blocking in a scene. I mean, I did change bits of blocking here and there, but it had to be very delicately done because any decision made is going to have a knock-on impact everywhere else - with all the other cast members, with lighting etc. So it was quite delicate. But within the structure that was already there, people were very openminded about things I wanted to do with my take on him and were constantly asking me: "Who do you want your Willy Wonka to be?"
HT: So there was no "Douglas used to do this..." or "Alex used to do that..." going on?
JS: I don't think I ever heard that... Well, maybe a couple of times somebody said: "Alex used to do this," but they were always very quick to follow that with: "But you can do whatever you want," or "You can come up with your own version of that. We're just letting you know what has happened before." So I really appreciated that level of collaboration. It makes my job that much more enjoyable.
HT: Now you mentioned it earlier in the interview, but the last time I saw you on stage was as Officer Lockstock in 'Urinetown.' It was actually one of my favourite shows I saw last year and I was so surprised when it wasn't recognised at all at this year's Olivier Awards. How was the whole 'Urinetown' experience for you?
JS: It was fantastic! I had a brilliant time! It was an amazing cast. Jamie (Lloyd) was great to work with. I loved the show. I absolutely loved it! As a complete piece of theatre, it is one of the best things I've ever done and I was very, very proud of it. I think we were all a bit surprised really that it didn't do better than it did. It had an amazing run for four years on Broadway. We all assumed it would run here too. We went down a slightly darker route with it than the Broadway production had, but we thought that would appeal to London audiences more. The received wisdom, I think, was that it was the title that put people off. It meant it was difficult to get people through the door because the people that DID come through the door absolutely loved it - like yourself. I met several people at the stage door afterwards who said that they would never have come, if their friend of relative hadn't dragged them along because they were just put off by the title. But once they had been, they all said: "I'm so glad I've been." I think it was a 'Marmite' title and in the end, it was just getting people through those doors that proved to be too difficult.
HT: Just a few quick-fire questions now to round up the interview, Jonathan. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - along with C.S. Lewis' 'The Chronicles of Narnia' - were my favourite childhood books. What were yours?
JS: I would say either Charlie or 'James and the Giant Peach.' I loved that one as well. Apart from Dahl's work, I'd say 'Charlotte's Web.'
HT: And your favourite chocolate bar?
JS: I don't have a massively sweet tooth...
HT: You're in the wrong show, aren't you!
JS: I know! (Laughs) There is literally chocolate lying around everywhere here! There is a tin in the Stage Manager's office that you can raid all the time! I'm glad actually that I don't have a sweet tooth because I'd be fat as a house, if I did, working here! But what chocolate do I like? You know that thing you get where there's shortbread covered in caramel and then covered in chocolate?
HT: Ooh yes! That's quite posh chocolate, isn't it!
JS: Yes! It is quite posh. There's a place around the corner from here that does it and if I was gonna buy chocolate, that's what I'd buy.
HT: And if you could have one Golden Ticket to any event in the world, what would it be?
JS: Burning Man... It's a festival in Arizona. It's music and arts, but it's right in the middle of the desert. They create their own city called Black Rock City. Basically, it's Glastonbury in the middle of the desert in Arizona.
HT: And finally, perhaps you've already hinted at this, but apart from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, what would your dream Roald Dahl West End stage adaptation be?
JS: Yeah - James and the Giant Peach, without question. That would be amazing to see on stage!
HT: Obviously not wanting to oversaturate the market, but do you think James might be on its way after Matilda and Charlie?
JS: Yeah I think it's possible. It's eminently doable. Difficult, perhaps. But it would be amazing!