Jonathan Slinger in conversation with Mel Cooper

Ihave been a fan of Jonathan Slinger’s for some time. This is mainly because I have seen several of his performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company – he played Richard II and Richard III, Fluellen in Henry IV, Macbeth and Hamlet, Malvolio and Prospero and also gave praiseworthy performances in plays in the West End such as Yes, Minister. Last year he played in the musical Urinetown; and now he has been chosen to play the iconic Willy Wonka in the new, successful musical by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics), Scott Wittman (lyrics) and David Greig (book). Jonathan took over the role on 4 May from Alex Jennings (another fine classical actor) who had himself taken it over from the originator of the role in this musical version, David Hodge.

I spoke with Jonathan on the phone recently to ask him how he was enjoying the role.

JS: I’m having a great time. I find Willy Wonka in this musical version a very exhausting role to play but it’s hugely rewarding.

MC: Do you find there’s a big difference between doing a musical and doing a Shakespeare play?

JS: In many ways I find that musicals are quite similar to Shakespeare; in the sense that they require a certain grandness, a large sized approach to perform them and also the stakes for the characters in musicals are sky high. That’s something that Shakespeare and musicals share. Shakespeare was a good education for musicals; and it was especially great preparation to then come in and play Willy Wonka who is so multi-faceted. There are so many things going on with him, so many motives and such a mixture of sub-texts. That in itself is a Shakespearean trait.

MC: But surely there must be some things that leap out as being different when you are working in a musical.

JS: There is a very different atmosphere working on a musical. People come to work with something more upbeat in some ways. When the curtain is going up there isn’t that same collective deep breath that everyone takes before a Shakespeare play. With Shakespeare we are perhaps a bit self-conscious, thinking we are about to launch for this evening some deep, profound, intellectually challenging project. With musicals, there is a different kind of mind set in the background or just pure enjoyment to the work, a real pleasure in all the aspects and skills you need. There’s an element with straight theatre and Shakespeare in particular where there’s a feeling of semi: you have to suffer a little bit to create something worthy, here, and get it right. We have to put through the ringer a bit.

MC: When you decided to take on the role of Willy Wonka in a musical, was there a great difference to the way you had to prepare the role?

JS: From my perspective I approach every single role in the same way – as with Hamlet or Richard III. Of course, once you have understood your interpretation and know what you are doing, there is the singing and dancing to learn, the technical things.  But, as I already said, there is something about the atmosphere of working on a musical that is really appealing– people come to work and enjoy themselves. With Shakespeare, you kind of feel you are about to go into battle each evening. It’s just as interesting doing a musical as it is doing the classics but in a different way; and also it’s just as challenging. With a musical, doing all three things at the same time – singing, dancing and acting simultaneously — you have to concentrate harder on stage. You are working with both sides of your brain at the same time – the emotional and intuitive acting side; but you also have to count at the some time, be aware of the beat, work within the constraints of the song or number. Shakespeare also has a rhythm but playing Shakespeare is a bit more like performing a jazz solo; you can free form around the rhythm. Doing Shakespeare each evening you can choose to pause, change an emphasis, and be freer with it. With musicals you have to hit the beat and act at the same time. And you must be careful not to throw your colleagues off rhythm by improvising too freely. I’m not the best multi-tasker at the best of times and I find that a huge challenge – because performing in a musical is multi-tasking big time. I guess that’s why I find I’m exhausted after each performance. I’m surprised by how exhausted I get.  Once I’m on that stage each performance, I’m off and running virtually non-stop; and the level of concentration on both sides of the brain is demanding.

MC: I’m interested that you find that, nevertheless, you are having a great time.

JS: No matter how hard the work and concentrating on all the elements required by the performance in a musical, the atmosphere on a musical is more joyous all in all. There is also a greater level of discipline required because of the demands of the genre. You can speak your lines in Shakespeare with a hoarse voice; you can compensate in various ways with pacing. But if you’re dancing with everyone on the stage, you have to be spot on with every step; and you can’t sing those songs with a hoarse or strained voice. So you really have to take care of yourself and pace yourself throughout the day. Sometimes that party after the show just can’t be done.

MC: I would imagine too that, as you suggested, it is far less easy to extemporise or change things. For instance, in a scene with another actor, you can play off each other differently one night to the next in a play. But in a musical you also have to stick to the notes and the rhythms and the choreography.

JS: Agreed. Far less extemporizing is possible. Even the way you speak or inflect a line has to be carefully controlled. There are cues that are triggered by certain ways you say a line so you can’t vary it too much, there isn’t the same room as in a straight play. The trade off is that there is something very uplifting about singing and dancing and doing it with the chorus or in a group. Whatever mood I’m in and once I’ve warmed up it’s very energizing. It’s why people join choirs and dancing clubs. There’s camaraderie, a sense of community. I do my own warm up in my dressing room first and then I join the group warm up – every performance. By the time you go on stage you’re cohering with the company again. The communal warm up before a show is really nice and it’s always obligatory in a musical. It’s also something I look forward to every performance. That’s very different from doing a play. Sometimes in a straight play you see your colleagues for the first time that day in a scene; literally, you walk onto the stage and that’s where you say “hello”; whereas in the musicals you’ve hung out before the curtain goes up.

MC: Having done this show and Urinetown, are there any other musicals you have developed a desire to do?

JS: I don’t really have any musical roles I long for. It’s such a new world for me. As a newcomer to it, especially from the singing point of view, certain musicals even scare me a bit because they require more of a singing ability than I believe I have.  Maybe in time, if my voice gets stronger and I also get to know more about the genre, I’ll find things I would ache to do the way I did some of the Shakespeare roles. My roles in musicals so far have been much more acting based with some singing in them and that limits what I’m suitable for, I believe.

MC: What do you think of Roald Dahl’s approach in the book? Do you find Charlie a moralistic tale?

JS: Apparently the four children who get despatched have the four qualities Roald Dahl despised most in children – firstly: watching too much TV, secondly: endlessly chewing gum; thirdly, eating too much, being a glutton; and finally stamping their feet and being prone to temper tantrums and selfishness So Dahl kind of got his own back on the four character traits he despised in children and I guess that that does mean the book is, at one level, a very moralistic story and almost an attack on bad parenting.  In fact, I think that he is much more attacking parenting and the responsibilities of parents in this book. The kids are awful but it’s because of the parents. I find this very interesting and I think it’s definitely reflected in the attitudes of Willy Wonka.  I just want to bring out as much as I can. Wonka is essentially an interesting and multi-faceted character; he has to be appealing; but he’s also quite sinister.

Remember, Wonka hasn’t come out of that factory for forty years and his only social life, the only creatures to whom he relates in all those decades, have been the umpa lumpas. Also, his work and his success tell us that Willy Wonka is a classic artistic a creative genius with all that entails. I have a song called “Second Nature” that’s all about his laying himself bare about what it is to be an artist. He sings that sometimes he dreads all the voices in his head but he’d rather be this way than be a bore. So it’s not always easy being him. He’s clearly haunted by persecuting voices. And there’s a strong poignancy about him and a melancholy.

After all, what he’s doing in this story is saying goodbye to his creation. He’s giving up, retiring. He’s kind of at the end of his career, maybe even a bit burned out. At the end of the show we’re up in the elevator with Willy and Charlie and Charlie asks, “Why do you want to give away the factory?” I’m an old man, he tells Charlie. In our show he appears as an old man to begin with. We took the idea from the Gene Wilder film where he first appears as a frail man with a stick. Gene Wilder’s idea was then people would never know what to expect from him. I’ve taken it a slight step further and my idea is that he is an old man when he first appears at the gate and that is the essence of who he is. But through force of will and Wonka Magic he transforms into his younger self for one last time to find his successor. He spends the whole show obsessed with time. In my mind that’s because come midnight he turns into his present self again and finally and forever into the old man!

The idea that he is actually 857 years old or something and has to transform into the young man to find his successor is my take on it; it gives me something to play and makes it more interesting.

MC: When you were working up all this, did the original director, Sam Mendes, rehearse you?

JS: Sam is off making James Bond! But he has the most terrific Associate Director, Katie Hewitt, and she has been the most supportive and encouraging dream of a colleague to work with. She’s totally versed in everything Sam wanted to do with the show but also able to be flexible enough to encourage me in building my own approach and interpretations.

MC: It is also a very meticulously worked out and quite spectacular show that, presumably, cannot brook too much change in the actual blocking of it, especially in the big numbers.

JS: It is indeed a very spectacular show. A director who understands film as well as theatre has built this show and he has given this musical a very filmic quality with a lot of spectacle that most people rarely get to see on a stage. People who are not regular theatregoers generally and who have seen spectacular movies won’t be disappointed. I think the show is incredibly colourful and spectacular. And that’s another reason it’s so demanding and exhausting for everyone in it. You’ve got to raise your game, come up to your top level, to be in the middle of it all.

MC: Are you a fan of Roald Dahl?

JS: I love Roald Dahl. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and saw the film as a kid  – that and James and the Giant Peach are my favourites. Re-reading the book to prepare myself for the show it was interesting to see how much I thought was in the book that I actually got from the film. The film has changed certain things. That beginning with Willy Wonka coming out of the factory as a frail man is not in the book. Actually, it’s rather a benign book; the film brought out many other layers and more darkness. These layers are in our script. The creative team kind of looked at the film as well as the book and took elements from both. I feel that with the musical they came up with a new version.

MC: How do you find working with the children?

JS: That’s another bonus of this show. We’re all having a great time working with the kids – they are all very talented, very professional, and exceptionally disciplined and hard working.

MC: Do you ever relate Willy Wonka to any of the Shakespeare or classical roles that you’ve played?

JS: Prospero in The Tempest is the closest Shakespeare character I’ve played to Willy Wonka. They have some characteristics in common. What are the facets of Willy that keep me interested? Well, he’s got to be endearing and charismatic and mysterious and sinister and dark and funny and acerbic and witty. He has a huge heart. He’s determined to find the right successor and also has something of the teacher in him educating the young. There’s another interesting thing: part of his journey in the story is that he has to learn how to be in the world again. Part of his journey is letting go of his factory, which has been his life and which he loves so much, and also letting go of the way he’s lived, letting go of the reclusive life style. He makes quite a journey and learns how to do that by allowing people in again. Every step he takes to allow people into his very private and creative world that he’s made for himself is not easy, but every step allows him to let go and grow. Our final image of him in the musical before he disappears has him asserting that there’s a time to leave the past behind you and amongst you is as good a place to hide as any. So he’s rejoining the world.

Willy Wonka’s journey is a profound one and he’s realized that he can be in the world and be with people. I guess it’s a kind of redemptive ending and, for me, a very moving one. Magical, like everything about the show!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is playing at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Jonathan Slinger can be seen in the role of Willie Wonka. The show has been seen by over 1.25 million people already and is currently booking until June 2016.