Louise Dearman (Wicked, Cats, Evita) and Mark Evans (Ghost, The Book of Mormon) are two of the biggest musical-theatre stars working today. As they launch their new book Secrets of Stage Success – answering all your questions on how to follow in their footsteps – they recall some key moments in their glittering careers…
I remember exactly how I felt the moment I was about to step foot on stage for the first live show of Eurovision: Your Country Needs You back in 2009. This was a reality TV programme on primetime BBC One, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and the BBC were searching for the UK’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow later that year. I had gone through the audition process, and was offered a place in the final six acts that would perform live on television. Eurovision has a bit of a stigma attached to it, and the UK had experienced many years of doing very badly in the contest, so my agent and I had to consider if performing on the programme would be a wise move for me. We decided that no matter what the outcome, getting the national exposure on TV was a great opportunity – providing I did a good job on every live show.
So I really felt the pressure before the first Saturday night broadcast. I still clearly remember it was 10 January 2009, and a lot of my family had come down to the studio in London to support me. The atmosphere backstage was so tense, it would have been so easy to let the pressure get to me. I was standing with the other five acts backstage, and could hear the floor manager counting down: ‘Going live in 5, 4, 3, 2… here we go.’ Presenter Graham Norton’s voice boomed around the studio with a pre-recorded introduction, whilst the monitors, which showed what was being broadcast to the TV audience across the UK, played a montage of the audition process. The voice-over explained how six acts had been selected and how ‘Tonight is the night that you at home decide who stays and who will be the first act to go.’ Then the show’s opening music and titles were played really loud – and my adrenalin was pumping. Here I was, about to be on TV as myself, which is so different to what I was used to as an actor playing a character, live in front of seven million viewers. The show cut to Graham in the studio, introducing the acts one by one, and about five seconds before he called my name, I caught a glimpse of my family and friends in the audience, each wearing identical ‘Vote for Mark’ T-shirts and holding banners plastered with ‘Good Luck, Mark!’ and photos of my young nieces. In that split second, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being totally supported, and I filled to the brim with determination. I went out there and had one of the best nights of my life.
My career has been a gentle but steady climb up the ladder of success. I have been in the ensemble, I have been a swing, I’ve understudied roles, played small roles in large productions, and big roles in small productions – but my ultimate aim was to play a lead role in a big West End musical.
I was playing Cinderella in pantomime in Milton Keynes, and one day between shows I was getting a bite to eat in the shopping centre when my agent called me:
‘Hello, darling. What are you up to?’
‘Just between shows, grabbing food, why?’
‘How would you feel about playing Galinda in Wicked?’
‘Aaaaaaaaaaaargh! You’re joking!!’
Then followed tears of joy, and a lot of screaming. To be offered such a fantastic role in one of the biggest musicals in the world was an overwhelming experience. I skipped onto stage as Cinderella that evening!
Wicked was a career-changing experience for me, and one I’ll always remember and appreciate. Of course, returning to the show, this time playing Elphaba, was equally thrilling and in many ways even more so. Whilst playing Galinda, I would often wonder what it would be like to trade roles and defy gravity just once – but I never in a million years thought it would actually become a reality. Ten months after leaving the show I was at home one evening and received a call from Petra Siniawski, Wicked ’s Associate Director in the West End. She told me that they had been auditioning all week and after a long day, the panel were chatting and my name popped up: ‘Why isn’t Lou being seen for Elphaba?’
The Wicked creative team had got to know me very well in the two years I had worked with them; they had seen my numerous concerts outside of the show; and they thought I was more than capable of playing Elphaba. Additionally, it would be an incredibly exciting cast announcement: never before had an actress played the roles of both Galinda and Elphaba. I had a long chat with Petra and agreed to go in the next day to audition. I was terrified as I felt there was such a lot riding on this; the team I respected so much had put their faith in me and I had to deliver!
The audition went very well and a couple of weeks later I got the call from my agent who said, ‘Are you sitting down, Lou? They want you to play the green girl!’ I remember walking out of my front door onto the green outside my house in pure shock! It was happening, I was going to play Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West! That moment will stay with me for ever. I have the creative team of Wicked in London to thank for being so open-minded and thinking outside of the box. The show raised my profile and has opened so many doors. And I have the most wonderful group of fans from doing the show, who support me in everything I do.
What should I do when things go wrong during a performance?
Unfortunately, there is not much advice to give for when things go wrong on stage. It will usually involve involuntary freezing and forgetting the English language or any sense of normal human behaviour at all. Both of us have made numerous mistakes on stage: we’ve made up lines of the script when we blanked, made random sounds that are more like animal cries, completely fallen over on stage and struggled to get back up, which reminds us of a time we worked together in Wicked…
I was Fiyero, opposite Louise as Galinda, in the opening scene of Act Two, where pretty much the entire company are on stage as the citizens of Oz, looking to Galinda the Good for reassurances about their safety against Elphaba. Fiyero gets frustrated because none of what is being said about Elphaba is true, so he storms off the podium centre stage, and heads downstage-right for a quiet, emotional scene with Galinda.
So there we are, me and Louise, acting the scene (beautifully, even if we do say so ourselves!), and then I turned to do Fiyero’s dramatic exit, which involved running up some narrow stairs and continuing offstage. Off I went, missed my footing, tripped on a step, and landed in the full splits on the staircase. I struggled to stand up, pulling off bits of the leaves and branches from the scenery to help me, and when I finally managed to get to my feet, I just dropped my head down in shame and continued to run offstage. Two‑thirds of the audience were laughing out loud, and the entire company were trying not to lose it altogether.
I was left at the bottom of the staircase, looking up at where it had happened, desperately trying not to burst into laughter. Then I had to look at the company, who were all grinning at me like lunatics, and finish a very emotional part of the scene. When I got offstage, Mark and I fell about, laughing until our stomachs hurt, and almost missing our next entrance. It remains one of the highlights of my career.
The thing is, mistakes happen and that’s the joy of live theatre. It’s not like performing brain surgery where every single thing you do is a life-or-death situation. If you forget your lyrics or make a mistake, keep calm. It will somehow resolve itself, usually by trusting your instincts and getting yourself out of it – but at the end of the day, it’s just a show. The audience are unlikely to notice, and if they do (like in the case of Mark’s impromptu splits) then they love the fact they’ve seen something totally live, utterly unplanned and unique.
It was such a big deal for me to head over to North America to perform in the touring production of The Book of Mormon – not just getting the role (though that was a big deal, of course), but the fact of living and working on the other side of the world, away from my entire support system: my family, friends, flatmate, agent, manager, doctor, osteopath, accountant, postman, window cleaner, bin man and the cat next door… It really did seem like I was kissing goodbye to so many things in my life, which was heightened because I was going to be in a touring show. A tour of that scale is like living in a bubble, and I’d be performing one of the most demanding roles in musical theatre, surrounded by a group of strangers I’d never met, for seven months. Little did I know that I’d end up being in the show for eighteen months, having an amazing time and visiting some incredible places.
I spent four weeks in San Francisco, rehearsing two or three afternoons a week, in advance of joining the existing company for the final five shows in that glorious city. The rest of the time I spent feeling anxious about whether I’d be able to survive the gruelling task ahead of me. I had many panic attacks and suffered really badly with anxiety and loneliness, to the point where I made myself sick with worry and developed a viral infection which left me in bed for seven days, completely helpless and feeling sorry for myself. I was in such a low place late one night that I called my agent, saying that if I didn’t feel better in a few days’ time I wanted him to get me out of the job and have me sent home. It was that extreme! Of course he calmed me down and helped me to deal with the pressure, as he’s such an incredible agent and friend.
Our first performance was three days after Christmas Day 2012. We had our final rehearsal earlier that day with Trey Parker, one of the writers and directors of the show (and of course co-creator of the hugely successful animated TV show, South Park), and that night was my American debut, as Elder Price. The first Broadway show I ever saw was Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre, New York, in February 2010, and I remember promising myself that one day I’d be in a Playbill (the free theatre programmes given away at productions in the US). Now here I was, just two years later, leading a company of extremely talented performers. I felt so proud that all my anxiety disappeared and I was left with a healthy amount of nerves and excitement, ready to get on that stage and enjoy every second of a very special night.
Sometimes something exciting comes along at exactly the right moment. One afternoon, when I was feeling pretty low because my tour had been postponed for reasons beyond my control, my manager telephoned.
‘Do you know the National Anthem?’ she asked.
‘Yes, of course. Why?!’
She explained that I had been invited to sing it before the Capitol One Cup Final – at Wembley Stadium, in front of 90,000 football fans, and millions more watching at home on TV! I thought she was joking at first, but she wasn’t.
On match day, I had a short rehearsal in the afternoon and then had to go to my dressing room and wait to be collected and taken to the pitch. I don’t remember feeling nervous as I was getting ready, just very excited, but when it was my time to go and sing, and I walked towards the pitch, I heard the immense wall of sound coming from the football supporters. I’ve never heard anything like it; it was almost primal and the sound literally went through me, my heart was racing!
What if I got the words wrong? What if I couldn’t hear the backing track I was singing along to? What if I passed out?! I’ve never been so irrationally nervous. I was taken by the arm and led to the edge of the hallowed turf, I waited for a nod from the woman looking after me and off I went. The fans cheered, the music started and everyone sang along.
It was the most thrilling, terrifying, overwhelming experience of my life – and something I’d love to do again one day.
Secrets of Stage Success by Louise Dearman and Mark Evans is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.
Get a free, exclusive A3 poster when you buy the book from the Nick Hern Books website, while stocks last.
Watch Louise and Mark introduce their book on YouTube.
Illustrations by Mark Manley, www.markmanley.co.uk. Authors photo by Mark Yeoman.