Jason Manford, is one of the country’s top stand-up comics and a regular and presenter and panellist on game shows – but his turns as a singer have been limited largely to in the shower and a cameo in Michael Ball’s award-winning Sweeney Todd.
So Manford, a 33-year-old, father of five, from Manchester, is both overwhelmed and hugely excited to be cast as leading man in one of the top stage musicals where he has to sing and tap dance.
Manford plays Leo Bloom to Cory English’s Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, The Producers, which started its UK tour this week.
I interrupted rehearsals to catch a few minutes with the pair.
The show, which also stars comedians Phill Jupitus and Ross Noble, dancer Louie Spence, and theatre names David Bedella and Tiffany Graves, tells the story of how two scheming Broadway producers plan to stage the worst musical ever in a bid to clean up on opening night.
Said Jason: “I’ve only ever done one professional musical and that was Sweeney Todd. I was only in it for two months as Pirelli, the opera-singing barber. I threaten Sweeney Todd and was dead by 8.30! Best job I’ve ever had!!
“To get this cast for a tour is pretty impressive. David Bedella is amazing! Mel Brooks is a comedian and it’s written with comedians in mind, from Gene Wilder through to Lee Evens & Peter Kay. Joe Pasquale and Russ Abbott have also done it.
“Cory is so funny. He was a fantastic dancer back in the day. Even though he’s got older and fatter, he won’t mind me saying that, he’s still got these moves. He can pirouette with the best of them.
“Whereas I’m just getting old and fat without the dance moves. But I’m losing weight! That tap dancing is really taking it out of me. It’s great fun – though I don’t know what it looks like!
“When they cast me I hesitated and wondered if they were doing The Producers for real or was I being cast in the worst show ever!
“Actually the show looks unbelievable. It’s spectacular. It’s really funny. The script is hilarious, written by a genius, and that’s a comedian saying that.
“The music and choreography is incredible. The whole cast are so good. A lot of the dancers have come off Singin’ In The Rain.
“I’ve had a lot of crap jobs in my life but all the time I’m pinching myself and going: ‘This is brilliant. I can’t believe it. I’m waiting for the little shoulder tap to tell me that I’m off!
“I’d had a big TV project booked in from March to May but that ended up being cancelled and I was offered this.
“The tap dancing is on my mind the whole time. I had been practising in the kitchen at home but that’s out with a new baby so I’ve been out on the patio in freezing weather.
“I’m driven by other people who are driven. It would be a discredit and dishonour to those other performers for me not to be up to scratch. None of them are expecting me to be brilliant but I push myself 100 per cent.
“It’s a struggle for people to come up with the cash for theatre tickets so I owe it to them – but it’s really hard. I’m always at the physio. My knees and ankles are really suffering!”
Cory English is a bit of a Mel Brooks’ fan. He’s known to theatre audiences over here for his recurring role as the short, slimy “Producer” Max Bialystock who, ugh, seduces star-struck grande dames out of their support hose and savings to fund his awful shows.
The native New Yorker, who now lives with his family in North London, played Max in the last tour of The Producers and has also starred in the Brooks horror homage, Young Frankenstein, on Broadway.
I mention that I’m likely to see The Producers in Milton Keynes and he gave a chuckle. His previous stopover at Milton Keynes Theatre proved disastrous when a throat infection struck mid-show.
“I had a rough Milton Keynes week. I’ll never forget it. I only managed one act and I was done. I turned to the audience and said: ‘I am going to appear much taller in the second act’ and my stand-in finished the show”.
English is loves working on a Mel Brooks comedy. “I just loved Blazing Saddles, which I grew up with. We were all shocked by it. But we had an American version of your TV show, ‘Til Death Do Us Part, so that race card and that comedy was already popular.
“But Mel took it to a whole new level. I didn’t get a load of the gags at that age but I do now!
“When The Producers first came over here I was in the audience of opening night at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Mel Brooks came out to address the audience. He said: ‘I thought all you British were reserved! But look at you, you’re standing up!’
“I love doing the show. Hearing the laughter is tops. I love the role. The part is great. He’s dark, sleazy and slimy and I get to act in that first scene, which is 15 minutes long! Then there’s the singing and dancing. It’s extremely satisfying.
“There are so many one-liners. Just to hear the laughter. I could do this for years!”
The Producers 2015 Tour Dates
March 16-21, Palace Theatre, Manchester March 23-28, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh March 30-April 4, Milton Keynes Theatre April 7-11, Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea April 13-18, Theatre Royal, Brighton April 20-25, Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham April 27-May 2, Bristol Hippodrome May 4-9, Grand Opera House, Belfast May 11-16, Empire Theatre, Sunderland May 18-23, New Victoria Theatre, Woking May 25-30, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton June 1-6, Empire Theatre, Liverpool June 8-13, Grand Theatre, Leeds June 15-20, Theatre Royal, Glasgow June 22-27, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen June 29-July 4, Oxford New Theatre July 6-11, Bord Gáis Theatre, Dublin.