REMEMBER that classic moment in the stage musical 42nd Street where understudy Peggy Sawyer has to go on for the indisposed leading actress. “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back at star,” she’s told as she stands in the wings waiting to face the audience.
That happened for real for Alan Burkitt – and on the evening the London theatre critics were there to review the show. He stood in – danced, more accurately – for sick star Gavin Lee on the opening night of Top Hat, the glamorous dance musical based on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 1930s film, at the Aldwych Theatre.
When he arrives at Newcastle Theatre Royal next month, Burkitt will be playing the role of Jerry Travers again but this time he’s the star for good, leading the company in the year-long UK tour of the show.
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Nerves didn’t come into it, he says of that unexpected London appearance to be judged by the national critics. “I loved that. I love being chucked on. I thrive on that. It doesn’t happen every day and I thought, ‘This is my one opportunity and I have to take it’,” he says.
He’d been an understudy in other shows so knew what the reaction would be when the producer went in front of the curtain before the performance to tell the audience that the star’s understudy would be playing the part.
“As an understudy it’s the worse feeling in the world when you’re waiting to start and it’s announced someone isn’t performing.
There’s a groan from the audience – that goes without saying – and you have to rise above that. You have to make them change their minds,” he says.
With Top Hat, which was being seen in the West End for the first time after a try-out tour, he was prepared for going on. “I had done a few shows because Gavin had been off a little bit the week before and I’d been called to learn the changes that had been made in the show,” he says. He wasn’t in the company on the pre-London tour, joining the company when the show came into town. “I stayed all the way through whole run in the West End and then got given part for the tour. I am a happy boy,” he says.
He was, he admits, hoping in the back of his mind that he’d be considered when the musical went on the road. “I wasn’t finished with the part and wanted it to be mine. As understudy you are always following, you never create a role. You’re always putting a bit of what that person is doing into the performance. So it’s nice to strip back and do what I wanted to do.”
Top Hat’s Jerry Travers is an American tap dancer who travels to London to make his West End debut and meets the girl of his dreams, Dale Tremont (played by Charlotte Gooch). “He’s used to getting what he wants and as soon as he meets Dale it’s first time he has had to work for it. He loves the challenge of trying to win her,” says Burkitt.
He’s watched “a lot of Fred and Ginge”
films in the past, naming Astaire is his idol. “I absolutely adore him so I had a good background knowledge of his work but you would be foolish to try and be him but there are certain little things that may have filtered into my performance.”
CANTERBURY-BORN Burkitt started tap dancing when he was five or six, moving on to more classical dance training and being a junior associate with the Royal Ballet. “Then I decided instead of going through the classical route I wanted to do more musical theatre and go to stage school which I think that was right for me,” he explains.
“I got a place at ballet school. They loved my musicality but said they didn’t know if I would make it all the way through because my body is not ideal for ballet. I have a slightly arched back and my legs aren’t perfectly straight.”
He won the All England tap dancer of the year and graduated from Performers College but it wasn’t all plain sailing. He has no idea where his talent comes from as his parents aren’t “stagey” at all. “My dad wasn’t against it but was a bit surprised that boys wanted to start dancing. Back then it was not as accessible, there was no High School Musical and things like that.
“In your teenage years when you’re getting bit of stick at school and called the dancer boy, all the bullying kind of thing, that’s when you have to really decide you want to do it.”
After seeing a production of 42nd Street at Drury Lane Theatre there was, he says, no going back. After his own 42nd Street understudy performance, the stage is all his.
The biggest problem doing Top Hat with its energetic dance routines is trying to keep the weight on because he’s wearing heavy wool suits as Jerry, isn’t off stage for the first half and comes off “just dripping” with sweat.
“I can eat whatever I like. It’s brilliant. The show keeps you very fit. I get my own dresser and every time I come off stage there’s a fresh bottle of water, a towel and cakes.”
The show itself has been developed from the film to include many of Irving Berlin’s greatest hits including Cheek To Cheek, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, Puttin’ On The Ritz and of course Top Hat, White Tie And Tails.
Now, Burkitt has his own understudy, but he doesn’t have to wait for the star to be indisposed. “He does two shows a month for me. Some days we have four shows back to back, so one of those he will maybe get to do,” says Burkitt.
- Top Hat: Newcastle Theatre Royal, Sept 9-20. Box Office: 08448-112121 and theatreroyal.co.uk