Jason Manford talks ahead of Curtains role in Birmingham
He grew up in an area known as The Triangle of Death. Jason Manford’s formative years were spent in Salford, south Manchester, an area notorious for gang activity and high rates of crime.
As a child, there were no signs that he was destined for success. He was a regular kid, attending Chorlton High School, which then became known as Oakwood High School. But during those years, something changed. Manford formed a band with two of his school friends, Simon and Neil, which led to a passion for singing.
After leaving school, he earned a few quid by working part-time work as a wringer outer for a one-armed window cleaner before picking up work as a glass collector at a local pub. While working there, he became interested in comedy after watching the likes of Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard and Johnny Vegas perform.
Kay recommended him to do the Higher National Diploma in media and performance at the University of Salford and soon Manford was carving out his own path. He found work as a jobbing actor in the show Ideal before hosting a breakfast show on Xfm Manchester. Paramount Comedy picked him up to work on their channel before Manford replaced Dave Spikey as a team captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats. The die was cast.
More TV followed before Manford was propelled into the big time as host of BBC One’s The One Show. It didn’t last. Amid salacious reports of his online behaviour with fans, Manford stepped aside. His career, however, was anything but over.
He featured on numerous TV shows, filled theatres around the UK when he undertook stand-up tours and found more and more work as an actor. He also featured in the TV competition Born to Shine in 2011, in which he was taught daily to sing in an operatic style. Manford went on to win the show and released an album of show tunes, called A Different Stage.
He’s back on the road, starring in a brand-new UK Tour of the Tony Award winning musical Curtains. It’s a show that he loves.
“The show was a huge success on Broadway so it’s really exciting to be bringing this new production to the UK. It’s a comedy musical ‘whodunit?’ and I play a detective obsessed with musicals. When a murder happens in a theatre, he, along with the audience, turn up to discover who the killer is. It’s written by Kander and Ebb who wrote ‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret’, so the music is great and it’s a hilarious script.”
Curtains is based on the original book and concept by Peter Stone. It is set in 1959 Boston, Massachusetts. The show opened on Broadway to mixed reviews, though several critics praised the libretto and the character of Lieutenant Cioffi. Manford was initially unfamiliar with the part when he was offered it. “I didn’t know much, but as soon as I would mention it to friends in theatre they would say, “That’s one of my favourite shows”. It’s a popular musical within the theatre community and I’m excited that we can share this love to cities all over the UK.”
Manford is playing the role of Frank Cioffi, a local detective and huge musical theatre fan. There were many facets of his character that appealed. “What I love about Frank is that he’s such a sweet guy, even considering he’s there to solve a murder. He loves theatre but hasn’t had the chance to be on stage, and that’s not dissimilar from how I started. I came from a different world, coming from the stand-up comedy and television world and was surrounded by these hugely talented actors and performers, so I can relate to that a bit. There’s something in him that is just fun to play with as an actor.”
The show has been on the road for a month and Manford immersed himself in the stories of famous detectives and big musical theatre numbers before starting the run. He also had to brush up on his American accent.
“The first thing to do was adapt to the Boston accent. I’ve done New York a couple of times as I was Leo Bloom in ‘The Producers’ and Nathan Detroit in ‘Guys and Dolls’ so I know my way around a New York accent. However, a Boston accent is a new challenge. We’ve also got a few dance numbers, so I’ve been hitting the gym to prepare for that.”
Audiences know Manford best from his TV and comedy work, but he’s been part of many musicals over the years.
In July 2012, Manford took over the role of Pirelli for a month (followed by a few dates in August) in the London revival of musical Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre opposite Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.
In 2015, Manford starred in his second musical as Leo Bloom in the 2015 UK tour of Mel Brooks’ The Producers opposite Louie Spence, Phill Jupitus and Ross Noble. He played Caractacus Potts in the UK tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang alongside Phill Jupitus, Michelle Collins, Martin Kemp, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Claire Sweeney.
He toured with the production from February to April 2016. “What I really love about theatre, which I didn’t realise at first, was how much I enjoy working with other people. You spend so much time alone when you’re touring as a stand-up. I mean, don’t feel sorry for me, I did very well out of it, but it’s a lonely job. So, in theatre it’s lovely to be part of a cast, a family feel, which I really love.”
It’s a tough call to decide whether he prefers performing in theatre to comedy and stand-up. Both test him differently and he’s glad to be able to combine the two.
“I just find that there are times when stand-up is number one, and there are times when it’s theatre. With stand-up I’m starting with a blank page – I sit down and think about what I want to tell stories and jokes about whereas with musicals somebody else is setting the parameters that I then get to explore and play in. There’s something quite exciting about that – someone saying here are the rules, a script, story, songs, and then you’ve got to use what you’ve got to collaborate with them, with what pre-exists. It’s actually a really good discipline, and I’ve been able to use some of the skills I’ve learned in theatre and translate them to how I perform stand-up comedy.”
When Manford takes to the stage, he sometimes thinks back to the first time he saw musical theatre. He thinks he probably fell in love with it back in the Salford days, when he was just a primary school kid. “I remember being about nine or ten at school, and I don’t know how they got away with it, but they took us to see Sweeney Todd. It was quite an experience, and I remember thinking it was just brilliant. I was in every musical I could be at high school, whether it was my year group or not I would badger the teacher until they let me be a part of it somehow. Then when I got to university they didn’t have a drama society, so I actually set the drama society up at Salford University called ‘Almost Famous’ and that’s still going now and I get invited to stuff by them all the time which is really nice. I actually also wrote a couple of musicals myself when I was at uni.”
As he gains more experience, his ambitions continue to bloom. And while there will inevitably be more theatre offers in future, he doesn’t rule out moving into the writer’s chair and creating his own shows. “I’ve got a couple of things that I’m working on that I would like to develop but it’s a big world to dive into and a flop is a real flop, so it’s a big risk. It’s a lot of work but I’ve got a couple of nice ideas that I might like to explore more in the future.”
That can wait for now, though there are roles that he’d like to play in the not-too-distant future.”Yeah, I’d like to play Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at some point. That feels like the ultimate aim.”
Manford spends a lot of time away from home as he tours with various shows. He’s fortunate that his family understand the demands of his job and support him when he’s away for long spells. “I love doing it. My family do notice that I start to climb the walls after a few months off. I’m a bit like a wild child if I’m stuck in the house for too long. I couldn’t do it forever I must say, and it’s tough being away from my family. Over the course of the year I probably spend as much time at home as any other parent does, but it’s spread out differently, and in blocks of time. The kids get it and they come and see me on tour, they’ve seen most of the shows I’ve been in.”
Manford hasn’t been out of work since starting his showbusiness career. And that means he never gets time to switch off and relax – there are too many ideas popping up. “I don’t really have down time. Even when I’m off I like writing down ideas or music – even my hobbies are similar to my work but that’s a privilege really. I suppose my real down time is hanging out with my kids.”
He’s worked with many illustrious performers and been grateful for the words of wisdom that some have offered. “I remember Peter Kay telling me when I first started that the rest of the country is working a 40-hour week at least, so just because you work in show business why should you be different? As a comic you could probably get away with working for 20-minutes a night, four nights a week but he was a real inspiration to get me to say okay what am I doing with the rest of my time? He made me write a lot more and do more.
“I also remember doing ‘Sweeney Todd’ and feeling really nervous around these incredible singers, dancers and actors and I said to Michael Ball that I feel like I’m winging it, that I’m on that TV show ‘Faking It’, and he said to me, “Darling, we’re all on Faking It”.
“My Dad always used to say to me “Your horizon should become your middle distance” so that you aim for things, and when you get there you head on to the next thing. That’s a great piece of advice.”
For now, Manford is focused on one thing and one thing alone: Curtains. “The audience can expect great music from the team behind ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’, a wonderful and talented cast, hilarious comedy and you’ll be questioning right the way through to the end, whodunit?.”
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