There’s a line from the movie The Little Mermaid that often floats round and round my head, usually occurring just after I’ve watched a show. It’s from the song “Part of Your World”, when Ariel sings “I wanna be where the people are…I wanna see, wanna see them dancing…” I call it my “Howard Ashman Syndrome”: a desperate I-just-wanna-be-where-the-cool-kids-are-and-get-a-seat-right-at-their-table-and-be-part-of-it-all feeling. In my particular case, the cool kids are musical theatre performers. Performing musicals, night after night is a serious skill, especially when you consider that musicals use three art forms in various combinations live, timed- meaning that the risks basically triple in terms of what can go wrong. It's epic! My job in life revolves around music and singing and watching a performer nail a song live on stage is perhaps my favourite thing to experience.
After watching, “Lenny, Andrew, Steve and Me” at Montecasino in October this year, my Howard Ashman Syndrome went full throttle, as Jonathan Roxmouth, the star of the show, closed it by singing “Music of the Night” a capella in a pin spot. (Cue Ariel on a rock, belting “Part of your World” in my head!) The show was just Jonathan and a pianist on stage singing some of musical theatres greatest compositions. For 90 minutes, myself and a theatre full of people were able to set aside the annoying Fourways traffic and general chaos of our lives and be taken on a truly amazing singing journey.
Jonathan is currently playing The Phantom in the international tour of The Phantom of the Opera. He’s sung on stages literally around the world, which means this man KNOWS things when it comes to singing.
When I go and watch one of his shows, the magic that he creates is palpable. He can cause goosebumps on multiple levels! It’s awesome to watch and what’s so exciting is that he is getting many people to come to the theatre to watch his shows. For our small, albeit feisty musical theatre industry, this is very important and very cool!
I took Jonathan out for coffee and spent a couple of hours asking him everything about singing: the good, the bad and the downright terrifying. And man, was I in for a treat. He didn't hold back and openly shared with me what he knows and I walked away feeling so comforted because as singers, sometimes the most comforting thing to know is that 1) You’re not alone 2) Everyone struggles from time to time and 3) Everyone cracks! Even the best of them.
Here is our conversation that took place.
Ok, so when did your love of music begin?
When I was growing up, I had a red plastic piano, with musical tinkle bells in it. Apparently, the only way to get me into the car was if the piano was on the backseat. I loved that thing and the correlation between me doing something and hearing something…well, clearly it meant something.
And what was your first time on stage?
I was Prince John in Nursery School – we did a musical of Robin Hood and my best friend was the horse, and we just ran around each other. But what I remember specifically is that it wasn’t the applause, but the laughter that caught my attention. I was like, “Oooh, I like that. I like that!” and then as I went on, making people laugh became my thing, like a drug.
So, would you say that you knew very early on that you were going to be a performer?
Yip, I just knew.
So, you’ve done a truckload of shows and I want to ask you about one or two of them and anything that comes to mind about them vocally.
Beauty and the Beast:
I remember being obsessed about support. Hanlee Louw and Pauline du Plessis were in the cast, and they had just come from Phantom. I suddenly started hearing about this thing called “support”. And I thought “Ooh, that sounds great!” Because up to that point, being very young, it all just used to happen.
Because you hadn’t done any formal training by that time?
No, I hadn’t. I had done Grease, Rock Me Amadeus for the Barnyard and I’d just finished Handful of Keys. I remember constantly going to Pauline and Hanlee and saying “Did that sound supported to you?” It was the mob song, and in particular the phrase “It’s time to follow me!” The notes are a high E-F-E-F-E, with a diphthong on “time” and difficult vowels like “oo” and “oh” and “ee”. I remember being obsessed with that phrase, constantly trying to get it. So, Hanlee just took me aside, put my back against a wall, said “Sing!” and pushed me in the gut. I tried it a couple of times whilst she shoved and at first it was breathy, and then it came out as I started supporting. Then she went “thank you”.
Even now, if I hear the mob song, I remember Hanlee pushing me up against the wall. Which, in a different context, could sound awful! But it’s true.
So, now, what is your definition of breath support?
Getting a fright whilst trying to hold in a wee. That’s how I do it.
Cats: Now, you had no formal dance training, but you had to stand there in a cat suit – how did that go?
I went for remedial ballet. I went full on Billy Elliot! I was in class with little girls. Because Mankustrap is very still all the time, and statuesque, my goal was to get the poise. Growing up overweight, I used to slouch to make myself look smaller. Mankustrap is all about his chest – that’s the whole thing about the character. He stands like this because a cat’s most vulnerable point anatomically is their chest. Which is why, choreographically, Mankustrap is always like this: (Makes proper cat-type posture). But that posture made it difficult to sing. In “Old Deuteronomy”, there’s a phrase that goes up to the G. I’m duetting with Rum-Tum-Tugger, trying to sing the line, “When he sits in the sun” and you’ve got to float it, but you’re standing with your chest stuck out, and you’re out of breath from the previous dance number! That was a bitch.
Did you have to belt the G?
No, they wanted it mixed. As you know, when you try take the volume out of something over your break, it starts to get a bit scary. And G is roundabout where I am. Luckily the vowel of “sun” is nice, but it’s the “the” part before “sun”. As soon as you go “the” your larynx drops, so it was about lifting the larynx between those two notes that made it happen. That’s what I remember.
A Handful of Keys: My favourite show of all time, is A Handful of Keys. I’ve seen it with every duo, probably 20 times over the past 15 years. What comes to mind about this show for you? When did you first realise that this show was something special?
I think it’s the musical equivalent of Defending the Caveman in this country. It’s our standard. Do you know what it was? “Ladies and gentlemen”, the cry often goes up: “shoot the pianist! Offering themselves as sitting targets: Roelof Colyn and Jonathan Roxmouth!” When the lights came up and the audience applauded, I went “But we haven’t even done anything yet!” The show is the star. I thought “Oh, we’re part of something that’s bigger than us. Hugely so.” That was the first time it happened. Then the applause after “Broadway” that went on and on and on, and I stood there and thought “I’m not funny; the show is funny”. It is so beautifully constructed. I kept on remembering “I am the sixth person to do this, and it’s got the same response every time. So, don’t get ahead of yourself!” That’s what it’s like to be part of something that is so perfect in its construction that it doesn’t need your help.
Was it one of your favourite things to perform in that show? Because it always seemed like you and Roelof had a jol on that stage!
Working with Roelof was my favourite thing, not the show. Working with Roelof made that show something I really miss. I regard the six years that I worked with him as my piano training. When you’ve got Roelof Colyn sitting next to you going “Ok, try this, try that. I’m going to do this, try that” and it just clicks, then you start anticipating it. In Funeral for a Friend, or Rhapsody in Blue, sitting across from him, it wasn’t for the audience, it was for us. I think that’s the genius of the show. You’re watching two friends have a jol for two hours. It’s not a “show”; it’s us. That also started helping me realise that being yourself onstage is the hardest thing in the world. I’m not putting on a character every night, I’m being me. Because that’s what you need.
What were the responses of the audience?
People are not used to solo artists being themselves. We are used to people playing characters and being treated with the fourth wall. We are not used to being addressed, challenged, or forced to listen. What I learned from Handful was how to be yourself onstage; to become a self-sustaining artist aside from the other shows. To become known for your own brand of humour as opposed to the shows that you’ve done. Know me for me, not for my CV. That’s the greatest challenge for any artist in freelance theatre in South Africa right now. Because if you can do both, you’ll work.
Phantom of the Opera:
So, in Phantom, we have that B-flat. I watched a show once of you – it was the “cursed” second performance, and you cracked unintentionally on that note. But you just played the moment – and I’m not even sure the audience even noticed. In fact, they gave you a standing ovation when it ended.
Going into the note? I remember that. Luckily, in a moment like that, it’s so easily misunderstood as emotion by the audience, so as the actor, you can play it like that regardless of the note itself. But what happens is when you’ve got the emotion sitting here (He points to his larynx), your mechanism swells. So, the space is smaller and the crack often happens getting into it. You can sustain it, but it’s that launch, that octave jump up. Back then, I didn’t have the placement that I now have, on the word “be”. I used to go “beeeeee” (nasal, very forward placement – almost in the teeth). Now I go “beeeeeee” (placement further down and towards the back of the pharynx. The sound is fuller and rounder). I think of a long corridor when I sing the word “be” now, and I sing down onto it – before, I used to sing up to it. Also, it was a Sunday matinee. By 2pm, after a double performance…
So, you’re essentially lifting your soft palate up.
Yes – to float it, because I want to get “spin” up there. Back then, I used to go “beeee” (sustained quick vibrato) which is exhausting on an “ee”. It’s easier on an “eh”. Now, I straight-tone it. So that I can place it nicely, get that tension, and then release. So, I was learning.
Do you consider your vibrato a habit? Do you now struggle to sing straight-tone, or is it a conscious decision every time?
No. I use straight-tone on important words, because it’s not a sung sentence.
I can’t stand pointless pretty singing; I find unnecessary vibrato irritating. It’s not interesting. Your singing voice should be a natural extension of your speaking voice, because our business is all about the moment when you break into song, so it can’t be too jarring. Generally, when I’m getting into a song straight out of a link in the show for instance, vibrato comes a little bit later. But when you’re in the middle of a song, when you’ve had pretty moments, then the straight-tone highlights what you’re singing. The straight tone brings it back. And then go back into the vibrato.
How do you prepare for that B-flat (For Phantom)?
(Side note: The B flat note during the song, “Music of the Night” is a notoriously difficult note for a man to sing. And it’s on a flexible vowel, the word “Be”)
I always sing “Let your soul take you where you want to be” before I go onstage. I make sure it’s there, once. And if it’s not there the first time, I hold my panic down, I do a little bit more Straw, and then I do a falsetto trill, because that gets the cords moving faster than anything else. It’s about blood flow, that’s all it is. But there is an element of adrenaline missing. You never sing in your dressing room the way you sing on stage. Never. But you know that there’s a certain point that you get to where you feel “hmm, I feel elastic enough, I’m fine”. And then you stop thinking about it.
How did you get to that point where you’re able to stop thinking about it?
By cracking precisely on that note! Singers crack because they’re overthinking and they’re scared. They don’t crack because their voices are gone. I’ve learned that the hard way.
But when do you panic? Because now you don’t know if you are going to hit the note or not…
I make sure that I don’t worry about it until 2 or 3 phrases before the note.
Wait! So, you only make a decision on what you are going to do during the song, not before?
Not before, no. I have enough to think about. And if I’m obsessed about “be” from the mirror scene, I’m in trouble. I also have an F#, G#, so I can see where I’m at there. If it’s still not there, I then start thinking “high and light” to mix it. I start getting into that. It is still powerful and potent, but I’m not chesting. If I suddenly decide, “Ok, now I’m going to really push it,” I’m going to throw it. I start thinking about it, and I see it right here, and I put it into position and I go for it. Nine times out of ten, it works. I don’t hold it as long, but it’s there.
How do you warm up? I heard that you warm up with The Straw?
My warm-ups are never more than 15 minutes. Beyond that, I’m working. This is the way I look at it: how many hours of singing am I about to do? I want to do no more than, say, 5-10% of that as a warm-up. I gauge it that way. Because if I can’t, and I need to take half an hour to warm up, then I know what I need to do to get through the show. Because then obviously, I’m either tired, sick, or I’m battling with sinus, or something. So, if that’s the case I have to be smart now. If I sing the way I normally sing, I’ll blow my voice out. I’m constantly thinking of “How do I warm up to sing the show, to warm down, and to wake up with a voice tomorrow?” That’s how I think.
The Straw is really good to unload. I never do that for more than four minutes, because it’s intense. Your voice can go into shock if you do it too much.
My general pattern is humming, a bit of Straw, lip trills, small 5-note scales up and down, some arpeggios, the major ninth, then some “Ave Maria” and Kyrie [Eleison].
Ok. In an eight-week show challenge, what is your vocal routine?
My pattern at the moment borders on monastic. Top of the list: six litres of water a day. No discussion. Why? Because we’re in different territories with different climates. There’s a different level of humidity, air-cons, and hotel rooms where you don’t know what’s in the carpet. So, I travel with a humidifier, and I drink six litres of water a day. Three big bottles a day, and then another one during the show. It’s important. That’s before you do anything else.
I don’t go out. I don’t eat after 18:00, because if you go to sleep with adrenaline after a show on a full stomach, acid will tear your voice apart. It takes you three hours to come down from the adrenaline. Fact. If it’s a very hot country, I don’t spend a lot of time outside because you’d be surprised how quickly you dehydrate, and the minute you dehydrate, your cords are in trouble. No matter your technique, if you are dehydrated, you will have vocal fatigue, that’s it. That is one of the few finite statements. Before I go to bed: two glasses of water. I will get up during the night, I don’t care.
I generally try to nap in the day, so that I have an insurance policy of 1.5-2 hrs. I don’t sleep beyond that because your larynx drops completely and you have to start again. I sleep for between 7 and 9 hours per night. Then when I wake up, I don’t speak for an hour, to delay my vocal lifespan for the day.
No tomato. Tomato is the number one problem. No soda, even if it’s diet. I’m not affected by dairy the way other people are, I’ve never understood why you can’t have chocolate before a show, I’m like “Fuck you, I’m having a Lunch Bar!” Most important thing: Nettie Pot, twice a day. As I wake up, and directly after the show. Never do it before the show, because it actually irritates your nasal tract for two hours after you do it. I did it once before a show, and I couldn’t sing. Everything swelled.
To warm down: I use a YouTube video – it’s five minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nS8OWDWD0MA.
As I sit down in the chair to take my makeup off, I put my phone down, I press play, and I do it.
Ok. Ugliest moment onstage, vocally? When you just wanted to crawl into a hole…
I was beyond ill. I had a fungal infection while performing at the Joburg Theatre for the opening of West Side Story. On the opening night I got to Maria: (sings) “Maria, Maria, Maria…” it goes up to an A. I literally had shot my cords, so I went “Mareee (choking sound)” I stopped, I had a coughing fit. Coughed up balls of phlegm, during the song, and I only came in with: “The most beautiful sound I ever heard…” It’s the best applause I’ve ever received on an opening night, because I carried on as though nothing was wrong. Charl [Lingenfelder] burst into tears. He said “It was the most beautiful moment I’ve ever seen with an audience behind an actor!” I died. I DIED. I still do whenever I sing that song, I’m terrified of it. But, Jaco van Rensburg taught me about something that they learned in Jersey Boys: the instant forgiveness. If you want to talk about people having vocal issues just look at the vocalists that played the Frankie Valleys. The cracks on Broadway are legendary, all the time. Or at least they were when Jersey Boys was running. So, the vocal coach of Jersey Boys International took the Frankies aside and spoke to them about instant forgiveness. She said, “The audience doesn’t give a f***. You’re punishing yourself, and it’s up to you to forgive yourself for the next phrase”. So that’s what it comes down to. But I will never forget that opening night of West Side Story. Ever.
Any secret vocal “things” that you swear by that us singers should know about?
Throat Coat – I cannot stress it enough. Go onto Amazon and you can have it imported from Traditional Medicinals, that’s the place. The element in there that you need to look for is called “slippery elm”. A friend of mine had two nodules, and she cured her nodules by drinking slippery elm for three weeks. Because all a nodule is, is a callous. So, what do you do for a callous on your foot? You moisturize it, and it goes away. That’s what slippery elm does. It’s from the bark of the elm tree – that’s all I know! But there’s an essential oil or an element in there. Truly saved my life. Stay away from ginger, it’s acidic.
Finally, I want to know about your audition voice issues. Do you get nervous when you audition? What do you do for nerves? What’s your thing? Dry mouth? Shaky knees?
I keep Lip-Ice on me, because my lips dry out completely and I always have a Fisherman’s Friend to keep the saliva going. Then what I do is, because my hands do shake, which gives it away, is that I force myself into stillness. Because nothing looks more confident than somebody that’s still on stage. It’s the greatest illusion in the world, and it’s our greatest power. Where possible, do one gesture. One. Figure out where it is, and then do it.
One of the most popular questions I get is, where do I look while I’m auditioning?
You shouldn’t be thinking about where you’re looking, but where would your character look? Generally, in the final call-back, you’re singing a song from the show. Where would Grisabella look? Where would Maria look? That’s the answer. Because it’s no longer you in your personal capacity; you’re playing a character now.
In the first round of auditions, my advice is to determine what the character would be doing. If you’re doing a comedy role, sometimes you might want to look at the panel to bring across the dark, sarcastic, twisted wit.
Do you have a go-to audition song?
I generally have “If I Loved You” from Carousel. But what I also have is a file of Off-Broadway songs that nobody else has. And I make sure that’s it’s the most obscure musical ever. Because the edge in an audition is if they remember you. How do they remember you? “Where was that song from? He came and auditioned with that song about x. Where’s that from?” You’re already ahead of the pack. What I do is I always find out who’s playing for the audition, and I send them the sheet music the day before: “You will not know this music; it’s hard. Please have a look at it”.
It’s a bit cheeky, but I like it.
Best case scenario: “Hello, I’m auditioning tomorrow. Can I sing through this with you before we are in the room? I’ll pay you for your time.”
If you get a phlegm bubble while you’re singing, what do you do?
It depends on the role. I’ve found a way to clear my throat silently. With Phantom, luckily it is the sort of role where you can have break-out moments when you suddenly speak, and as you go “heh!” it moves out.
What happens when you are sick and you can’t perform?
And you have to go and see an ENT?
I go to an ENT every six months just for peace of mind. That’s all. When I was in Manilla, I battled with laryngitis for the first three weeks of the run. And then I was fine, and then the Christine went down. Then the Raul went down; then the Madame Giry went down! Then the Carlotta went down! I only felt fine about myself once the fourth person went down. You never want to feel like you’re the only one, then everybody’s looking at you going “Ooh, you’re not a professional…” We’re human, and we’re shouting for a living! It will take its toll. Nobody is an iron man. I was, for five years, and then I couldn’t anymore. I grew up. It’s fine to admit that. But because of the chip on my shoulder that I have no education, (Jon didn’t go to any tertiary institution after he matriculated). I thought being the iron man was my edge. Turns out it actually just made me more vulnerable to people taking advantage of it and burning me out, which is what happened. So, I have no compunction with saying “Sorry, I’m too tired today”. You know what they say to me overseas? “Awesome, we’ll see you tomorrow.” Because they trust me, because they know how much I love that show and that role, and I would never ever lie. My deal with them is: I do eight shows a week when I can. If I need to take off the matinee because it’s just too early, “Jon, rest. We’ll see you tonight.” Why? Because I’m a professional. This is the way they do it on Broadway. We are discouraged from calling out in this country because we generally don’t have understudies who can go on. On Broadway, it doesn’t matter! “Great, so-and-so can do it.” That’s how I feel on tour.
The show must always go on.
For Jonathan's up-and-coming tour dates for 'The Phantom of the Opera', CLICK HERE