By Peter Tromp
At only 26 years old, Jonathan Roxmouth has already played some of the most famous, magnetic and enigmatic characters in all of musical theatre. These roles have included the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’, and Judas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, for which he won Fleur du Caps in the same year, not to mention the king of wit himself Noel Coward in ‘Noel & Gerty’.
Yet this extraordinary (and precocious) talent is undertaking perhaps his most challenging role yet, namely that of Joe Gillis in ‘Sunset Boulevard: The Musical’, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation for the stage of Billy Wilder’s cinema classic currently on show at Theatre on the Bay. “It’s a role I’m very excited to play, especially because I think people wouldn’t necessarily associate me with it,” says the performer over a coffee on a recent sunlit afternoon at Primi Piatti in Camps Bay.
“I’ve perhaps become known for playing nicer, more empathetic, even heartbreaking characters, but in Joe Gillis we’re dealing with such a calculating and self-serving individual, one who, on the surface at least, has few redeeming qualities.”
Roxmouth in person is no less enigmatic than some of the characters audiences have become used to seeing him playing. The man who accomplished the remarkable feat of delivering 50 straight performances as the Phantom is an articulate, yet somewhat guarded conversationalist who appears to weigh in his mind every word he utters. This might be because of his distaste at being misquoted by the press, which he has experienced in the past, but it is also because some degree of the shyness that existed in him as a child persists to this day. Luckily, the world of drama offered some respite. “I grew up an overweight child, and with that comes and element of bullying, of perhaps not fitting in, so the minute I realised I could make people laugh, or get attention through theatre, everything sort of fell into place,” says Roxmouth.
“Anybody who knows me knows that I have an overactive mind, and that was alienating to my peers at that young age, so although I remain somewhat shy, theatre has certainly been therapeutic.”
The actor also admits to being a voracious reader and it’s easy to imagine that it is his rich interiority that has resulted in Roxmouth delivering so many captivating performances in recent times; coupled with lots of God-given talent of course. As anyone who has seen him perform will attest, Roxmouth bestrides a stage like it belongs to him. Yet when I bring this up with him, that he has legitimately become a big deal in the theatre world, he lets out a hearty laugh.
I ask him if he feels the hype at all. Evidently not, and he turns somewhat serious. “I think the whole notion of being a big deal is not for a person to decide or acknowledge. And it’s exterior because it means I’ve arrived, but now what? All I care about is whether I am serving my work the best way I can.”
His touching modesty and general introverted nature notwithstanding, Roxmouth is one undoubtedly strong willed individual. He has reached the upper echelons of the musical theatre industry, one of the few remaining financially viable live arts industries, and also one of the most competitive, with virtually no formal training, and earning the trust and confidence of the likes of Pieter Toerien and Ian von Memerty along the way, both of whom he has come to regard as mentors.
He made up his mind that he wanted to be a professional performer when he saw Toerien’s original ‘Phantom of the Opera’ production in 2004 in Pretoria, after which he put a five year plan in motion that would eventually lead to him working with Von Memerty on Barnyard stages.
Of course, barely ten years later he would get to play the Phantom, to universal acclaim.
Despite that high watermark, not to mention the difficult conditions in which he inherited the role, having had to step in for Andre Schwartz after the latter fell ill mere days before the premiere, Roxmouth counts ‘Sunset Boulevard’s’ Joe Gillis as the most challenging role he has yet attempted. “‘Sunset Boulevard’ is set against the backdrop of loss, broken dreams, and denial, all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts,” he says sardonically. “It deals with very real human emotions, specifically the idea of reaching one’s sell-by date, and that is something that anyone in the performing arts can relate to. It brings this show very close to home, but it also makes for a singularly thrilling, and cathartic evening’s entertainment.”
* Book for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at Computicket.