There’s nothing better than speaking to someone who genuinely loves what they do, and Norton James is clearly one of them. Currently starring in the UK Tour of smash-hit musical Jersey Boys, I had the chance to have a chat with Norton and find out more about his life as an actor, being on stage and what it’s like being in an award-winning show.
Tell me a little bit about you! How did you become an actor?
My dad trained as an actor and he ended up running a theatre which actually isn’t too far from Birmingham so it was always in the family! It started with a teacher called Tom Goodluck who gave me the role of Mr Bumble in Oliver as I was the biggest kid in school, and I thought “oh, I quite enjoy this!” and it all kind of started from there. I was playing rugby and I found theatre and I thought “ah, I prefer that!”. From that I went off to drama school and I’ve focused on it over the last five years and I’ve been very fortunate to work and keep everything going.
Tell me about the show – what can the Birmingham audience expect from Jersey Boys?
It’s a real life story and the way that I’ve described the show to my friends is that they’re coming to watch a film, on stage. They’re coming to watch a biopic and see people’s lives being retold through a musical that actually comes across more as a play because the script is so good. The storyline is completely true and all these characters are real people. Come and see the trials and tribulations of being a huge pop/rock and roll star of the 50’s and 60’s and what that entails and the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. It’s not all glitz and glam. There’s the mafia influence, the money laundering, the police, being arrested, the highs and lows of showbusiness.
You play Norm Waxman in the show. How do you prepare for a character like that?
He’s quite a cool character. It’s is quite hard with those sorts of characters because there isn’t an awful lot of research you can actually do. They’re involved with the mafia – everything is still quite hush hush, you never quite get the full story and there may be those out there who could still be working for the same people. Because I’m a big guy I didn’t want to go down a route of being imposing and the stereotype of big guy being scary. I thought, just keep him quiet and calm, he knows what he’s doing, there’s never a reason to get angry because he’s in complete control of the situation. The fact that he’s chasing $150,000 from this one group compared to what he could be chasing from other people is minimal. For them it’s the end of their world, but to him it is “this is my the sixth call” today.
The whole cast apart from The Seasons are playing five or six different roles, little bit parts that come on. There’s a couple of us that have fourteen or fifteen costume changes in Act I, so it’s absolutely madness. But that’s the exciting part because you get all these little tiny parts that you can go “I’m playing a bartender in this one – he’s got no lines but he’s got a little dance inspired by Mr Bojangles” so you find the reason as to why he’s dancing, why he’s enjoying the music and why he’s there as opposed to just being there for a body on stage. It’s a fun musical – very different, fast-paced, and it has been an amazing process and very different to shows that a lot of us have done.
Obviously you’ve got a lot of shows one after another. What does your day generally look like when you’re on tour?
At the moment, just as we’ve finished rehearsals we’re heading in for understudy rehearsals. We’ll do 12pm – 5pm understudy rehearsals because there’s a few of us that cover The Seasons, so we have to make sure that we have to get the whole of The Seasons tracks down on top of our own and then we’ll do the show in the evening. You’re re-learning the whole show – different tracks, different lines, different spacing, and then in the evening you go back to the one that you already know. In the first couple of weeks it’s a bit crazy – we’re still in rehearsals – outside of having two-show days, but then when we get to Birmingham we will have had a cover run and that’s when we can go “ok, now you have some free time to go to the gym, have lunch, see family, relax, rest, and then just focus on bringing the show every night and making sure that it’s up to the standard that we want it to be at.
I can imagine that after what has happened with covid it must be so great to be back on stage again. What are your favourite things about performing?
The first week at Wimbledon when we opened we were playing to 1,600 / 1,800 people a night, and it was that feeling of ‘we’re back’ which was much needed by everyone.
Everyone is just thrilled to be back and telling this story – which was the first Broadway show I ever saw – for me it is one day wanting to do that and be in that and now it’s happening. You’re still pinching yourself.
It’s a very special show and a special cast – I’m not just saying that – it’s just a great group of people who have all come together and are supporting each other. We’ve had a few of our covers go on this week and they’ve absolutely smashed it. Everyone is so supportive of each other and that’s what makes a great cast, I think.
When do you finish for Christmas? What are your plans for the show afterwards?
We go right through until January 2nd I believe. (Note – Jersey Boys is on stage at The Alexandra Theatre until Saturday, Jan 1st 2022). We’re doing a four-week full run in Birmingham, but we have Christmas Day and Boxing Day off so at least people can try and get home to their families. With Birmingham being central it’s easy to get to most places within a couple of hours. It’s a big schedule in Birmingham and what we’ve seen so far there is a really good buzz surrounding it.
Jersey Boys is a biopic – it’s based on a story, real people. If a biopic was to be made of your life, who would you want to play you and why?
That’s a tough one! I genuinely think I would either be played by Chris Pratt or Jack Black, because they are both musical guys who have a light-hearted sense of humour, are energetic and are genuinely actors who I feel I relate to and have a similar casting bracket.
If you could go back and relive one moment in your career so far, what would it be?
Probably playing at the Sydney Opera House with The Choir of Man. Australia was always a dream destination and to go and play the Opera House… I won’t ever forget that feeling. It was such a good group of guys, just one of those places that you’d never expect to go and work.
Being on the stage is sometimes the same as those who travel the world for business – they stay in hotels, they don’t get to see much, but where have been the best places you have travelled to because of what you do?
Australia, South Korea and America. America was amazing. We were over in Ohio at Playhouse Square which is the biggest theatre district outside of New York. We were over there this July for a show to re-open the American theatre scene, and it was incredible. We were supposed to be there for six weeks and we ended up staying for four months. They were so hospitable and the American audiences were so welcoming and showed us everything about the city.
A friend of mine went to stage school and he made a comment once about being asked to pretend to be an egg frying in a pan during a workshop. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever been asked to do either during a rehearsal, at drama school or on stage itself?
One memory that sticks out is a drama game. There was a room full of people and we were told that we would be exploring physicality. We had already done animal studies and things like that, and then they said “we want you to become one of the elements’ – so you had a group of thirty people running around the room pretending to be water. At the time I couldn’t see the relevance in it at all, but when I thought about it they were breaking down barriers. You’re literally loosening up your body, but those first few moments of running around the room being water… We loved it, but it was one of those moments where you look back and go “oh, remember when I was water?”
Aside from Jersey Boys, what’s your favourite musical?
What would be the dream role?
Javert in Les Mis.
(*I saw that Norton likes to go to the gym) What’s the best exercise for leg day?
That’s also a tough one – I try to avoid leg day otherwise I can’t walk. I would say generally things like squats, or one that you can do anytime is when you’re walking up the stairs anywhere, just step two steps at a time. That engages everything – two steps at a time and you’re good to go.
In Birmingham we’re really lucky in that we have some incredible performing arts schools and talented youngsters. What’s your best advice for young performers who want to be on stage?
Work hard, take every bit of advice, go and see as much live theatre as you can, watch films and TV shows, just know that every day you’re learning by watching, by paying attention, by seeing someone perform, seeing the way that somebody makes a choice. Stay dedicated – it’s probably one of the hardest industries in the world because for every yes there are fifty no’s. Know that if it’s is truly what you want, never give up because one day that break will come just through hard work. I was never a dancer, yet all of a sudden I’m doing dances in shows that I never thought I would be a part of. It’s just through going “do you know what, I can do this!” You know if it is a true calling in the view of ‘I have to do this’ and the sacrifices that you have to make will be hard, but there’s nothing quite like walking out in front of an audience of 2,000 people and entertaining them.
And finally, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given by anyone in the industry?
My best advice was for nerves going into an audition room for a drama school audition – nobody wants you to fail. Everybody want you to make their job easier for them to cast you. That has stuck with me walking into a room because if you’re right for the job you’ll get it. No-one is there to test you, no-one is there to make you look silly, no-one is there to want you to fail because that isn’t what their job is. Their job is to find someone to do the job and if you can bring that? Amazing!
Want to see Norton on stage in the Jersey Boys? The internationally acclaimed stage sensation Jersey Boys will be on stage at The Alexandra Theatre from Tues 7th December until Saturday 1st January 2022. Book your tickets here – I can’t wait!!