ShenTens: My Favourite West End musical leading men

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Last Friday I chose my top ten favourite Broadway leading men in musicals here, with a related podcast talking about those choices here, and last Saturday I added part two of more leading men that I couldn’t fit into the podcast with a second feature here.

This week it’s the turn of the West End’s leading men in musicals, and I faced a similar problem. It’s difficult to stop at just ten; we are blessed with many, many fine performers who grace our stages regularly (or at least do when they’re open for business), so I’ve added some more names that I’m always pleased to see regularly on West End stages as well.


But there’s also whole new generation waiting in the wings, some of whom I’m proud to teach at Arts Educational School in their first term of musical theatre training — at the end of this column, I’ve provided a supplementary list of the most promising young performers around, and two of them are people I’ve taught who’ve already had leading roles in the West End.

The ground rules for inclusion in the top ten are that they’ve all got to be people who are still regularly active in the West End. So there are no names from the past and have sadly already left us, or who’ve not been on a West End stage in a long while.

1. Michael Ball
There is no currently working British musical theatre star who comes near to matching the range and longevity of his career, or his cross-over appeal as a concert and pop chart success who also had an active radio and television presenting career. Last year he joined forces with Captain Tom Moore for a single version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ that turned Moore, who turned 100, the oldest person ever to score a number one.

Ball has also had two recent number one albums with his regular concert partner Alfie Boe, in 2016 and 2017; while their 2019 release got to number two. But it is on the theatrical stage that he has made his biggest mark: first as the Marius in the original production of Les Miserables for the RSC at the Barbican in 1985 (in a cast that also featured Frances Ruffelle as Eponine and Rebecca Caine as Cosette in the younger roles), when he was just 23; then as the headline star of the premiere production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love in 1989 (originating the song Love Changes Everything, that became a chart success).

He demonstrated his supreme versatility swapping easily between Lloyd Webber and Sondheim when he went on to star in the British premiere of Sondheim’s Passion (1997), opposite Maria Friedman as Fosca, the woman his handsome solider falls in love with; they were later reunited in 2005 when they starred as the Broadway premiere of Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White, this time with Ball playing Count Fosco, not Fosca! In-between those two credits, Ball also originated the role of Caractactus Potts in the original stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium in 2002.

In 2008, he finally scored his first Olivier Award win for starring as Edna Turnblad in the transfer of Hairspray from Broadway (where she had originally been played by Harvey Fierstein); he was due to reprise that role at the London Coliseum last year, but it was postponed by the pandemic to this year, and has had to be postponed once again. In 2013, he scored a second Olivier for playing the title role in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (opposite Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, who told me in an interview in 2015, “When I was standing behind him and he was singing the Epiphany, I used to wonder to myself: does anyone know what it feels like to stand here, being so close to the magnitude of his talent?”); he was also virtually unrecognisable in the role, leading some theatregoers to complain that he was off at the performance he attended. There’s no greater tribute to an actor than that!

VIDEO: Performing Epiphany with Imelda Staunton.

2. Killian Donnelly
When the pandemic arrived last year Killian Donnelly had just kicked off starring in the title role of a new touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera; like everyone, it has given him an enforced year (and counting) off from the theatre, during which time he has helpfully used the time to start a family.

Because otherwise he literally hasn’t stopped, since he first arrived from his native Ireland in Britain in 2008, and quickly joined the ensemble of Les Miserables, gradually progressing through the ranks to become Enjolras in 2011 (and also playing Courteyrac in the 25th anniversary concert at the O2 Arena).

He then followed it with a stint as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera, and as Billy Elliott’s older brother Tony in that show in 2012. Then an unbroken run of originating roles began, starting with The Commitments (2013), and followed by the transfers of Memphis (2014) and Kinky Boots (2015), in which he was the original London star; he’d also reprise his role as Charlie on Broadway in 2016. In 2017 he re-joined Les Miserables, this time in the lead role of Valjean, which he subsequently toured.

VIDEO: Performing Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.

In 2020 he briefly led the launch of the now-suspended tour of The Phantom of the Opera at Leicester’s Curve. However, when the West End production of Phantom returns later this year, he is down to reprise his role in London. I can’t wait to see him.

3. Ramin Karimloo
This Iran-born, Canada-raised actor has, like Killian Donnelly, also toggled between Les Mis (in which he made his London debut in 2003 as Feuilly, before graduating first to Enjolras, a role he also played in the 25th anniversary concert at the O2 in 2010, before finally returning as Valjean, first in the West End in 20111, then in a new, revised Broadway outing of the show in 2014) and Phantom (in which he began as Raoul before graduating to the title role in 2007, and playing it again in 2011 at the show’s 25th anniversary outing at the Royal Albert Hall that was filmed).

He then went on to star as the Phantom in the ill-fated original production of its sequel Love Never Dies in 2010 (after previously doing the show’s original private Sydmonton Festival workshop in 2008), originating one of Lloyd Webber’s most powerful power-ballads, Till I Hear You Sing:

He’s become a popular musical theatre actor in other parts of the world, notably the Far East, where he is a concert favourite, as well as appearing in the Japanese world premiere of Prince of Broadway, a tribute to Phantom director Hal Prince’s storied career (though he wasn’t in its subsequent Broadway outing). He returned to Broadway in 2017 in the original cast of the stage version of Ahrens and Flaherty’s animated cartoon Anastasia. He also has a sideline career as a bluegrass performer, including in a band with his friend Hadley Fraser called Sheytoons (see next entry); one of his two sons is also coincidentally named Hadley.

4. Hadley Fraser
Yet another veteran of Les Mis (making his West End debut in 2002 as Pontmercy, then playing Graintaire in the 25th anniversary concert at the O2 in 2010, but graduated a year later to playing Javert in the West End) and Phantom (in which he has played Raoul in the 2011 25th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall), Hadley Fraser is joined here by Sierra Boggess in All I Ask of You from the latter:

He has also appeared in another more notorious Boulblil/Schonberg flop, The Pirate Queen, on Broadway in 2007, with a pair of West End flops bookending that: The Far Pavilions (2005) and a revival of The Fantastic (2010), but he has also gone on to prove his versatility in Shakespeare (at the Donmar Warehouse, opposite Tom Hiddleston in 2013, and in the West End in The Winter’s Tale, opposite Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench, in 2015).

In 2013 he starred in Josie Rourke’s revival of City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse, in a cast that also featured his wife Rosalie Craig; that production was due to finally open in the West End in March 2020, but it was shut down during previews by the arrival of the pandemic, and is yet to be rescheduled.

One thing that is certain, however, is that Hadley is going to be a regular presence on our musical and play stages for many years to come.

5. Michael Xavier
This most classically handsome leading man of the old school, Michael Xavier has progressed effortlessly from juve lead to leading player through swimming trunk roles: Sky in Mamma Mia! was followed, some years later, by playing Joe Gillis in a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard (first at the London Coliseum in 2016, then on Broadway the following year).

VIDEO: Video blog of his first week on Broadway, following him backstage.

In-between, he’s been twice Olivier nominated – for Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park in 2011, and for the original production of Howard Goodall’s musical version of the film Love Story, first in Chichester in 2010 then transferring to the West End the following year (for a production in which Michael Ball took a producing role). He’s also been brilliant as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music at the Open Air Theatre in 2013 and Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015. In 2017 he returned to Broadway in Prince of Broadway, the tribute to director Hal Prince.

VIDEO: Singing Eidwelweiss from The Sound of Music at the Open Air Theatre.

6. Oliver Tompsett
An original cast member of Wicked when that show premiered in London in 2006, he was an understudy, then take-over, for Adam Garcia as Fiyero; before going on to stints in two rock-based musicals, Rock of Ages (2011) and taking over as Galileo in We We Will Rock You (2012-2014). This mistakenly led me to believe he was a rock- based performer; but in a Christmas season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 2014, he starred in a production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas that showed me his effortless ease with a legit voice, too.

He’s since used that to wonderful effect in a West End revival of Guys and Dolls, taking over as Sky Masterson in 2016; then taking over as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots in the West End in 2018.

VIDEO: Performing “Soul of a Man” from Kinky Boots:

Until the pandemic struck, he was playing the lead role of William Shakespeare in & Juliet, a jukebox musical compiled out of the hits of record producer Max Martin, at the Shaftesbury.


7. David Hunter
David was one of the ensemble cast of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World that brought a live musical back to the London Palladium last November (albeit for one day only, though it was due to be reprised in the West End last month and was aborted owing to the re-imposition of lockdown; a video version was released instead). In the West End he has been wonderful taking over in Once (2014) and Kinky Boots (2016), before starring as Dr Pomatter in Waitress in 2019.

VIDEO: Performing If You Want Me, from Once (joined by Robbie White):

He is also a brilliant singer-songwriter of his own original material; earlier in the pandemic, he was taking orders for bespoke songs, delivered via Cameo, and I commissioned one myself. You can hear it on the podcast!

8. Cedric Neal
Another of the stunning voices in Songs for a New World at the London Palladium (see above), Cedric Neal was a 2019 entrant on TV’s The Voice.

VIDEO: Here is his blind audition, performing ‘Higher Ground’:

He is due to appear in the West End this summer in the stage premiere of Back to the Future at the Adelphi:

VIDEO, performing “Gotta Start Somewhere” from Back to the Future:

He has previously starred in Motown at the Shaftesbury as Berry Gordy, and was also the Arbiter in Chess, seen at the London Coliseum in 2018,

9. Ben Forster
Winner of the 2012 reality TV round to cast the title role an arena stage touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Ben Forster had stiff competition that year: other entrants included such established West End voices as Oliver Tompsett (see above), Alex Gaumond and Roger Wright. Forster himself wasn’t a stranger to the West End himself: he’d been in the original West End company of Thriller Live! (the long-running Michael Jackson jukebox revue and a short-lived Beatles show All You Need is Love.

After appearing in a run of Jesus Christ Superstar at the O2 Arena, in a company that also included Tim Minchin as Judas, he was due to reprise it on a tour in the US, but the run was cancelled in Nashville as the company was in the midst of technical rehearsals.

VIDEO: Performing “Gethsemane” in Jesus Christ Superstar.

He bounced back from that disappointment to star in the West End as Magaldi in a revival of Evita at the Dominion, then returning to that address to star in the title role of a Christmas musical called Elf. He then took over in the title role of the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera.

10. Tyrone Huntley
The dynamite-voiced Tyrone Huntley was first brought to my attention by my singer-songwriter friend Scott Alan, who featured him in one of his concerts at the Other Palace Theatre and urged me to come that night, which I duly did. Tyrone blew my socks off, as he has every time I’ve seen him on stage since, from a tiny but significant role in Memphis to playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park in 2016.

VIDEO: Performing at the 2017 Olivier Awards

He reprised that role, for which he was Olivier nominated, in 2017, and again in 2020, when it was revived for socially distanced performances that summer. He also starred in the long-overdue West End premiere of the 1980s Broadway classic Dreamgirls in 2016, and was due to play Barnaby in last year’s now postponed revival of Hello, Dolly! with Imelda Staunton and Jenna Russell.

There are many more regular faces I see in the West End that I’m always delighted to see and hear. They include more Phantom/Les Mis veterans like John Owen Jones (who has done more performances as Phantom in the West End than any other actor, plus played Valjean both in London and on Broadway), Jon Robyns (the West End’s current Valjean), David Thaxton (who as well as playing Phantom in the West End has also taken over as Raoul in Love Never Dies, but first impressed me as Georgio in the Donmar revival of Passion) and Rob Houchen (once Marius in Les Mis but with very bright future ahead of him).

Also with leading man stature are Matt Henry (who led the West End cast of Kinky Boots opposite Killian Donnelly, and won an Olivier Award for his efforts) and Bertie Carvel (who first made an impression as Leo Frank in the Donmar’s UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and subsequently originated the role of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, both in the West End and on Broadway).

Other performers who are never less than wonderful are Australian actors Damian Humbley (a regular at the Menier in shows like Merrily We Roll Along and Forbidden Broadway, both of which transferred to the West End) and Ben Lewis (the original Phantom in the Australian production of Love Never Dies who has since settled in London, where he has taken over in the original Phantom as well as starring in Sondheim’s Company); Simon Bailey (Jersey Boys), Oliver Savile (Wicked, The Last Ship in Toronto) and Michael Jibson (Olivier winner for best supporting actor in a musical for playing King George in Hamilton).

Another new generation of stellar performers is also beginning to emerge, like the aforementioned Rob Houchen; I’d also add Jamie Muscato and Andy Coxon (who both played Tony in West Side Story in 2019, in productions at Leicester and Manchester respectively); Alistair Brammer (who played Chris in the last London revival of Miss Saigon, then reprised it on Broadway); and Sam Tutty (Olivier winner for Dear Evan Hansen in his first post-drama school role).

WATCH: Sam Tutty performs Waving through a Window from Dear Evan Hansen at the 2020 Oliver Awards.

Then there’s Jonathan Bailey (a recent newcomer to musicals, with starring appearances in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years at The Other Palace and as reluctant gay bridegroom Jamie in the partially gender-swapped revival of Company in the West End, but now making waves as a star on the Netflix series Bridgerton), Stewart Clarke (who has been wonderful in the British premiere of Be More Chill in 2019, and before that was in Trevor Nunn’s Menier Chocolate Factory production of Fiddler on the Roof that transferred to the Playhouse) and Layton Williams (brilliant taking over the title role in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie).

And last but by no means least, two graduates of ArtsEd London, where I taught them in their first years: Jac Yarrow (who went directly from his 3rd year show playing the lead role of Jack Kelly in the British premiere of Disney’s Newsies to starring at the London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2018); and Tarrin Callender (who has already starred in Hamilton and Come from Away in the West End).

I’ll be choosing some of my guiltiest musical theatre pleasures: shows we’re not supposed to love but do anyway! To tune in, don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite listening platform. And come back here next Friday for this weekly feature!

Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design