John Owen-Jones: how Friday Night Is Music Night took his breath away

The West End star on Leslie Bricusse songs, the 2012 Phantom tour - and the pressure to nail a world premiere

Tonight Michael Parkinson presents a special episode of Friday Night Is Music Night (8:00pm, BBC Radio 2), dedicated to composer and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, who turned 80 earlier this year.

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To date tenor John Owen-Jones – hailed by many as the definitive Phantom of the Opera and the definitive Jean Valjean in Les Misérables – has never starred in a Bricusse musical. So, busy though he was, this opportunity to perform some of his legendary songs – and to work with fellow West End stars Hannah Waddingham and Mike Jibson – was too good to pass up.

He names Waddingham’s Can You Read My Mind and Jibson’s My Kind of Girl as standouts from his fellow performers – “really lovely songs I wasn’t familiar with.”

Of his own selection, he says, “I thoroughly enjoyed singing Feeling Good and If I Ruled the World – they just seem to ‘fit’ me, if you know what I mean.” Certainly his Feeling Good carried a powerful and sexy vocal swagger on the night of the recording. And nobody could accuse him of not giving his all to If I Ruled the World. He held that final note so long, his face actually turned red!

Known for his cheeky sense of humour, as the audience applauded Owen-Jones turned to conductor Mike Dixon and mimed being strangled. Was he just being self-deprecating or does a note like that really take it out of a performer?

“It went on just a shade too long, actually!” he responds. “I think Mike was enjoying conducting me and the orchestra so much that he forgot to give me the cutoff point!”

Luckily for the audience (not to mention Mrs Owen-Jones), Dixon’s momentary over-exuberance didn’t deprive us of one of the UK’s top stage stars, who closed the show by leading the company in a world premiere performance of Bricusse’s Peace on Earth, from musical Noah’s Ark.

“It was a perfect Christmassy ending for the show, I think. I didn’t actually know it was a world premiere until Michael Parkinson said so, though – all of a sudden I felt under pressure to nail it. Way to go, Parky! It worked out all right in the end, though!”

The concert came as Owen-Jones, who has played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera more times than any other actor in London’s West End, gears up for the 2012 nationwide tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.

“The show will have a brand-new set design, direction and choreography, too. I’m relishing the opportunity to do something new with it. I think it’s very daring of Cameron Mackintosh to risk taking something so loved and try it in a new way. I’ll also be celebrating my 2,000th performance of the role on the road, so I’m looking forward to that, too!”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2Aysczt1QA

He also took part in the recent 25th anniversary celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall, joining forces with four other stage Phantoms and Sarah Brightman for sensational renditions of the title track and Music of the Night.

“Apart from it being a huge honour to be part of the celebrations, my abiding memory of the Albert Hall gig was how much fun it was. It was a massive, once-in-a-lifetime event and a huge challenge to pull off – and I think everyone did a superb job. I was lucky enough to just have to turn up at the end and sing a bit. Stuff like that – it’s what you dream of when you first start out in this business.”

His new album is slated for release around March/April 2012 and will contain a few surprises. He explains that, while he’s known for musical theatre, “I love all kinds of music and want to open people up to songs they might not have heard, as well as some musical theatre classics.”

Fans of his performances at the National Eisteddfod of Wales and Gŵyl Gobaith Music Festival will also be pleased to hear he plans another album, featuring Welsh language tracks, later that year.

His busy schedule has meant #johnvskillian, a series of zany challenges with his then Phantom co-star Killian Donnelly – shared with their followers via Twitter and YouTube – has had to take something of a back seat.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQvXxF91H4Q

“As they became more ambitious they became more time-consuming and therefore more difficult to do. What started out as a bit of fun on Twitter has become something of an ‘event’ and we want to live up to that. But #johnvskillian will return!”

There’s one final question I’m dying to ask. This is the man who regularly teases colleagues on Twitter. The man who brought a headbanging Phantom to YouTube. The man who last Friday night responded to Michael Parkinson’s grumble that there was “water for everyone except me” by shielding his own bottle, fixing Parky with a stare and taking a deliberate swig.

So: has his sense of humour ever got him into trouble? At this point the candid star becomes strangely coy. “Er…um…yes,” is all he will volunteer!

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Will you be listening to this edition of Friday Night Is Music Night?