Interview with Lee Ormsby

I’m passionate about new writing and love to be involved with supporting new projects. Paradise Lost Cast Recording was a Kickstarter project last year. It’s an epic new musical which is a collaboration between Lee Ormsby and Jonathan Wakeham. I wanted to find out more about Lee and the Paradise Lost concept. So what follows is in Lee’s own words (unedited) the answers to questions I posed to him. I hope you enjoy it as much as Lee and I have writing and reading it.

1) At what age did you fall in love with performance and theatre? Was it a particular show that gave you that love? At what age did you yourself start performing?

I was very young. My mother said I was dressing up and singing from the age of three and four using towels and sheets as capes and acting out scenes from Peter Pan. They couldn’t shut me up so nothing’s changed really! Ha ha! I never really steered off that course. When I was eight I enrolled at Bristol Youth Theatre, started training under Margaret Thomas of the Birmingham Conservatoire, and not long after landed a small role in the movie “Displaced Person” as an orphan. It was set during World War II. As an eight-year-old it was the most exciting thing ever ti be in period costume surrounded by Guns and soldiers.

My first musical was the stage adaption of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“. Cubby Broccoli Who produced the movie and the James Bond films decided in the early eighties to adapt Chitty as a musical. I landed the role of Jeremy Potts, and it ran at The Victoria Rooms in Bristol before touring the UK, long before it hit the West End. We had one of the real cars they used in the movie (there were several) from Beaulieu Museum, and another small claim to fame was originating the role that a young Robbie Williams took over from when the show went to Stoke-on-Trent!

2) For those that don’t know what is the background to the cast recording Paradise Lost? (The story so far – When did you meet Jonathan, the concept and so on)

I’d always harboured a desire to write a musical of my own but could never find suitable subject matter. It was my brother that suggested Paradise Lost which was one of the set texts for A-Level English when I was at college in 1990. The idea of an epic battle of good and evil amongst angels really excited me as I could visualise it. I knew the poem was 12 books long, so I took my favourite elements of the poem and put the story together myself. I was fascinated by the idea of how an angel such as Lucifer, theologically one of God’s favourite angels, could become so wicked as to become the devil. It just seemed the perfect story to set music to. I wrote a synopsis, and introduced a love interest in Angelis, as pretty much any successful musical has at its centre the theme of love.

Due to a clerical error in my university application, I ended up having to take a year out, so my gap year was spent writing and performing in local theatre groups in Bristol. I met Jonathan Wakeham after being guested into a Bristol University drama play, and becoming friends, told him of my plans to stage Paradise as a musical. We decided to try and collaborate together, and in a very small practice room on a dilapidated piano in the scorching summer heat of 1991 we wrote “Kingdom of Your Own.” That was the start of our writing partnership, and that song, amongst many rewrites of the show and its material has never changed!

We spent 4 years writing it, and the finished version of Paradise Lost was performed as my university final piece in 1995 at the Redgrave theatre in Bristol. I’d put together a company of the cream of Bristol talent and the show also featured University colleagues who have since gone on to be professional actors.

The show went far beyond our expectations, winning the coveted “Best Musical” in the Nat West Rose Bowl Awards that year, and attracting the attention of a big theatrical publisher. At that time we declined the offer in favour of reworking some of the material. Sadly that never happened as we both went our respective ways to pursue different careers.

Skip forward several years and the invention of social media (and mobile phones!!!) and Jonathan and I reconnected. We met up and went to the theatre, seeing several shows which horrified us; Shows that had huge budgets and big directors but were truly awful in terms of musical material.

We knew we had something special with Paradise as people kept coming back to us over the years asking for music from the show, but being 19 years older and wiser we both realised that it needed a major overhaul to reflect the needs of a modern musical theatre audience. Jonathan was it successful writer and publicist, and I had graduated from drama school, some years previously, I was enjoying a professional career as an actor, so we both had a better understanding of what was needed from our show. As a labour of love we decided to collaborate once more and revise the score.

It was meeting Hugh Wooldridge, The director of “Chess in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall“, that I was part of in 2008 that changed the game. I played Hugh some of the music we’d updated, and he became hugely influential in reshaping and completely rewriting the show to where it is today. Hugh is a visionary in terms of what works for an audience, and there was no compromise in sparing any piece of material that he didn’t think furthered the story or developed the characters. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude in guiding us in the right direction, and he is a huge champion in wanting to see the show staged.

The recording came about because we all realised that due to the economic climate, and lack of producers taking a risk on new musicals, we needed to get our show out into the public domain. Classics such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, War of the Worlds and Chess all began life as concept albums first, with the staged versions following. It Seemed the best way for people to hear our score.

3) You had some amazing performers involved and it felt different to normal cast show recordings i.e. Everyone believed and had a desire for it to succeed how did you come by these particular performers or was it normal the casting process?

It was far from a normal process. Because we were creating an album first, I wanted it to sound epic. I spent 18 months orchestrating and creating the tracks which are quite lush and sweeping, and I knew from the outset I wanted it to sound as cinematic possible to reflect the very nature of the poem. My aim was for the listener to be able to close their eyes whilst listening to the album, and visualise every piece of action as if they were watching it on the big screen – experiencing the great expanses of Heaven and Hell, and Angels at war as if they were there.

In terms of casting, we had a huge job in trying to find an Angelis that could belt to the top of her range as well as the necessary contrasting sweet Soprano sound. Our producer Simon Greiff suggested Charlotte Wakefield, and watching just a few minutes of her YouTube channel knew instantly she was perfect. We were very blessed to get Charlotte who redefined how both Jonathan and I imagined Angelis to be.

Michael was cast years ago. I worked with Matt Wycliffe on “Buddy” in the West End, and always visualised him as Michael. He was attached to this project regardless of how we did it from the outset. Lucifer was the biggest challenge. In contrast to the classical based heaven characters such as Michael, all of Lucifer’s songs are quite rock orientated. I really wanted a singer that could let rip on the big rock stuff, but contrast with a pure clean sound on the ballads. Simon kept suggesting names as possible choices, but I just knew what I wanted him to sound like. I must’ve driven Simon mad! I’m quite stubborn when I know what I want. 🙂 I’d seen Ricardo in “We Will Rock You” some years back, and wanted him as Lucifer instantly. He was unable to be part of the demo recordings, so

Killian Donnelly sang Lucifer for the Kickstarter promo tracks. Between them we couldn’t have asked for better. It was incredible to see both performers give different takes on the character In the studio. When we finally got to recording the whole album, it was just mind blowing to watch Ricardos monumental attention to detail – every thought process for the character came across in the music and he just went for it. He’s a perfectionist, even tired after rehearsing all day for “women on the verge of a nervous breakdown”, he would insist on re-recording Anything he thought he could do better, even when the rest of us were happy with it. I really wish that people could have experienced what we did in the studio during the recording sessions.

As for the rest of the cast, I used performers I respected and had worked with who I wanted to hear singing the roles. We are so proud of our performers and nobody realises more than myself that we lucked out with our cast. It was also so lovely to have Simon Gregory, Marcus Cook and Dom Brewer involved, as they were part of the original Version.

4) So now we know the story so far, what’s next for Paradise Lost?

Well ideally we’d love to see it staged. Nothing would make us happier than to see our album cast recreating the roles in a live theatre environment. Everybody involved wants the same, so it’s humbling to see so much support for our work. We’ve been sending out material to potential producers, but it’s a very slow process as the main reason we recorded the album was because of the lack of producers taking a punt on new material.
Hopefully it will happen someday.

5) If anything what can we do to help? The Kickstarter campaign showed the desire for the public your supporters to help and I know we all want to see it in production.
We were overwhelmed with the kickstarter response. In a 40 day campaign, we hit our target in just 13 days, showing that people believed in our show and wanted it to succeed as much as we did. A lot of the new musicals today seem to be American exports, revivals, jukebox musicals or movie adaptions. All of that is great, but It’s been some time since there’s been a big romantic classically based British musical. We feel we have all of that with Paradise. Sadly though, with the closure of new shows such as “Made in Dagenham“, “I Can’t Sing” and “Stephen Ward”, producers are ever sceptical of even looking at new material. What we really need is exposure. The more people that hear our material and like our work feeds the desire to see it on stage. The kick starter campaign showed very clearly the power of social media. We need people to share our links, tweet, like or forward our pages, and even message producers to bring attention to the album. It’s pretty much the only way forward during this economic time until things change.

6) What has been your personal favourite role to date?

That’s a tough one, every job has been different, bringing its own cherished memories over the years. I might have to say Artie Green in Sunset Boulevard, as it was my first big professional job after leaving drama school. I’d done lots of TV in my teens, but I will always remember our first night in Plymouth and the fantastic 18 months I had on that show. I started off as one of The Finance Men, and took over the role of Artie for over 9 months.

Phantom of the Opera
ticked a lifelong ambition box. I saw it with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman back in 1986. that show cemented my desire to be in musical theatre. It only took 25 years to get into it. Lol. Ironically what should’ve been the happiest time ever was marred by the devastating loss of my mother who got poorly during the second week of rehearsals, and who sadly passed away just nine months later. Mum always believed in Paradise Lost, and that we should go as far as we can with it, so partly because of that is what drives us on. Phantom will always have a special place in my heart, for both good and bad reasons. At the moment I’ve had A truly fantastic time on Disney’s the Lion King. I would go as far to say that it’s undoubtedly the hardest job I’ve ever done, yet easily the most fun. We’ve been in Switzerland with it since March after touring the UK, so when I finish in October I will have been Pumbaa for 2 1/2 years!

7) Is there a role you’ve always wanted to play but it has eluded you to date?

Lol- Its the usual suspects: I’d love to have a crack at the Phantom or Jean Valjean. I was Joseph Buquet and covered Monsieur Firmin and The Auctioneer on the 25th Anniversary Tour. I went on lots of times for both, but have often sung The Phantom in concerts, so it would be fun to do that.

8) You are currently on tour with The Lion King where does that take you next or what’s next for Lee?

Who knows? Lol. Definitely planning a holiday as I jumped straight from Phantom to Lion King so I’ve been on the road the best part of four years!
As an actor it’s both exciting and terrifying when you come to the end of a job. Hopefully it will lead to something else, but with so many new performers graduating every year, competition get fiercer. We’ll have to see.

As a writer, I’ve been working on a new project for some time, so I’ll carry on developing that as well as pursuing Paradise. There were also several songs that due to space we were unable to put on the CD. So Maybe I will try to get those recorded too 🙂

Two random questions

9) Who do you think is the most influential person in the world today and why?

Mmmm. That’s tough one. In theatrical times, it’s impossible to ignore the contribution Cameron Mackintosh or Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber have made to the theatre community. I often wonder where the world would be if they had not been around. From the restoration of theatres to their back catalogue of work they’re just Giants in their field, and personally I owe a lot to both Cameron Mackintosh and ALW as I’ve got to perform in their biggest productions.

10) If you could have any “Super Power” What would it be?

I’d love to fly! It would solve the problem of tube strikes 😉

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