Theatre interview: Keith Higham

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Young baritone Keith Higham takes the lead role in Opera North’s Carousel which opens at Leeds Grand next week. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.

We tend to think of musical theatre as being jolly, generally light-hearted entertainment that sends the audience off with a song in their heart and a smile on their face. It is not usually regarded as a forum for tackling the darker aspects of life.

However, there are some exceptions – and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is one of them. A huge success for Opera North in 2012, the company is reviving their production and it opens at Leeds Grand Theatre next week.

Set in a tight-knit community on the coast of New England, the story focuses on charismatic but troubled carousel worker Billy Bigelow and his ill-fated affair with young mill-worker Julie Jordan. They meet at the carnival and fall in love, but Billy’s rebellious ways soon leads to tragedy. Fifteen years later, he is given one more chance to make things right with Julie and the daughter he never met, but it could be too little too late. The music is powerful and affecting (the songs include If I Loved You, the upbeat June is Bustin’ Out All Over and the moving anthem, so beloved of Liverpool fans everywhere, You’ll Never Walk Alone) and the themes – life, death, love, regret, redemption – are truly operatic in scope.

“Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves referred to Carousel as an opera,” says Keith Higham, the young Liverpool-born baritone who is playing the part of Billy Bigelow. “They had done Oklahoma! which is a bit twee in its nature, whereas Carousel is really quite complex in its storytelling and the emotions it evokes. It’s about two people trying to make their way in the world at a really difficult time.”

Higham was involved as a chorus member and understudy in the 2012 production in which he performed as Billy in all the matinees and on the subsequent tour and is delighted to be taking on the part as the lead this time round.

“I had always had such a passion for Carousel and for the part of Billy and so to be involved in it last time was fantastic,” he says. “It was the one role I really wanted to study and get my teeth into, so coming back to it again is great.” And it is quite a meaty and challenging role to take on.

“If you were to just read Carousel you would think he is such a bad guy because of what’s in the text,” says Higham. “But he is complicated and on so many different levels. If you think about his back story – which you have to do as an actor – you can imagine he had a difficult childhood and he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. His initial response to that is to be a bit aggressive – he always wants to be the dominant person in any situation – but there are so many other aspects to him. We get to a point in the show where Billy has big choices to make – and he makes the wrong choices but with the best intentions.” Higham feels that it is his job to find the light and shade in Bigelow’s character and flesh him out into a figure that is complex yet ultimately sympathetic. “I want the audience to feel that they have followed him on his journey,” he says. “And that they understand the challenges he has in his life and have compassion for him.”

Technically and vocally the role is also very demanding. It includes the famous Billy Bigelow Soliloquy which runs to around seven and a half minutes and requires an operatic approach. “In musical theatre it is considered one of the greatest songs ever written for an actor-singer to perform,” says Higham. “Normally a song has three minutes to tell a story whereas this goes through various stages and it tugs at the heartstrings a lot.”

One thing that Higham is relieved about is that, despite being on stage for practically the whole show, he is the one character who doesn’t get to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone – and there is a very particular reason for that. “As an Everton supporter I am so glad I don’t have to sing it,” he says, smiling. “But it is such an iconic song for Liverpool and in all honesty it is very affecting; it never fails to get to you.”

* Carousel is at Leeds Grand Theatre, May 13-23. Tickets on 0844 848 2700 or www.leedsgrandtheatre.com

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