Jérôme Pradon learnt fluent English to work in London
The first person to suggest that Jérôme Pradon would be interesting to interview was Ken Caswell and the second was his agent, Hilary Gagan. Both of them stressed the strength of his commitment to work in English-speaking musical theatre, taking time to learn fluent, colloquial English. Without a doubt, this is an unusual Frenchman, so I arranged to meet him at The Soho House, a popular theatrical club in London's West End, just around corner from the Prince Edward Theatre. He arrived, starving hungry, so ordered some pasta and a hamburger - necessary for the coming evening's energy output. All that stomping needs fuel.
Jérôme has the dark hair, hazel eyes and that pale, olive skin that is particularly French. His voice is low and attractive and his English is virtually accentless, just a faint Gallic emphasis here and there - so slight that for a recent role in a film, The Brylcreem Boys, he had to be asked to put on a much heavier accent on the lines of "allo, allo, gen-é-ral".
He's not from a theatrical family - his father is a mathematician and his mother combines running the household with antique dealing. Jérôme trained on a scholarship for two years and then filled in his time, waiting for the big break.
"I struggled along for quite a while, recording and writing songs for another French singer, Jean Goldoni, as well as myself, but I wasn't making a lot of money. All actors when they start out are half-performer and half-something else. In my case I was an usher in a cinema while I was singing in bars and at the same time, I had small parts in films and in theatre; but then came Les Misérables."
This was the first touring production, hot from revamped success in London, returning to its origins in Paris. It only ran for 7 1/2 months. The French did not enjoy the English re-telling their own, much-loved Victor Hugo story and Jérôme, exhilarated by the discovery of acting and singing in the same show, was saddened by the failure and determined to audition for the English version.
"They thought I was mad and they thought I did not know enough English. I had learned it at school so I was not too bad, but I was not really fluent. I had a teacher who coached me and I worked on the songs with her. So then it was O.K., yes, I could play Marius in London."
He has made it sound quite easy, but to reach that degree of fluency took a great deal of concentrated hard work. It paid off, although not as he originally expected.
"They suddenly asked me to audition for Chris in Miss Saigon and I ended up, out of nowhere, a Frenchman on the Drury Lane stage, playing an American!
"But he's such a depressing character! And he's rather weak. Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly is more interesting because he has done what he has done for pleasure and he doesn't really give a damn - so you can hate him. But with Chris, it's all about 'I'm so weak, I'm about to have a nervous breakdown, I need help!' which is not so good. Chris is genuinely in love with Kim, which is something, but after a year, I was really tired and it was difficult to be working at a constant, precise, American accent. I couldn't even pretend he came from Louisiana! It wasn't physically tiring, but it was emotionally exhausting."
It was around this time that Jérôme met Hilary Gagan who suggested him for the sadly, short-lived Napoleon in Toronto. It was a big event there, and disappointing that it lasted such a short time.
"We were filling the theatre, then the management said they were stopping the show early - just after a few months - so they could bring it to London, to the Shaftesbury Theatre. That would have been wonderful, but it didn't happen."
For a while, Jérôme commuted between France and England, playing roles in Cyrano de Bergerac (touring with The European Theatre Company), A Nogent Sur Garonne (Monclar, France), Assassins (at Derby Playhouse), and La Seconde Surprise De L'Amour (Theatre Grevin, Paris) amongst others. During this time, his work in France was mainly for Roger Louret who, he says, is the only man in France working to establish musical theatre there.
"The French are not very much into musicals. There is a very strong operetta culture which was there at the turn of the century as it was in England. However, the two have evolved differently. In England, it grew hand-in-hand with drama into musical theatre and recently, with the newer musicals, grew closer to opera once again. In France, operetta simply lost sight of real drama. Opera and operetta in France have nothing to do with each other. Operettas are considered to be boring, old-fashioned and uninteresting, only supported by a steadily ageing collection of people. The straight theatre is very much alive so we need a new way of educating the French people to musical theatre and I think Roger Louret can do that." He goes on to explain that he has been involved in Louret's small-scale musicals. Les Années Twist which tells the story of the sixties through French, American and English songs of the time and Les Années Zazous, which is a similar compilation about the second world war.
"When these musicals work, they are about having fun. Zazous was an art movement in Paris during the occupation when they dressed in very colourful, sometimes patchwork, fabrics in reds and yellows and greens, partly in a mood of defiance, but also to forget and to be childish and a little crazy. Roger Louret is the most successful musical director in France at present. He has plans to revamp Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne as his first, bigger piece of musical theatre."
And then came the auditions for Martin Guerre. Six of them in all and it was only after all six that the management told him they had wanted him from the start. Perhaps it was deciding which role to give him?
"I wanted to play Arnaud because he is the lead role, but they thought they would like somebody blond. So then, perhaps Martin, but I did not like the character very much and in fact, we did not have the full story at that time - parts of it were still being written! They would say 'at this moment, that happens, but we don't have it all yet, darlings!' Anyway, I didn't find his song enthralling and I am very sensitive to this when I listen to tapes of potential roles. It needs to click for me to become passionate about it and this did not happen with Martin. Then they faxed me Guillaume's song, 'I Will Make You Proud', and I started to play it on the piano and I played it and played it for the entire evening by which time I didn't care if Guillaume was a tiny role. I just thought this song was wonderful. I don't know why - it's a terrible song about slaughtering people - please!"
He did like the emotional manipulation of the lyrics, originally to be sung at the father's graveside and when the show changed in rehearsal, becoming a rabble-rousing number instead. So Jérôme agreed to play Guillaume and will be playing him until 14 June. Has he settled happily in London for the year or does he miss France?
"I have found a wonderful flat in Covent Garden with a terrace which is bliss in the hot weather. I really enjoy being here. I prefer the food! French food can be very fatty and very rich and I prefer a healthier cuisine, much lighter. Also food is polycultural - I had never had sushi before I came here. Although I miss France, in many respects, I prefer living in London." From all he says, it seems clear that when musical theatre does take off in France, Jérôme will be there. Meanwhile, we are happy to have him here.