France's 'Leading Men' Cross The Channel - Forget Modjo, Flat Eric and Air! London is currently undergoing a massive cross-Channel invasion and the surprising thing is, this time round it's not fuelled by electro beats or the ever-trendy French Touch.
Jérôme Pradon, a French singer currently playing the male lead in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Whistle Down the Wind, was not surprised by the reaction of the British press to Notre Dame de Paris. "The thing is, in Anglo-Saxon musicals you get to sing with a real orchestra," says Pradon, "but the cast of Notre-Dame de Paris perform with a pre-recorded soundtrack, so perhaps London audiences have felt a bit short-changed."
Pradon, one of the rare French performers to have made it big in London's West End, trained as an actor at the prestigious Cours Florent in Paris. Applying make-up backstage at the Aldwych Theatre before Wednesday night's show, Pradon chatted away to me in impressively accentless English, admitting that in the early days of his career he'd always found musicals "a bit naff, really".
"But then a friend of mine told me they were auditioning for Les Misérables in Paris," he says, "so I sent my CV along. I'd had no formal musical training - just a couple of singing lessons and I'd never even heard of Les Miz. That shocked the people I was auditioning for, I can tell you! Anyway, they sent me away with a tape of the show and asked me to learn the part of Enjolras. When I listened to the tape, I couldn't believe my ears, I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard!"
Pradon ended up training so hard for the show that he ended up landing the role of Marius, one of the male leads in Cameron Mackintosh's production of Les Misérables, which premiered in Paris at Le Theatre Mogador in 1991. The French did not appear to appreciate having their history retold by an Englishman, however, and the show closed after just seven and a half months. But by then Pradon had been bitten by the "musical" bug and asked to audition for the English version of Les Miz in London. Much to his surprise, the producers offered him the part of the American G.I. Chris - the male lead in another Boublil and Schönberg musical, Miss Saigon - instead.
"Singing in English was really stressful and exhausting at first," Pradon admits, "there wasn't just the problem of the language, but the accent as well. I had intensive training sessions with a drama coach to make sure I could perform with a flawless American accent. I remember I was the only French guy up for the role of Chris and I couldn't even speak English at the time. The other actors auditioning with me kept looking at me like I had three heads or something - and I can't say I blame them!".
After a year in Miss Saigon, Pradon went on to play Napoleon in a short-lived musical in Toronto, then returned to London's West End to star in another Boublil and Schönberg musical, Martin Guerre. Shortly afterwards, he found himself auditioning in front of Andrew Lloyd Webber for the part of Judas in the new video version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Ironically, in spite of his star status in the UK - where he has had to adjust to the "culture shock of people driving on the wrong side of the road and thinking with the left-hand side of their brain!" - Pradon remains a complete unknown in France.
Eager to return to Paris to pursue his career on the other side of the Channel, Pradon is nevertheless wary of the French attitude to musicals. "French audiences don't understand that musicals can be a form of theatre," he says, "They don't understand the idea of an actor who can sing or a singer who can act! In France you've either got operettas which are considered really boring and old-fashioned or musicals like Starmania which are actually more like concerts. In England operetta evolved hand-in-hand with drama and produced real 'musical theatre'."
In other words, don't expect to see Jerome Pradon in a forthcoming production of Les Dix Commandements or Roméo et Juliette!