For any actor, stepping into another’s shoes for a role can be tough. But when those shoes are for the role of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, a part made famous by John Travolta, it’s an unenviable task.
But Richard Winsor took on Tony last year in a brand new version of the Brooklyn-set story of a working class boy pursuing redemption through dance at the height of the disco era.
Richard spent more than a decade dancing for Sir Matthew Bourne’s company, before switching tack to play heart-throb Caleb Knight in the BBC’s medical drama Casualty for four years.
Soon after he left Casualty, Richard was approached by theatrical impresario Bill Kenwright, to see if he was interested in a new take on the 1977 classic.
‘Bill Kenwright wanted to take a real fresh look at the story and the film,’ says Richard. ‘He wanted to get a real sense of what we were trying to achieve and to keep it quite raw and quite vivid – but obviously with the crowd-pleasing element of the musical numbers in there too.’
The soundtrack, featuring songs by the Bee Gees such as Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love and Jive Talkin’, was key to the film’s success. The album remains the biggest selling soundtrack of all time.
How is the music handled in the show?
‘I do sing a little bit and the cast sings quite a lot,’ explains Richard. ‘But we are primarily led in the singing department by three wonderful guys who play the Bee Gees. They’re up there on the platform at the back, they’re in silhouette a lot of the time, it’s beautiful how they’re lit, and their singing’s just wonderful. Their harmonies are perfect and you get a real sense of what the music sounded like in the context. The music was so important to that period, it was instrumental to it all.’
As a boy developing an interest in performing, Tony Manero was was a character who piqued his interest.
‘It’s a film I loved but it came out a little bit before my time. I was born in ’82, but as a young performer who was interested in dancing and interested in acting, and all of those things, when I was around 10,11, 12, I watched parts of the film, along with things like Grease, Michael Jackson, Footloose, Patrick Swayze – all of those strong men performing with great movement telling stories in what they were doing.
‘I just fell for it and thought it was absolutely fantastic. The role was always on my radar.’
He also saw Adam Garcia as Tony in the original West End production in the late ’90s which left him ‘blown away.’
So when Bill Kenwright offered it to Richard, he says: ‘The chance to do a brand new version, bringing a new look at the character I loved, I snapped at the chance. And with my dance background, I wanted to go for it. The role is iconic, and it was made iconic by John Travolta. He’s a supremely gifted, charismatic actor. I wanted to emulate him in his success in the character, but I didn’t want to copy him. I didn’t just want to be a John Travolta mimic – that’s not what I want to do as an actor.
‘I wanted to find out what the role is about, who he is, where he’s come from, what his surroundings are, and just try and make my own authentic look at the character.
‘There’s some really great, really raw, dramatic family scenes in there, and you get the sense of why he’s being pushed towards the choices he’s making and why he’s being led to his conclusion. You really get to understand that.
‘And then you’ve got the beautiful set, and the great cast and the crowd-pleasing numbers at the same time, so it’s got a drama/play/musical feel to it.’
How did he take returning to dancing after taking time out to be on Casualty?
‘I was on TV for nearly four years and I loved that job, and loved everyone on it. But I did have that weird thing, when I wasn’t involved in one of the big story-lines, I’d be missing that adrenaline, that buzz, that you get from being in front of an audience, or dancing and being knackered right afterwards.
‘I was kind of craving that, so when Bill Kenwright approached me after I left – he is a big fan of Casualty by the way, so he knew my character – and he told me he wanted to create a new Saturday Night Fever I jumped at it.
‘It’s like riding a bike. As long as your physique’s good, and I’ve always kind of kept my stamina up, but I hadn’t danced in about four-and-a-half-years, so getting back in the studio, going back to training for about three months before we started the rehearsals, it’s like any athlete or sportsman, you just find it again.’
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton