Jason Manford talks about The Producers

Jason Manford as Leo Bloom. Picture: Comp
Jason Manford as Leo Bloom. Picture: Comp
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A TABLE, a telephone, sofa, and a bucket that doubles as a wig. Oh, and some fake pigeons, an ashtray and a bugle. The cast of The Producers are bringing to life Mel Brooks’ hilarious musical satire, song by song, gag by gag.

Welcome to the Dance Attic, just off London’s Fulham Broadway and to the rehearsal room in which director Matthew White is creating the show that will tour to the Festival Theatre later this month.

White-washed brick walls, one lined with mirrors, another adorned with large colour images of the set (a dark red affair dominated by a large black swastika) frame the action as Jason Manford, in sweat pants and a black T-shirt with ‘Dare’ emblazoned across his chest, works through a number with co-star Cory English - the pair play Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock, the titular producers.

In a corner, Phill Jupitus sits, awaiting his cue. As one scene finishes, the director calls the next. There is a flurry of activity. The ensemble appear, transformed into elderly benefactors, each leaning on an imaginary zimmer-frame, to deliver an outrageous and demanding dance routine.

Camping it up elsewhere in the room are Olivier Award-winning David Bedella, who plays flamboyant director Roger De Bris, and choreographer Louie Spence, as his equally flamboyant assistant, Carmen Ghia.

Dark and satirical, The Producers is the tale of washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his accountant Leo Bloom. The pair set out to cover a fraud by producing a ‘sure-fire flop’ called Springtime for Hitler, written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind, played by Jupitus. Of course, the best laid plans...

Three weeks in and the production is arguably ready for its first audience.

With the sneak preview over, Manford obviously can’t wait to get the show on the road and explains how, though best known as a comedian, he came to find himself cast in the all singing, all dancing extravaganza.

“I’ve always been interested in musicals. A night out to London’s West End from Manchester when I was younger was something we’d save up for,” he reveals.

“Over the years I’d actually asked about doing a musical a number of times, Sweeney was the first to give me a chance.”

Manford is talking about the acclaimed London production of Sweeney Todd, in which he appeared as Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli, alongside Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. It might only have been a six week season, but it got the 31-year-old noticed.

“I saw the job come up on a casting website I’d signed to years before,” he recalls. “You do get pigeon-holed in this business, but I’d got to the point where I thought, ‘Well Frank Spencer [Michael Crawford] was the Phantom of the Opera and he was brilliant.’ I really wanted to do it, so I put it out there. After three auditions they let me.

“But the good thing about Pirelli was that he was such a big character, a bit like the Go Compare man. That let people see what I could do.

“I had a big opera number... then in the next scene Michael Ball cut my throat. I was dead by half eight,” he laughs, adding, “It was the best job I ever had.”

That Manford proved a hit in Sweeney should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his family background. Although the fact that he has trained as an opera singer, might.

He explains, “My family are all in show bands, playing either Irish folk music or country and western. They’re all entertainers.

“My nana came over from Dublin in the 50s with my granddad and they were a duo. Then she had 11 children here and taught each one of them an instrument. The family became the band. Every Sunday as a kid I be in the pub watching the family performing.”

It wasn’t unusual for the young Manford to find himself in the spotlight either, indeed it was back then he first experienced the thrill of making people laugh.

“You always had to have a song ready because you knew that at some point dad was going to say: ‘Right Jason, it’s your turn get up and do a Kenny Rogers’ number...’ Although, I’d do Elvis. Imagine, a nine-year-old singing In The Ghetto. Even then I knew that was funny, but I still wanted to be in a musical.”

The Producers sees Manford fulfilling that ambition, as Leo Bloom he follows in the footsteps of Matthew Broderick, Gene Wilder and Lee Evans.

Musing on how he landed the role, he offers, “I guess everyone knows each other. I know Michael Ball is a good friend of Adam Spiegel who is producing this. I work hard and I work with a smile on my face - I still can’t quite believe this is my job.

“So I guess my reputation for working hard got around and Adam Spiegel rang me. He asked if I had any time off in 2015. We had a chat, although he couldn’t tell me what musical it was at that point. Then, by the time we met, he had the rights and said, ‘It’s Mel Brooks’ The Producers.’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ because the great thing about Leo Bloom is that the part has already been played by comics.”

Rehearsals have been “brilliant fun” enthuses Manford, as the company manager reminds him there’s a buffet lunch to be tucked into as we talk. The actor would rather chat.

“This role has everything. It’s funny, but Leo is also the straight man to Max who has all the one liners. That’s great. I’m not one of those comics that has to get the laugh. As long as the show is getting the laughs, and I am part of that, I’m happy. Leo also has brilliant dance numbers - the dancing is actually my favourite bit of it now, even though tap is hard. Then, on top of all that, I have some lovely songs.”

He thinks for a moment, and adds, “For me, Leo Bloom is Judy Garland, just arrived in New York and caught up in the bright lights of Broadway. A wide-eyed deer caught in the headlights.”

A bit like Manford in his new found dream career.

The Producers, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 23-28 March, 7.30pm (Matinees 2.30pm), £16.50-£42.50, 0131-529 6000