James takes the lead in 42nd Street

2010: Sheffield Me And My Girl star James O'Connell.
2010: Sheffield Me And My Girl star James O'Connell.
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ShEFFIELDER James O’Connell has landed the first leading role of his career on the UK tour of musical 42nd Street and one of its first dates brings him to his home city next week.

He plays Billy Lawlor, the guy who gets the girl originally played by Dick Powell in the movie with its classic storyline of the understudy who becomes a star overnight.

Though it dates back to 1933, 42nd Street has existed as a stage musical only since 1980 when the popular all-singing, all-dancing movie about small town girl Peggy Sawyer’s rise from the chorus line to Broadway stardom was adapted with a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin, and music by Harry Warren.

It centres on a show within a show, a musical extravaganza called Pretty Lady, which famous director Julian Marsh is struggling to stage during the Great Depression. Dave Willetts, veteran of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, South Pacific and Legally Blonde, plays the dictatorial director and another familiar face from many a previous musical at the Lyceum, Marti Webb is the fading prima donna Dorothy Brock.

Opposite James O’Connell as the other juvenile lead is Jessica Punch as the ingénue, Peggy Sawyer.

42nd Street is full of classic hit songs including Lullaby of Broadway, We’re in the Money, Shuffle Off To Buffalo, Keep Young and Beautiful and I Only Have Eyes For You as well as the title number. The touring production is directed by the show’s author and Broadway director Mark Bramble and features the sets and costumes from the US production.

“Billy is a bit of a charmer and tries to woo Peggy who’s having none of it to start with,” says O’Connell. “It’s a show which is heavy on dance – and it’s all tap which most shows don’t have much of. It’s great because I was into that as a kid and it’s the first show where I’ve been able to do that. We’re using all the original choreography and we have a big ensemble of 16 girls and eight boys so it’s a lavish production.”

He has been dancing almost as long as he can remember. “I started when I was six when I went to Maureen Law’s dance school in High Green. My mum sent me there to keep me active,” recalls the actor who grew up in High Green and was at school with the Arctic Monkeys.

“I didn’t think of doing song and dance as a career, it was just one of the things I did like swimming and karting. It was only when I got to my A levels and had to think what I was going to do. Doing drama was not something I had envisaged but I did it and I am glad.”

He spent three years at the Performers College in Essex learning acting, singing and dancing. “These days you have to be able to do all three and I’ve always been interested in them equally,” says O’Connell. There was also the learning experience in being away from home for the first time. “It was my first experience too of the North-South divide which was a bit of a shock but in a good way.”

He went on to parts in West End shows such as Chicago, We Will Rock You, Carousel and Crazy for You and UK tours of Annie Get Your Gun and Annie. O’Connell was in the Crucible production of Me and My Girl last year. “I remember being in Wind in the Willows at the Crucible when I was about 11 but this is the first time I have played the Lyceum so it’s very exciting and my mum and dad, family and friends, are all coming to see the show.”

l42nd Street is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.