Frank Butler was an Irish American marksman in Wild West variety shows who married fellow sharpshooter Annie Oakley and their love affair is the basis of the musical, Annie Get Your Gun.
Playing him in the Crucible production is Ben Lewis who insists: “From day one we have been very much trying to take it away from the cookie-cutter, thigh-slapping world of Wild West musicals and present them as real and grounded people.”
As for Frank, “he is a joy to play,” says the actor. “He’s confident, he’s a man of the world. They travelled so much, they were incredibly worldly people and of the land because their whole act revolved around horses and animals.
“It’s an incredible mix of robust man and woman and this worldly side to them in a way only a travelling troupe can be. And the venues they played in. In London they performed for the Queen in front of thousands of people, they’re not small events that they did.
“We are not shying way from the fact that Frank is quite sexist and misogynistic and Annie is a brilliant contrast to that but we are not trying to sugarcoat it. In order to draw an audience’s attention to it you have to play it for what it was. I am enjoying saying all those things I would never say myself.”
Lewis himself is a mix of English and Australian, having spent his early years in Hertfordshire before his family moved Down Under where he went to university. Then his passion was rugby but he decided he had a better future on stage and signed up for drama school.
“Both my parents were opera singers and I have grown up in the theatre so it was a very natural thing for me. Inevitably the genes got me in the end,” he laughs, although adding, “When it comes to sport I am Australia all the way.”
His brother, Alexander, was a contemporary at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and went on to a career as an opera singer.
Ben worked mostly in musical theatre in Australia for nearly 10 years before in 2012 relocating to the UK with his actor-wife, Melle Stewart.
“I did quite a few big commercial productions in Australia and just before we came over I played the Phantom in Love Never Dies which Universal Pictures filmed and Andrew Lloyd Webber came over, it was a really amazing experience.
“And that was the catalyst for the move whose purpose was to get work that isn’t readily available in Australia,” he explains. “As high a standard as there is, there just isn’t the range of work because there isn’t the audience. A show like Annie Get Your Gun in a place like Sheffield is the exact reason I moved over.”
Although he didn’t know the show he knew it was full of wonderful tunes but the big draw was re-uniting with Anna-Jane Casey who stars as Annie. “I was lucky enough to work with her a few years ago in Forbidden Broadway at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then the West End,” he says. He also knew the director, Paul Foster, who had worked with his wife.
“It was a dream job really and then Sheffield was one of the theatres that my wife and I were keen to work. It was at the top of our list as a production house that is known internationally. It was certainly on our radar in Australia.”
Annie Get Your Gun runs at the Crucible until January 21.