Interview: James Meunier
by Polly Hember
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard follows the faded, silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond who lives in a distant, fantasy world. A struggling screen-writer Joe Gillis persuades her to work on a script with him that he believes will put Norma back on the big screen. He becomes enthralled and entranced by her lifestyle and outlook, and finds himself trapped in this magical hideaway until he cannot take it any longer.
Bristol-born James Meunier plays the role of Myron in the critically acclaimed, award-winning musical Sunset Boulevard. We talk to him about dream roles, the beauty of storytelling, his musical debut and returning to his home city to perform at the Bristol Hippodrome…
What first drew you to Sunset Boulevard?
Interestingly the title song Sunset Boulevard used to be my go-to song for auditions, competitions and concerts. There's just something about the combination of a great, exciting melody with really rich, complex and edgy lyrics with that song. I think that's what first drew me to the musical - and when I heard it was auditioning I was naturally very excited to go up for it!
Do you remember your first encounter with Sunset Boulevard? Was it Billy Wilder’s incredible film or Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s masterful musical?
I heard the music first, obviously the title song and I also loved Norma's songs and had seen and heard 'With One Look' and 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' performed by many different artists - I just loved these songs as they are almost love-letters to acting, the theatre and films. Particularly the latter song makes me think of the excitement of walking onto a set or into a theatre, and the familiarity of the place, and the love you have for what you do as an actor. Then I saw the film a few years ago as I've always been a fan of classic cinema, particularly films of the 1950s with Brando and Dean etc. and I love the style of film noir. I'd not seen the musical though until last year at the ENO and was absolutely blown away.
How is this part different from your previous roles?
The character of Myron is in the rat race of old Hollywood, I think he knows how to play the game and survive in a challenging world but at the same time there are those moments of frustration - he's a younger director trying to make his mark in Hollywood. Then I'm understudying the role of Joe Gillis as well, so his character is really multi-layered, but in a way similar to Myron in that he's trying to get ahead in Hollywood as a writer. Although really Joe has almost given up the ghost by the time we meet him and is feeling cynical and beaten down by Hollywood. I'd say the main difference with both of these roles is the musical specificity they require - the score that Andrew has written is so intricate and so clever so there's always something new to find in both these characters. Always in acting there's the inflection of a line, or a reaction which can tell such a big story in a seemingly small moment, but when you have a score like Sunset there's that whole other world that the music brings - and that's always so exciting.
"...all of the roles I've played have influenced me both musically and dramatically in the way I approach a song [...] there is so much you can do to convey those subtleties and thoughts."
Sunset Boulevard sees Joe Gillis as an impoverished script writer writing a script for Norma Desmond. If you could get him to write you into any role, what role would it be?
Wow! That's a hard one - there's so many! If it was a movie I would love to play Superman or James Bond!
How do you balance recording an album, rehearsals and touring?
I've been really lucky that I've been able to do all these at the same time basically. I put down the vocals before I went on tour and then my arranger Joe Davison who is an incredibly talented musician set to work writing arrangements to match my vocal. Once I was happy with the vocals and had done that work, then lots of the work could be done remotely from my end. I was able to go back and be in the studio when we recorded the string players which was great - and my main note was often to turn my vocal off while we were recording! I really wanted the string players to have their own voice and to not be guided by what I had done with the vocal before, so that we had the full musical expression on every track that the songs required. So really it's as a result of having very talented people to work with and people being very accommodating that has allowed me to do all of this at the same time!
Do you feel like any of your acting roles (Myron included) have influenced your solo music?
Oh absolutely - all of the roles I've played have influenced me both musically and dramatically in the way I approach a song. In musical songs (and in pop/rock songs as well) you are getting a snippet of a moment in someone's life, or a window into their mind, and up close to a microphone there is so much you can do to convey those subtleties and thoughts. I've included the title song of Sunset Boulevard on this EP as I've always loved the music of this show and do even more so now - and that influenced me to include some other classic musical theatre tracks that I think reach so many people. Doing a show like Sunset, you also can't help but grow in musical awareness and how that affects dramatically and musically everything you do. Equally I've been influenced by other genres of music, and playing and singing with my brother Richard Meunier who plays guitar on the EP has really influenced the sound and feel of a few tracks, bringing that rocky edge to a classic sound.
You've got to develop a thick skin, and remember that it is a job - even though there are so many emotions tied up in it, you've still got to be able to have that perspective on it.
Do you have any strong memories growing up in Bristol of attending the theatre?
Yes absolutely - I remember going both to the Hippodrome and to the Bristol Old Vic. There's such a diverse mix of theatre in Bristol, both musical and non-musical, which has really influenced me. A strong memory I have is of seeing the amazing Clare Higgins in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Bristol Old Vic. I think this city attracts and nurtures some brilliant talent.
Having great theatre in your hometown is so important and I remember the effect it had. I also went to see things on the West End, but somehow having great local theatres makes the whole thing feel more accessible. I was also very lucky to get my first job in Bristol when I was 17 recording at BBC Bristol for Radio 4's version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which gave me a taste of what it would be like to be a professional actor!
You’ll be performing in the brilliant Bristol Hippodrome; how does it feel coming back to your home city performing in Sunset Boulevard?
It's so exciting! To be performing in a theatre that you came to as a young boy and then to be standing on that stage in a show like Sunset Boulevard is a very emotional thing! I've got people from our old theatre society coming to watch and that will be great to see them all!
Have you got any advice for aspiring actors or musicians?
It can be such a joyful job but there are also hard times. You've got to develop a thick skin, and remember that it is a job - even though there are so many emotions tied up in it, you've still got to be able to have that perspective on it.
Really develop your own sense of self and your own confidence - don't let your self esteem be dictated by what you do professionally. That way I think life and work can be a lot more fun and productive because you have that thick skin to keep on going through hard times, but you can also enjoy all the good times as well.
James returns to Bristol on the 9th January, performing in Sunset Boulevard at the Bristol Hippodrome until 13 Jan 2018. He joins Ria Jones who plays Norma Desmond and Strictly Come Dancing’s Danny Mac as Joe Gillis on stage. This looks like a spectacular, intense show with a world-famous score – book tickets here!
James' new solo EP From the Heart is available now. To celebrate the release, he will be performing a live solo concert at the Pheasantry in London on 21st January 2018. Book tickets here to see James perform his new material as well as his musical theatre favourites.