Russell with Marti Pellow.
It’s a hot summer’s day on Auckland’s North Shore, and I’m sitting in a French cafe with Russell Dixon and his wife Amber. It’s somewhat amusing that we’re sitting here having this interview, when it could have equally happened in London a few weeks ago. I’m in Auckland on holiday – Russell on the other hand, has just moved back to New Zealand permanently.
This is the story of a man with big dreams, who chased them, and realised them. It’s the story of how a West Auckland boy achieved his goal of playing a leading role in a West End Musical.
Russell grew up in the semi-rural district of Oratia, where he was exposed to the magic of musicals from an early age. His father was Head of Music at Waitakere College, and directed the school shows. His mother was involved in painting stage sets for the local theatre. Recordings from his father’s own productions would often be played in the hallway as the children went to sleep. Russell recalls his father bringing home cassette tapes of West End shows like Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and Chess: “I must have been 7 or 8 when I started listening to these tapes and I thought, wow, there is this place in London called the ‘West End’. It became a dream to one day work there.”
From a young age, Russell became involved with amateur theatre in Auckland. It was during a production of 42nd St that he was identified as having the required attributes for an upcoming production of Copacabana in Invercargill, which enabled him to step from amateur to professional lead roles in New Zealand Musical Theatre. Copacabana established a good working relationship with the Director, Stephen Robertson, which led to him being cast as Danny Zuko in the Christchurch and Wellington productions of Grease, and as Gaston inthe Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin productions of Beauty and the Beast.
By this time, Russell had already begun to establish himself as a TV personality. He had filmed numerous TV commercials including the ‘Duelling Chefs’ advertisement for Pam’s Foods with Jamie Oliver, and was also the Presenter for the prime time ‘Tegel Taste Kitchen’ programmette series. This all changed when Russell joined the TV3 news team as a weather presenter in 2004. While his time at TV3 raised his profile, his commitments restricted his ability to participate in other TV productions and musical theatre – yet he still managed to squeeze in the productions of Golf at Auckland’s Sky City Theatre, Guys & Dolls for Christchurch’s Court Theatre and The Rocky Horror Show in Queenstown.
Russell with Hillary Barry and Mike McRoberts, TV3 News.
After two and half years at TV3, it was time for a change and Russell re-focussed on his dream of the West End. He said to his girlfriend Amber, “I want to do something radical. Why don’t we go to London – I want to see if I have what it takes to make it on the West End?”
Russell understood the difficulties of breaking into the professional theatre scene in England. Other friends in the industry, who had already tried, suggested he might not even be able to get a London agent. Fortunately for Russell, he had recently filmed a commercial with an English girl who was returning to London and who was happy to recommend him to her agent. It was a chance.
“Moving to the other side of the world was perhaps a bit of a risk,” Russell reflects, “but from an early age I decided: I want to have an extraordinary life. It’s really about making the most of the short time we have on this planet, maximising every moment. I craved adventure, wanted to experience life, meet interesting people, take risks – and learn from them. So we did just that.”
In an experience that mirrors how life in London starts for many Kiwi expats, Russell and Amber came to London with very little money, which they also found quickly disappeared. Russell lasted only a week in a (boring) office job. Amber was temping. Russell sent letters to about 20 agents. The few that were returned to him always had the same thing to say: “Our books are full; we’re not interested.” However, Russell got proactive. He dropped off his CV in person to his former colleague’s agent, and also brought along his show reel, managing to convince them to watch it while he talked through his experience.
That afternoon, the agency called him back to say that they were willing to represent him and the next day, they called him with his first audition – The UK tour of Blood Brothers, a show he was familiar with, having been involved in an amateur production in New Zealand. Within a week, he had his first job. But it didn’t stop there. Whilst away on the 6 month tour, Russell learnt that Bob Thomson – the original director of Blood Brothers – was assembling his dream cast for a 20th anniversary production of the musical, at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool. All of a sudden Russell found himself part of a hand-picked cast, playing the role of Mr Lyons, and covering the Narrator.
After performing in Blood Brothers for a year, Russell needed a new challenge. It was difficult to leave the small cast which had become his family but it was time to move on. His next role was understudying Marti Pellow from the Band WetWetWet, in the lead role of Darryl Van Horne in the UK Tour of The Witches of Eastwick.This meant touring for another year, which was challenging to his relationship with Amber, but they managed to survive.
Following a brief ‘fill-in’ in London on the West End as Mr Lyons in Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre, an opportunity came up to perform in the United Arab Emirates premiere of the show. Russell asked Amber, “Have we had enough? We’ve been away for two-and-a-half years now; in Dubai we’ll be halfway home.” Russell took Amber to Paris and proposed. Following the Dubai production, they returned home to New Zealand as planned, got married, and Russell performed the leading male role of Chris in Miss Saigon at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. They were just getting settled back into Kiwi life when Russell got a call from Kenny Wax (Producer of The Witches of Eastwick) with an incredible opportunity: “Russell, we’re looking for someone with your skill set to perform in a brand new production called Top Hat. Would you consider coming back to the UK?”
After negotiating with the production company to organise flights – as well as give Amber a job in wardrobe so that they could be together, Russell was heading back to the UK for a 6 month tour and world premiere. The opportunity then arose for Russell to stay on with the show with its West End transfer, continuing with his own role, and also covering one of the male leads. During Russell’s time with Top Hat the production was massively successful, enjoying great houses, and winning three Olivier awards – including Best Costume Design, Best Choreography and most importantly: Best New Musical. When the time came for the actor playing the comedy lead – Alberto Beddini to move on, Russell was offered the role.
As Beddini in “Top Hat”.
“So here I was, nearly 7 years after first arriving in the UK, being offered my very own lead in a popular West End musical. Performing at the Aldwych theatre, part of an original cast, part of an Olivier award-winning production – I really felt at that time that I had realised the boyhood dream. I had achieved that goal. You hear of kids who watch the rugby and want to be an All Black, or kids who watch the Olympics and want to win an Olympic medal. I had the satisfaction of achieving the theatrical equivalent.”
The West End production of Top Hat completed its run in October 2013. A casting agent for the David Walliams TV film Gangsta Granny had seen Russell as Alberto Beddini in Top Hat and asked him to audition for a similar character in the movie. He would be first choice for the role of Flavio Flaviolli, in the event that the big star they had in mind didn’t accept, or couldn’t make the filming for whatever reason. Sadly for Russell, Robbie Williams did accept the role, but Russell did get to understudy him and was cast in another, smaller role.
The end of the year was approaching and thoughts were starting to drift back to summer in New Zealand, and again, to settling down. The decision to return home was made.
Russell and Amber, “Top Hat”.
So what’s next for Russell now that he’s back in New Zealand? While working in more conventional employment, he’s also been cast as Sam Carmichael in the Dunedin production of Mamma Mia! in May 2014.
“For me, it’s been an extraordinary adventure. That’s not to say I’d never return if the right opportunity came up. While we love London and have called it home for nearly 7 years, we’ve come back to the place we love most, and where we feel most at home. We’ve got great stories, had incredible adventures.”
Meanwhile, does he have any advice for fellow Kiwis who are also chasing the West End dream?
Regardless of where people are at in terms of their training or experience, the advice Russell has to offer is always the same.
“Be realistic. You need to look at yourself and you need to look at the industry on a regional, national or global scale depending on your aspirations. You are one person in a sea of people who want to do the same thing. Unfortunately because of the number of jobs that are actually available, only a small minority will actually succeed. You might get degrees of success, or you may be one of a handful of people who get ‘the break’. What will set you apart will be:
… How you look, the sets of skills and talents you have, a heap of luck, either knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time – and how tenacious you are prepared to be.
You’re going to have to learn to take knockbacks, prepare for auditions and be scrutinised, with people telling you that you’re not good enough. You’re probably going to have to take rejection, disappointment and failure, time and time again. This industry is fraught with extreme highs and deep lows. But strange things happen. There are exceptions to the rules everywhere you go, but try to be realistic and in New Zealand especially, make sure that you have something else to fall back on.”
You can catch Russell on stage in “Mamma Mia!”, opening on May 22 at Dunedin’s Regent Theatre.
Article by Charlotte Everett. Photos courtesy of Russell Dixon.
Originally published on NZ News UK.