Henry Winkler is so ingrained in the public’s conscience as the Fonz that casting the same role in a musical version of Happy Days was always going to present a challenge.As well as being able to sing, dance and act, anyone playing the Fonz – perhaps crucially – needs to be cool, too. Often all at the same time.
Step forward Ben Freeman – a man who, according to producer Amy Anzel, fulfilled this brief, and fended off some stiff competition from other well-known talent to land the part in the forthcoming tour of the musical.
If this is the case, however, no one told Freeman, who seems flattered to learn what he achieved. And, if we’re honest, a little daunted by the idea that the Fonz is required to dance.
“They have not mentioned dancing yet,” he laughs. “I’ve had singing lessons, and acting is something I’ve always done. But dancing is one of those thing you can’t pretend to do when you can’t do it. I would never go up for a job that is predominantly dance-based. Singing with a little bit of dance is perfect for me.”
Hearing this, you can’t help wonder whether Freeman has somehow missed – or is putting out of his mind – the fact that Happy Days is being directed and choreographed by Andrew Wright, the man behind the dancing in recent productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Barnum. There’s just no way that catchy moves and big dance breaks are not going to feature heavily in this production.
Still, perhaps Freeman is just downplaying his skills a little. Because, as has already been established, he was the one performer auditioned who was able to “do cool” along with everything else required.
Not that Freeman – and in this isn’t meant as an insult – is particularly cool. Which, it has to be said, is something of a revelation.
Perhaps it’s because of the way the press has portrayed him (more of which later) or the fact he played Scott Windsor in Emmerdale for so many years, that you expect him to be a tad cocky, arrogant even. The truth, however, is that he’s a little shy, a bit jittery and as far removed from the Fonz as is imaginable.
So what can people expect from his portrayal of this iconic character?
“I assume a lot of people will have seen Happy Days before, and will have a clear idea of what they want to see, or expect to see,” he says. “But I have never pretended to be anything like the Fonz. I am certainly not as cool as him. I am going to have to bring something of my own to the role, but I don’t want to neglect what Henry brought to it.”
He adds: “The Fonz is someone who everyone wants to be friends with, he’s funny and charming and at ease with everything. That has to come in to it, otherwise you are missing the point. But I can’t do a bad interpretation of Henry. That would be awful. I have to give myself freedom to do what I want to do, otherwise I’d be shackled by this huge role.”
Although many coming to Happy Days will know the TV series on which the musical is based, there will be plenty who see it without any prior knowledge of the programme. Many will be musical theatre fans, attracted by the prospect of a show featuring brand new songs. Others may well be lured in by the show’s celebrity casting, including Freeman, Sugababes singer Heidi Range as Pinky Tuscadero, and Cheryl Baker as Mrs Cunningham. Range is new to musicals, but both Freeman and Baker have appeared in them before.
Freeman, whose background is predominantly in television, started popping up in musicals in 2009, playing Norman in Dreamboats and Petticoats, before moving on to appear in Legally Blonde and Wicked, where he is currently appearing as Fiyero.
When he started appearing in them, Freeman says eyebrows were raised – mainly because he had never formally trained and was best known for being on TV in Grange Hill and Emmerdale. Both of these, he says, gave people reason to be slightly resentful of his leading man status.
He shrugs this off, saying: “I may not have trained but I worked really hard to do musicals. I didn’t just think ‘I’ll try my luck at that’. Initially I got rebuffed a few times with producers and casting directors telling me I had to have singing lessons.”
He adds: “If you have the right attitude, you can do most things you want to do. If I wanted to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company and study Shakespeare – if I worked hard and then got a job there, then fair enough. I’d have done the hard graft.”
Here Freeman expands on his first experiences of auditioning for musicals. He reveals he first went up for a part in Wicked five years ago, but didn’t get a second audition. “After that, I thought, ‘I am going to try hard’,” he says, revealing that he set about having more singing lessons.
“When four or five big casting directors say, ‘You’re alright, but you don’t sound like the people who have trained’, you listen. They would say, ‘I quite like your voice but in among all those trained people you would stick out’. That’s when I realised I needed to do more singing.”
And clearly these lessons paid off, as Freeman has made theatre a home for himself over the last four years. Something he is very grateful for, considering that in 2006 he thought his acting career was dead. At that time, Freeman was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. He was cleared two years later, by which time his contract with Emmerdale had come to an end and had not been renewed.
Despite having cleared his name, he knew that he would have to work hard to stay in showbusiness.
“That was another reason I decided to try something different [theatre],” he says. “It was difficult to get work and people had to take a chance on me. I knew if one person did, the others would say, ‘It’s fine, he’s working now’. But at the beginning everyone was a bit dubious about what the reaction would be from their fan base – whether television or theatre. It was tough. I had to find a way in.”
He says he went from being “near the top of the heap casting wise” on TV to having to prove himself and his talent to the theatre industry. And he adds he is “eternally grateful” for the opportunities that have come his way in theatre – an industry he’s admired since he was six years old and taken to see Michael Crawford in The Phantom of the Opera. This experience, he says, sparked a love of musical theatre that has never waned.
Freeman says that theatre, from a performer’s perspective, feels less “monotonous” than being in a TV soap, because “every show is different” – be that audience reaction, or the interaction between cast members. He also enjoys the lower level of fame that comes with being in a theatre production compared with TV. He says that once he has stopped signing autographs outside of the Apollo, Victoria, which is home to Wicked, he can “go back to being anonymous again”.
“It’s a nice amount of recognition, and as soon as you walk away you’re anonymous,” he says. “Unless you’re hugely famous, which I’m not.”
That said, he still finds the press interested in him and his personal life, a result of becoming a household name from his days in television. In March, newspapers ran stories about his personal life that reminded him of the horrors of press intrusion.
“You just want to do your job regardless of whatever else is going on, but that is not enough,” he says. “The press want to get you when you’re vulnerable and sell stories about you. It’s tough, especially when they drag your friends in to it too. You get phone calls from friends saying they have just been contacted by journalists and that gets you down.”
Not that Freeman is down right now. With rehearsals for the tour of Happy Days set to begin just two weeks after his 13-month stint in Wicked comes to an end, Freeman is looking forward to a new challenge, a new role and making new friends in the show – a production that certainly seems to have generated a buzz.
“It’s nice to know a show I am doing has such a following,” he says, adding: “I am lucky. I don’t know what it is. I’m just lucky.”
Happy Days opens at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley on January 11, 2014 and tours until July
Ben Freeman will also appear as part of Wicked Cares, a charity event taking place at the St James Theatre on October 6