On the day Greg Bernstein auditioned for 42nd Street in London, nothing went to plan. To begin with he was in Plymouth appearing nightly as Valentine in the touring production of Mary Poppins and he had to be sure that his journey (400 miles return) would get him back to the theatre on Devon’s south coast in time for the 7.30 pm curtain call.
Unfortunately, the Great Western train was delayed and as he sat staring at his tap shoes after a 5am start, hundreds of other young dancers desperate to get one of the 36 ensemble roles were already queuing for the open audition. Even Mark Bramble, 42nd Street’s co-author and director of the new production commented on the “fantastic turnout” in the capital of dancers who are now equal in ability to those in American theatre.
Greg, a former JFS pupil, was understandably stressed as he raced from Paddington to the Glass Hill Studios in Southwark only to find a room full of sweaty dancers already au fait with the routine. His audition was fast becoming the story of a musical.
“I was definitely on the back foot,” recalls Greg, who mumbled apologies and slinked to the back of the room to watch. “But within ten minutes of arriving they announced we had to do the routine individually and I’d just taken off my jacket!”
For many this would have been a shuffle, heel, toe too far, but Greg went to the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror and replayed the steps he’d just seen. As he returned to the studio his name was called and though the panel looked doubtful and offered him an out, he refused and from the very first note was step perfect. Two weeks later Greg was not only invited to join the cast of 42nd Street , but offered a dance solo as well as first understudy for the principal role of ‘Bert Barry’. All that and he made it back to Plymouth for Mary Poppins.
So who can blame him for grinning while modelling one of the eight made-to-measure suits he wears in a show that has eight vigorous and complex tap routines and 16 on matinee days. “Every costume and pair of tap shoes are bespoke,” says Greg, clicking his custom-made gold taps. “Costumes and shoes I’ve worn previously all carried someone else’s name which is nice because there’s a history to the garment. But no expense has been spared on 42nd Street as they bought fabrics in Hungary, used tailors in Italy, beading work from India. It’s incredible. There is even a real mink coat worth thousands.”
Though he describes all the backstage details (“Our tap shoes are wired with microphones that run down our trouser legs”) with the enthusiasm of a newbie treading the boards, Kingsbury-raised Greg is anything but. As a baby he bounced to Michael Jackson and, as soon as he was old enough, parents Andrew and Jackie encouraged his musicality by sending him to Stagecoach from where he was signed by Sylvia Young’s agency and promptly hired to be a young Gary Lineker in a Walker’s crisps commercial.
As one of the original cast in Billy Elliot, Greg got to enjoy the generosity of its composer Elton John who lavished iPods, gift vouchers and engraved necklaces on his young artistes.
“I was just 12 and to suddenly be in something so big and important was incredible,” says Greg, who very nearly landed the part of Billy. “I was in training for the role for six months working on my ballet, tap and street dancing with Peter Darling the choreographer, who went on to do Matilda and Groundhog Day. I wanted the part so badly but when it came to the final audition they just felt I wasn’t gritty enough. My wonderfully comfortable North West London upbringing held me back.”
But not for long. Billy Elliot’s casting director liked Greg enough to suggest him for the main role of Noah in Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change at the National Theatre and Kushner cast him ten minutes after his audition.
“I was about to do my GCSEs at JFS, but Dame Ruth Robbins, then the headteacher was very supportive and I revised during rehearsals and amazingly came out with high grades.” Combined with the standing ovations, a scholarship for Guildford School of Acting and later landing Barnum in 2014 alongside Brian Conley, it was quite the time for Greg. Not that 2017 isn’t showing promise.
“Drury Lane has so much history that even when I’m on stage I can’t believe I’m there,” he says — even though he has eight pairs of tap shoes to prove it.
42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane