Blake Bowden has enjoyed an enviable theatre career.
“My first show was in my second year out of high school. I was just 19 and, not giving away my age, but I am, I’m going into my 19th year in theatre. I’m almost at that 20 year mark so time does go really quickly!” reflected Bowden.
In 2011, Blake Bowden won the Rob Guest Endowment Award. More recently, he played Elder Price in the Australian production of The Book of Mormon. It’s a role Bowden acknowledges he worked really hard to get. It earned him a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Male Actor in a Musical.
His latest role is playing Raoul in the Opera Australia production of The Phantom Of The Opera. After a successful and history-making season at the Sydney Opera House, Phantom is now playing in the State Theatre at Arts Centre, Melbourne.
“It’s kind of a dream come true in so many ways. So many of us grew up watching Phantom and to actually be playing this role in the show, it’s a bit of a dream come true to be honest,” said Bowden.
Bowden’s earliest memory of Phantom was when his mum took him and his older sister, Sarah, to see the musical.
“She took us to see the production in the 90’s when I was a little kid. I can’t remember the specifics of the show, but I do remember this feeling it left me – kind of this grandeur – and it was just really new to me as a kid. Mum bought the soundtrack and we used to play that CD over and over and over again. So the music is what I remember the most from those early memories and this overarching feeling that the show gave me. I think it’s one of my earliest theatre experiences,” shared Bowden.
Sarah Bowden is also a musical theatre performer, who has worked extensively internationally.
“For my sister and I to both end up working in musicals it obviously had a very big impact on us.”
I asked where the musical talent came from in his family.
“All my uncles used to play instruments and my mum used to play piano, but for them it was a hobby, definitely not a career. My mum works as a bookkeeper. We had a family business growing up and my dad was a roof plumber, so definitely not from our parents! They were musical, but definitely didn’t have any connections to the arts,” explained Bowden.
Blake Bowden credits his own success to his sister’s influence.
“To be honest, it’s all my sister! She started doing ballet, like many little girls do, when she was 2 or 3 and I followed in her footsteps. We have a younger brother who is also a musician. He’s a guitarist and a singer. He does a lot of weddings and he’s also a high school teacher. So it really is Sarah who lead the way for all of us. When I was a kid I really just followed everything she did. I just looked up to her so much, so I was always following her around.”
Blake Bowden would, in his words, “run amok” in the dance studio while Sarah was in her classes. One day the teacher suggested his mum also put young Blake into a dance class because he was running around anyway.
“That’s kind of how it started. I do owe this whole career to my sister and the inspiration that she was to me as a kid.”
Blake Bowden is still inspired by his big sister and her international journey.
“She was working on the West End and ended up getting a contract in Berlin, and then fell in love with the place and taught herself how to speak German! She took phonetic lessons so she sounded German when she spoke German and landed all those incredible roles.”
One of those incredible roles was playing Esmerelda in the German production of Der Glöckner von Notre–Dame. When I revealed that I had actually seen Sarah in this role in Berlin, Blake Bowden exclaimed,”I’m so jealous!”
Their busy careers have often meant this brother and sister have missed each other’s performances. However, Blake did manage to see Sarah perform recently as Cassie in A Chorus Line at the Hollywood Bowl.
A young boy following his big sister into dance classes, sounds ironically reminiscent of A Chorus Line.
“She was a big inspiration to me, my big sister.”
After years of living in Berlin, and becoming a big part of the Berlin theatre scene, Sarah has now moved to New York and landed her first Broadway gig in Moulin Rouge. She has contracted time off to make the trip to Australia to see her brother in The Phantom of the Opera in the final week in Melbourne.
“And of course, I’ll get over to New York at some stage to see her in Moulin Rouge,” said Blake Bowden.
For now, though, Blake Bowden is focused on playing Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera in this new version of the audience favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
“This really is a very, very special production. It updates the show without losing the essence of what it is. And the set, and the costumes, and the lighting, and the effects, and the chandelier itself, its all pretty amazing!” exclaimed Bowden, who said he is just taking it all in and appreciating every performance.
“It’s special being part of a show that resonates with people so much. It’s been around for so long and people just love it. I have heard a lot of people say that this is, by far, their favourite production of Phantom they’ve ever seen, so that’s something very nice to be a part of.”
During the rehearsal process, the cast were given the freedom to make the role their own.
“The wonderful thing our director said to us when we started this process was that he cast us for a reason. He said you don’t need to push, you don’t need to do anything more than is on the page, and the character will shine through us. The score is the score, so when the writing is good, you don’t really need to do very much, you just need to sing the notes on the page and Andrew’s taken care of the rest!”
Blake Bowden admits it was challenging to return to theatre after the long break due to COVID.
“I was a little nervous coming back to it. It’s the longest break I’ve ever had, which is very fortunate in my career.”
What helped Bowden’s return to theatre, and find his voice again, was this particular role of Raoul.
“It does really sit in my voice and the true essence of who I am as an artist. It feels comfy and it feels nice to come back after such a long hiatus. It does feel like this role really fits. It feels like it fits really nicely and snugly. I feel really comfortable in this.”
Bowden explained this new production of The Phantom of the Opera is essentially the same as the original in many ways, such as the original costume design, but with some extra things added.
“They’ve tried to give Christine a little more agency in this, because she really is a woman being pulled between two men in the original production, and the essence of that is still there, but what I think this production does so brilliantly, and what I think really resonates with people, is that it makes everything a little bit more real.”
Bowden commented that in the original production it was less clear whether the Phantom was a man or a ghost.
“This production really focuses on him as a man. A tortured human being who has been rejected, and fear and loathing, and doubts and jealousy, and love, and that’s why it focuses on a love triangle – which is really special for me playing Raoul. It really does focus on this tension between these two men and this woman and allows Christine to make a choice. She really does choose in the end, rather than it being thrust upon her.”
The production also includes amazing sets and incredible pyrotechnics. And of course, there’s the chandelier.
“The chandelier is truly beautiful. I’ve never been part of a production where a set piece gets an applause, but it does every time!” laughed Bowden.
“But I do think people are really moved by this production just because it taps into the human side a little bit more than it has in the past. I think that’s what this particular production does so brilliantly. It’s a joy to play as an actor because it’s about the human connection . People really do resonate with it.”
The Phantom of the Opera is now playing at Arts Centre, Melbourne.
For more details: https://opera.org.au/productions/the-phantom-of-the-opera-melbourne