The school was smart enough to realise that landing the lead in the joyous and life affirming hit show was quite something, and hatched a plan to ensure that he could both enjoy his success and still graduate.
What nobody expected was that Thomas would find himself back in the classroom before the year was over. But then, of course, what nobody would have predicted in early January 2020 when Thomas first played 16-year-old Jamie New, the working-class, gay Sheffield teenager with dreams of being a drag queen, is that by mid-March the West End would be shuttered. Or that it would remain so for over a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The closure meant that Thomas suddenly found himself in a unique position; he was the West End’s only lead to find himself back at drama school, albeit on Zoom, and writing essays.
“It was all a bit weird,” says 21-year-old Thomas, “especially having to write an essay again. I was apprehensive, but my year were all wonderful. They didn’t treat me any differently. I felt welcome.”
Neither did Thomas ever doubt that he would get another shot at playing Jamie.
“Something in the universe was telling me that my time would come again, that it wasn’t all over,” says Thomas. “I always thought it would come back. The producers believed in it. We all believe in it.”
Jamie is a show that has always been a labour of love for Nimax producer and theatre-owner Nica Burns, who spotted Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae’s irresistible musical at Sheffield theatres in 2017 and was determined to transfer it to London. She found herself with a hit on her hands. To quote one of MacRae’s lyrics, just as Jamie himself makes Sheffield more colourful, so the show has brought “a little bit of glitter in the grey” to Shaftesbury Avenue. And it's got wide appeal, too. You could take your 10-year-old, your edgy teen and your gran and they would all find something to love.
Although Thomas recognizes his good fortune at having graduated into a great acting job, he recognizes that the situation is not so easy for many of his peers.
“Acting is such a competitive business. Even getting that first audition is hard, and a pandemic makes it harder than ever. I trained with these people for three years. I know just how brilliant they are. I do feel very lucky to have this job. It’s been the best education.”
It was a job that was hard won in the face of stiff competition, and it can’t be easy as a complete unknown to fill the shiny red platform stilettos previously worn by the role’s originator, John McCrea, and then Layton Williams: both dynamic and charismatic Jamie’s, each with their own strong following.
Thomas had seen McCrea in the role, buying a preview ticket for the show while a student way back in 2017.
“I loved the show, it was great to be in the room with it, but to be honest I didn’t sit there watching it thinking this is a role I’m born to play,” he recalls. “I am not Jamie. We are very different. He is very vivacious and unapologetically himself. I can be quite apologetic. I know you are told not to, but as soon as I walk into an audition I apologise. We’re both from working class backgrounds so we have that in common. But I don’t want to be a drag queen, and he’s much more extrovert than I am. But one of the things the producers were clear about was they didn’t want my Jamie to be an imitation and there is no blueprint for the role. The team encouraged me to muscle the role out of myself. They told me that I didn’t have to reach outside myself to play this part, but that everything I needed was already there within me. That really helped.”
Thomas will only have about 10 days rehearsal when the show opens its doors to audiences tonight, as one of the very first West End musicals to return. But he’s raring to go and thinks that the show’s appeal will be widened post-pandemic.
“It’s full of such joy and hope. It’s optimistic. As a cast we don’t manufacture the emotion. It’s all there in the writing and the songs. Doing it lifts us up as a cast and that’s why it works for an audience every night.”
Thomas’ delight in playing Jamie is obvious, but he doesn’t necessarily see his future as only in musicals. He wants a shot at straight drama roles, and Shakespeare doesn’t scare him.
“My friends often say they don’t get Shakespeare, but then they see something like the National Theatre's Romeo and Juliet with Jessie Buckley and they suddenly understand it. It’s so immediate, so accessible. I really admire someone like Jessie Buckley. I want a career like that, I want to be someone who follows their passions and looks for the work that’s interesting. That’s the dream.
Many will say that Noah Thomas is already living it.