Sitting in the distinctive red seats of the Sunderland Empire, young Thornhill School pupil Ben Forster never dreamed that he would one day perform on stages home and away in a glittering career.
He made his first step on the ladder of stardom at 16, when the Millfield lad won a scholarship to the prestigious Italia Conti Academy in London and a year later made his West End debut in the musical La Cava, staged by the famous Broccoli family.
More roles beckoned and he was soon in the original cast of Lennon and McCartney’s All You Need Is Love and starred as part of the original cast in the hugely successful West End production, Thriller Live, taking the show from the London stage onto international tours.
But it was his winning appearances on ITV’s Superstar, a search for a new leading role in Jesus Christ Superstar, in 2012 which would make Ben a household name.
Since then, the 33-year-old’s toured in a high-octane arena show of the famous musical alongside Spice Girl Mel C, actor and musician Tim Minchin and DJ Chris Moyles – while often finding time to pop home to Sunderland to visit his close-knit family.
His latest role sees him appear in another Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic: Evita.
Ben, who is appearing as Agustin Magaldi, Eva Peron’s first love, at London’s Dominion Theatre, explains how the role came about.
“I’d met up with Bill Kenwright (leading West End theatre producer) for a cuppa and he said he had Evita coming to the West End and that he thought I would be perfect for the role,” he said in a voice which still retains a Mackem lilt.
“For me, it’s exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing, it’s another progression. I’ve heard so many things about this production, it was a no brainer for me.
“It’s lovely being in London, being able to take a cab to and from work.”
The role came about after Ben returned from New Orleans after being given the shock news in June that a multi-million dollar US tour of Jesus Christ Superstar – in which Ben would appear alongside Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon and Destiny Child’s Michelle Williams – had been cancelled ten days before it was due to start.
Rather than crumble, Ben took it on the chin. He returned home, bought a dog, Winnie, and threw himself into other projects.
“It was such a disaster,” said Ben, speaking candidly about the show’s cancellation. “It’s weird because you keep yourself on hold, you turn other opportunities down because you have got this big thing coming up, you think you’re going to be playing to a million people.
“It was devastating when it was cancelled, but I was brought up by an amazing mum and dad and they are so positive, which has given me an attitude of accepting things in life. I went out that night in New Orleans with Johnny Rotten and the rest of the cast and we had a couple of wines. I saw these two buskers playing, and they were amazing buskers, playing pop songs but ones that had been reinvented for their instruments, It was so passionate and powerful, and I thought ‘you can be anywhere, on a street corner, and you can make people stop and entertain them. You don’t have to be in Madison Square Garden to do that.’
“After that, I moved on in a day. I’m so thankful for the way I was brought up because I think, for some people, it could have crushed them.”
But Ben hasn’t ruled out a return to Jesus.
“For me to return to Jesus it would have to be really right for me. It was such an amazing show and producers, it’s a role I became famous for, so to do it again it would have to be really right.
“But in saying that, I haven’t done the traditional production, I would love to do that at some point.
“It was a ground-breaking show and such an honour to be part of. I can’t look back on it with anything other than a positive eye. The cherry on the top, the American tour, may have been taken away, but it was ultimately brilliant.”
Since appearing on Superstar, Ben has accrued a loyal army of fans, many of them Mackems who gave him a roaring reception when he returned to the Empire last year in The Rocky Horror Show.
“Most of it is through Twitter, there’s a real community of people who follow me, and follow each other. It’s a massive network of love, and a lot of it is Sunderland people,” he said. “They even meet up with each other on holiday.
“It’s always amazing being back in Sunderland. When I was there with Rocky, my mam and my nan got to see me, as well as my aunty Liz who was terminally ill at the time. She was dancing in the box and was someone who had followed me all through the TV show, it was so nice for her to see my whole journey.”
Though Ben’s career has taken him across the globe, he always makes time for home, whether it’s visiting his favourite curry house, Zeba, or making a surprise appearance at Thornhill School at a night dedicated to his former music teacher, Mrs Bennett.
“All my family are in Sunderland. Every time I come home I get prouder and prouder, it’s changed so much since I was growing up,” he said. “There’s the Empire with all the fantastic shows. I think I was on work experience there when they were extending the stage and it’s made such a difference.
“I took Winnie down the beach last time I was there, it’s such a beautiful place and I love the people too. I feel such a connection to Sunderland. I always will.”
•Ben appears in Evita at the newly refurbished Dominion Theatre, alongside Marti Pellow as Che, for a limited run of 55 performances. Evita charts the story of Eva Peron, wife of former Argentine dictator Juan Peron, from her humble beginnings through to the extraordinary wealth, power and iconic status which ultimately led her to be heralded as the spiritual leader of the nation. It features hit tracks such as Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and Another Suitcase in Another Hall.