• Maddox, James and Tyler Mackay.
  • Maddox, James and Tyler Mackay.
  • James Mackay (centre) with sons Maddox and Tyler.

Performing and parenting

– a balancing act

James Mackay originally moved to the North Shore from Wellington to further his love of music. He talks to Channel Magazine about how North Shore Musical Theatre nurtured his love of singing, how that has led to his taking the lead in an Amici Productions presentation of Les Miserables later this year – and, with an eye to Fathers’ Day next month, about how he juggles parenting with his work and performing commitments.

We at Channel first heard about James as the voice that had the entire congregation in tears at the funeral of North Shore identity and theatre director John Antony, who had directed James in the North Shore Music Theatre production of Les Miserables in 2000 at the Bruce Mason Centre.

Nineteen years later, James is reprising the role of Jean Valjean. “I’m 42 now and probably the right age to play the part,” he says. With a stint in a band plus other work and family commitments, it’s been 11 years since he’s set foot on a stage, he says, “let alone in musical theatre, so to come back and work with Will Martin and Becks Wright (two amazing professionals), and the chance to work with the younger generation like Emily Robinson (Eponine) and Alexandra Francis (Cossette) is going to just be amazing”.

James has always loved singing. “My style of singing and my voice tends to lend itself to musical theatre,” he says. “I have a relatively wide range and flick between a baritone and a tenor. What I enjoy most is putting emotion into the voice; I like to sound real when I sing, and I’m not too technical. I’m most definitely a belter; I like to build a song up and by the end of the song I’m powering out the chorus whether it be theatre, jazz, rock, or what I’m currently loving at the moment, ‘Panic at the Disco’.”

Much as he might love to be, James is not a full-time performer. When he stopped doing musical theatre 11 years ago, he took up photography as another creative outlet and as a “semi-professional” he has photographed many weddings and family portraits. He juggles his photography and musical commitments with work as a specialist photography sales consultant.

He is also a self-described “very hands on dad” to his sons Tyler (seven) and Maddox (four). Doing Les Mis is going to take him away from that temporarily. “They are my world and I would stop everything about my own life just to make sure they are happy and loved. I am extremely lucky to have such a supportive family network that I’m able to do Les Miserables. This show is such a big deal for me, personally and selfishly, but also for my family and love of my wife (Jen) and kids.

“While both Jen and I work, our dedication is to our boys and making sure that their needs are met, emotionally and financially. My life for the last seven years has been a dad to my sons, so taking time out to do this show is a very big deal for myself and my wife.”

James says his parenting style veers from “friend to strict, I guess”. 

“My children are my world; I like to make sure they know right from wrong, but also that I’m their mate, someone they can confide in. I have be seen as the angry parent at times, but aren’t we all when they act out, or don’t listen? The one thing my boys do know, and I may not be able to teach them woodworking skills, or how to fix a car, or much about sport – unless it’s professional wrestling! – but the one thing they will always know is how much I love them. My whole parental belief is love, love and more love. It’s possibly overkill, but I come from a family that didn’t say ‘I love you’. I was supported, yes... but for me words speak volumes, so my kids know how much I care for them and that I will always be there no matter what happens.”

James reckons his kids have taught him how to stay young.  And how to be “ummm… patient?” 

Also to let go at times and “just join in rather than getting all stressed out over the fact the house is a mess, and they’re up way past their bedtime. The biggest thing I’ve learnt, however, is how to stay humble. Performing is ego driven; they are the first and the last people to bring me down to earth. I can ask my four year old, ‘Hey Maddox, how does this sound?’, then belt out a song from Les Mis as best and loud and proud as I possibly can, only to have him yell over top of it, and pretend he is being me but drown me out, and then tell me that he didn’t like it. So yeah, being humble. They can crush you with just one word or one look!” 

As for advice for fellow fathers: “Oh wow. Go with the flow. Be a role model, show love, show vulnerability. Remember to be a man, and always teach them to respect women, and show them how to love. Men cry; it’s okay to cry, cuddle, kiss, embrace, smile and laugh. 

“For new dads, don’t expect the bond to be instantaneous... it takes time. Be gentle. Accept who they are and don’t try to force your wants for them on them. Allow them to be individuals because they are special and they should always be heard. Kids are kids and I would rather hang out with most kids than most adults nowadays as there are no expectations on who you are with them. They’re pretty freaking phenomenal if you ask me.”

James cites his career highlights to date as playing Jean Valjean in North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Les Miserables, when he was 24.  “I was too young for the role in reality but John Antony took a chance on me and it worked out.  It gave me a name on the theatre scene in Auckland.” Jekyll and Hyde in a Whangarei production at Forum North under the direction of Lachie Maclean comes next, closely followed by the role of the Beast in North Shore Musical Theatre’s production of Beauty and The Beast, under the direction of Grant Meese (who is also directing Les Miserables in November).

“One thing that excites me most,” says James, reflecting on the forthcoming production of Les Miserables, “is how I’m going to challenge myself in performing the role this time around. Having gone through life, had children, suffered depression and highs and lows, this performance for me is going to be more raw, more real, and I hope I can convey that on stage every night.

“I’ve worked a lot on my fitness and my strength, but I’m getting older, so part of the challenge will be how my body is going to cope. When I was younger, I’d thrash around, drop to my knees and wouldn’t care. That kind of acting, reacting to make it as real as I can make it, might take its toll on my body. But I want to make people feel what I’m feeling, as the character, as me.... I want my life experiences to all come out in this performance each and every night.”