McGregor follows Brando's lead to star in 'Guys and Dolls'

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It was a role immortalised on film by Marlon Brando in what became the biggest grossing movie of the year half a century ago.

It was a role immortalised on film by Marlon Brando in what became the biggest grossing movie of the year half a century ago.

Now Ewan McGregor is stepping up to play the romantic gambler Sky Masterson in the first new production in London of Guys and Dolls for 23 years, and he is putting all thoughts of the famous film out of mind.

He is, instead, working flat out in rehearsals and having singing lessons to prepare for his West End musical debut at the Piccadilly Theatre, which will demand a gruelling eight performances a week for six-month stage run, beginning on 1 June. He is no stranger to singing and dancing, though, having previously strutted his stuff alongside Nicole Kidman in the film Moulin Rouge.

He said yesterday: "It's a great film and nice to see Brando and Frank Sinatra. But as soon as you start working on it, I can assure you you're not thinking, 'That's a bit like Brando, I mustn't do that.' You're trying to find the character and how it sits upon your shoulders."

McGregor's previous appearance in the West End was in 1999 in the play Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs after seven years away from the stage.

He vowed then that he would not leave theatre for so long and before he embarked on his recent round-the-world trip by motorcycle, he spoke to Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, about whether they could work together.

On his return, Grandage suggested Guys and Dolls. McGregor called that same evening to confirm he would do it. "I had never thought of doing a musical on the stage. [But] it kept feeling like it would be a great idea," he said.

What had been most shocking to him so far was the physical fitness involved. "It's may be the one element of the musical I had considered the least. I had worried about the singing but suddenly I went to the first choreography session and thought, 'Shit, it's quite full-on.'" He admitted he could "sense the panic" around him over whether his voice was up to eight performances a week or whether, like Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady, the schedule might prove too demanding. But he was taking singing lessons and avoiding places with a smoky atmosphere and found his voice was getting stronger daily in rehearsals.

His co-stars are Jane Krakowski, best known in the UK for her role in the television series Ally McBeal, Douglas Hodge, who won an Olivier for his performance in Pinter's The Caretaker and Jenna Russell, the only lead actor to have previously appeared in a Donmar musical.

Asked whether it was good to have mainly British stars after the recent influx of Americans, McGregor said he had not thought about it. "They don't complain when I go over to make a film in America," he said.

The new Star Wars movie, in which he stars, will be released while Guys and Dolls is on but the musical was his priority, he said.

"It's what I wanted to do now.Two weeks of rehearsals have been more fulfilling than any movie because movies are so draining. They pull away from the actor, but theatre just fills you up. I needed my fix."