EARL Carpenter is undoubtedly one of the leading musical theatre stars of our generation, taking on the most iconic roles in the West End and on Broadway.

But as the Southampton-born leading man embarks on another exciting chapter in his career he opens up about about how his performances as Inspector Javert in Les Miserables affected his health, leaving him with FIVE slipped discs and fearing he was having a heart attack.

The drama forced him to terminate his Broadway contract with Sir Cameron Mackintosh but has led him to re-evaluate his life. And despite a period of recovery and a decision to “take a sabbatical” he remains frantically busy with projects that will take him everywhere from the city’s Mayflower Theatre to theatres across the globe.

Anyone who has seen Earl live will vouch he is an extraordinarily talented performer. There has not been a finer Javert or Phantom. Over the last 25 years he has performed leading and title roles in pretty much all of the world’s greatest musicals.

He is also creative director for Ginger Boy Productions, and has devised and directed the concert phenomenon, The Three Phantoms that has toured extensively throughout the UK, Scandinavia and the United Arab Emirates.

What’s more he has been honoured with the role of Patron to the Mayflower Theatre and their Musical Youth Theatre programme.

And yet all this looked as if it was to come crashing down when he woke up on the fateful morning in New York fearing for his life, let alone his career.

He revealed the physical strain of playing Javert had finally taken its toll: “I’d done nearly 2,000 performances as Javert . If you are taking punches and moves that require a physical reaction the repetition and strain of that takes its toll. I woke up one morning in October 2015 and I honestly thought I was having a heart attack. I had pain all down my arm and crushing pain in my chest and I felt like my shoulder had disintegrated.”

An MRI scan and various tests revealed he had herniated five discs – four in the upper thoracic and one in the neck.

“Basically, the gel that sits between each vertebrae had ripped and released a liquid that is so volatile with the rest of the body affecting massive nerve tissue. I lost a lot of muscle and couldn’t do anything. At first it was a case of letting it heal naturally. “

Earl was told his recovery would take a year but then he received some brilliant advice: “I was told I should switch to a good plant-based diet because it increases the blood flow and whatever your injury, it is like honey that heals you. “

Earl turned vegetarian and says instead of taking a year to convalesce, he recovered in three months. He even took up running and says his health is “dramatically improved”.

Earl says: “Central Park was my saving grace. Two weeks after the injury I was walking every day round the park and then fast walking and then running and I loved it.

“Cameron (Mackintosh) was adorable about it. I’d done eight or nine months of my contract and he just wanted me to get fit. The parting advice of the doctors was “whatever you do for the rest of your life never fling your head backwards”.

“I just thought I’m through. 2,000 performances as Javert was enough. It’s been an incredible opportunity and it’s given me the chance to see the world.”

But he adds: “Doing 2,000 performances got claustrophobic – like Groundhog Day. I thought I can’t do this anymore.”

Despite this, life has not got any quieter for now. Earl plans his work to be in the same country as his partner Samantha Brown, who is assistant choreographer and dance captain on the Wicked international tour and was choreographer for The Three Phantoms.

“We met in Belfast in panto. She loves motorbikes and travelling so it’s been brilliant. Part of my ‘sabbatical’ has been planning to be near every city she was in and trying to do something (work wise) in every city. It’s been great.”

As we chatted over lunch Earl, 46, looking lean and fit, was jetting off to Manila the following day to be with Sam for two weeks. They have been together for two years:

“The last two years have been extraordinary... scary because I don’t know where I fit in in this industry any more.”

Incredibly Earl doesn’t miss the status and expectations of being a leading man, revealing it left him feeling very lonely:

“I recently did Ragtime at Charring Cross Theatre and it was wonderful being part of an ensemble sharing with 12 other guys. It was great having that dressing room banter as usually you have your own dressing room and you are stuck on your own. Being a principal is one of the loneliest jobs in the world because everyone treats you differently. You don’t get the same social interaction that someone in the company would. You spend a lot of time in the dressing room just thinking oh well. The effect it has on you isn’t good. There’s an unwritten rule about your responsibility and how you behave with the rest of the company and you just think I’m really lonely.”

The fun he had inspired him to take a sabbatical this year to explore more of his own projects again, including his first one-man show in Singapore just before Christmas.

Now he is re-investing in his production company again – Ginger Boy Productions. After lying dormant for three years The Three Phantoms is enjoying a four week run in the Far East. Earl is at the Parisian Theatre in Macau. He has taken an orchestra, all the technical staff and a company of 40 doing ten performances.

They are then going to Singapore for three dates in May.

In between Earl will present the Rock Around the Beaumont Project at Southampton Mayflower on April 13 with Mayflower Engage. It’s a frantic international schedule.

He presents Encore – An Evening With a Broadway and West End Star, at The Shanklin Theatre on May 6 before returning to Singapore to do The Three Phantoms, and then he does the same show at Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth on June 9 and 10: “It gives my mum chance to come and see me in something!”, says the globe-trotting star!

Straight after the Bournemouth shows he is at Singapore Repertory Theatre in a musical called Forbidden City playing the baddie.

Now Earl says: “I hope doing The Three Phantoms will allow me to do a big tour that would start at the Mayflower and go on an international tour. It’s appeased my not knowing where I fit in. I’m 47 this year and I can’t keep singing for a living; I must look at some sort of deviation.

“I’ve devised and directed The Three Phantoms – my company Ginger Boy Productions is the producer and Michael Ockwell (Mayflower Theatre chief executive) is the operating general manager for this next ‘branch’ for Singapore and Macau. It’s been lovely to understand the venue and everything it’s trying to achieve for the audiences. Michael’s a great guy.”

Rock around the Beaumont will cover the history of the Mayflower from its Beaumont days to now with Earl harnessing the talents of the musical youth theatre and performing extracts from his major shows: “I’m quite excited that I can steal them as my ensemble ! I do love the creative side and everything that’s going on is fuelling that.”

But Earl admits there is still one iconic role he has his sights on: “I’d love to play Trunchball in Matilda. There’s a UK tour and I’d love to do it because it’s a challenge and it’s a great role: it’s clever, complicated, busy and athletic. I don’t like the idea of sitting back and playing the dad in Mamma Mia! I’m a physical performer and always will he.”

In terms of maintaining his fitness he says: "I must be doing something right. I do lots of running – at least 30km a week – and lots of core exercises and I’m complementing it with Insanity [high impact] pilates yoga. Its been great. I'm not a guru – I still like my cake – be it glutton free!” he laughs.

As for the future, he says: “It’s not just about the West End – there’s such a massive world out there. As an actor who believes in longevity, why not explore different projects around the world. I’ve always enjoyed popping back to Southampton. I’m just trying to fathom where I fit and what’s the next move. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the roles I’ve had. I’ve achieved as much as I can as a performer. Trunchball would be amazing. I don’t know how much more I can offer as a performer. There’s a shortage of roles and in musical theatre world I’m about 104! I’m automatically catapulted into older roles and I’m easily bored. I’m enjoying the process of seeing where the creative, directing, producing journey will take me.

Has Earl any favourite role/s?

“All of them have given me something. Javert has obviously give me the chance to travel. Gaston is high up there (having played both Gaston and Beast), and also Darryl Van Horne in the Witches of Eastwick.”

As for Phantom he says: “It’s a bloody hard role. It’s relentless. It’s all or nothing and you spend half your time being put in that mask. I did 1,000 performances in the West End and then the UK tour – 1,800 in total. Only John Owen Jones has done more.”

He added: “We are thinking of putting out the female equivalent to The Three Phantoms – The Three Witches . There is something about empowered women on stage and it appeals to the audience in a different way. I’m exploring it for next year. I’m going to be über busy!

Being patron of the Mayflower was “an honour”.

“I never imagined I’d be made patron of anything , other than a coffee shop or coffee brand! It’s a recognition that I’ve done something right with my career!”