Thursday, April 05, 2012

A profile - Dave Willetts: Birmingham's Star of the Musical

Dave Willetts is recognized in Britain and internationally as a major star of the musical theatre. Amongst many other achievements, he was the first person in the world to play the leading roles in both “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Relaxing at his home in Warwickshire, Dave spoke to me shortly after his successful concert appearance at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre. “I have appeared many times in Birmingham at the Alex and Symphony Hall and always find audiences there generous and enthusiastic”. He was touched by the warmth of his reception by his home town audience on the last date of a six week tour and pleased to talk about his career and its roots in Birmingham.

Born in Marston Green in 1952, Dave spent his childhood in the family home in Acocks Green. The Willetts were close knit. His father worked at Rover. Dave’s background was not theatrical or musical; the only musical member of the family was his mother. He was given a guitar at ten and now plays it in concert performances. Modestly, however, Dave still doesn’t consider he has mastered it.

He first went to school in Yardley at Cottersbrook Infants and later to Sheldon Heath Comprehensive. Dave ritually points out his old school to his daughters, now in their mid twenties, when they drive past. At school Dave was “sports mad” and enjoyed rugby, cricket and football more than academic subjects. Music and drama didn’t feature prominently until later.

On leaving school, Dave joined Girling Brakes as an apprentice and in 1972 moved to work as a quality control engineer in South Wales with his new wife, Lyn. He remembers being asked by workmates to go to a production of “No, No Nanette” by the New Venture Players, an amateur group based in Newport. That night he was hooked by the “theatre bug”. This prompted him to audition for their next production, although the director wasn’t particularly impressed when Dave admitted to never having heard of “The King and I”. Told to go away and learn two numbers, Dave came back and auditioned and became second lead in the show. Like many professionals, this was the start of Dave’s grounding into the world of theatre, although at this point, he had no idea of where it would eventually lead him.

Dave returned to Birmingham to take up a managerial post after ten years in South Wales and joined the Leamington and Warwick Operatic society to star in “Music Man”.

Dave spoke with fondness and gratitude of his solid grounding in several years of “am drams” and its importance to the profession. As well as learning the ropes, he loved the music and camaraderie amongst cast, “especially going to the pub after rehearsals”, he quips.

After this “apprenticeship”, Peter McGarry, the theatre critic of the Coventry Evening Telegraph gave a rave review of Dave’s performance in “Charlie and Algernon”. This led to an audition from the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and an offer to appear in their professional production of “Annie.”

This offer marked a major turning pint in Dave’s life. He and Lyn decided that Dave should give the stage a try for three years. It was a huge leap of faith to give up a managerial career, pension, private health care and company car at the age of thirty with two children of five and four, to take a job in the theatre. He was supported wholeheartedly in this decision by Lyn, who to make ends meet, took on work as a childminder, whilst Dave worked as a waiter. Both Dave and Lyn felt that, provided their children did not suffer, it was important to go after their joint dream and “give it 100%.”

After the run in “Annie”, Dave fell ill with glandular fever and was out of action for several months, but recovered and went on to appear in “Grease” at the Belgrade Theatre. At this time he had also signed contracts to appear in “South Pacific”, but saw auditions were taking place for a new show, “Les Miserables” at the Barbican in London. Dave attended just for the chance to audition in front of the great RSC Director, Trevor Nunn, who would be directing “Les Mis.”

Dave was amongst the last to be auditioned and only a year after turning professional, was invited to join the production as a member of Thenardier’s gang. Within a further twelve months Dave was playing the lead role of Jean Valjean, when the production transferred to the Palace Theatre in London’s West End.

After his acclaimed lead in “Les Miserables”, Dave moved down Shaftsbury Avenue and the Haymarket to Her Majesty’s Theatre to take the title role in “Phantom of the Opera”. Again, this was a great success. To his surprise, his first night curtain calls were shown live on TV on News at Ten.

Dave has created many major roles, including Major Lee opposite great friend Petula clark in “Someone Like You” at the Strand Theatre, Zero Janvier in the British premier of Tim Rice’s “Tycoon” and Tom in Trish Ward’s “Lonely Hearts” directed by Stephen Rayne.

Further critical praise followed for his portrayal of Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Barbican and also throughout Europe. He created the role of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley and portrayed Old Deuteronomy in the Twentieth Anniversary production of “Cats” at the New London Theatre.

Dave is closely associated with the works of Kander and Ebb and Stephen Sondheim. He played Ben in the Irish premier of “Follies” in Dublin and the title roles in “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George”. Dave recalls Stephen Sondheim commenting backstage that his Sweeney Todd was definitive: a true highlight in any stage career.

In 2002 Dave played the lead role of Adam Pontipee in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” for the national tour. He also particularly enjoyed working in the intimate surroundings of the Kings Head theatre in London, where he created the role of Vladimir Vysotsky in the world premier of “Let us Fly”. He also created the role of Father in the European premier of “Ragtime” at the International Festival of Musical Theatre, which was shown on BBC TV and broadcast on Radio 3, and subsequently transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre in London’s West End. He has even ventured into the world of pantomime, playing Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” opposite Toyah Wilcox.

When asked about the pressures of long runs, Dave responded emphatically: “appearing in a long run is never a grind or pressure. Working on a production line all day, every day, or having to do a job you don’t enjoy could be a grind, not appearing before an audience and being paid to do what you love.”

In addition to musicals, concerts and cabaret, Dave has presented his own shows on national BBC radio and made many guest appearances on radio and TV including a memorable evening as the subject of “This is Your Life.”

Dave has had a prolific recording career with several solo albums and many show albums, including “Wuthering Heights” as Heathcliffe with Lesley Garrett and “Evita” with Marti Webb.

As well as creating stage roles, Dave has headlined concerts throughout the UK and around the world in venues as diverse as the Ahoy Stadium in Rotterdam, the concert halls of Monterey and Mexico City and London’s, Royal Albert Hall. He has performed at galas in Los Angeles to honour James Stewart and Lauren Bacall and in Munich in tribute to director, Hal Prince.

Despite his fame, Dave considers that he is still learning and on occasions will stand in the wings to watch other artists and learn “what not to do – and sometimes more importantly – what not to do”. This has now come full circle, with performers standing in the wings watching Dave perform. He admires many artists such as the gifted Sammy Davis Junior, whom he met on several occasions, and the talented Alun Armstrong.

Given the roles he has played, Dave has little time for any blinkered distinction between musical and dramatic performance, commenting: “In the role of Valjean, for instance, music and acting are inextricably linked. The performer must bring both elements together to make the part live; music takes over where the spoken word cannot go.”

Despite his glittering career, Dave remains approachable and down-to earth. He is modest and epitomises the term “grounded”: “I don’t have a master plan for my career, but I am a great believer in fate and have happened to be at the right place at the right time. I have loved every minute of it so far and am as excited about doing the job as I was twenty years ago”. He is grateful for the strong foundations of his family and has “had a very good life in the twenty odd years since giving up a ‘proper job.’”

Dave Willetts’ story to date is all about seizing the day. It’s about staying true to yourself, working hard and making the most of real talent. It would make a really good musical.

*a version of this profile first appeared in Birmingham Life magazine

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