Dave Willetts

All posts tagged Dave Willetts

Last week, I brought you a review of Timeless, the new album from musical legend Dave Willetts and gave you the opportunity to win a copy by answering the question

Which West End show did Dave Willetts star in after Les Mis?

The answer is of course Phantom of the Opera and the lucky winner is

Bronwyn Wilson – click here to send your address

Those of you not lucky enough to win, the album is released on 2 February and is available to pre-order:

Timeless is a collection of songs that are exactly that; timeless.  Encompassing popular standards and songs from musical theatre, the album feels full of choices personal to Willetts and needless to say, they show off his vocal range and versatility to perfection.  This is a singer who through his vast acting experience, is able to convey warmth, tenderness, fun, pathos whilst also projecting enormous vocal power.

My favourite tracks are those from musical theatre, particularly I Dreamed You and This Is The Moment, from Tony Rees and Gary Young’s Jekyll and the Broadway production Jekyll and Hyde, respectively.  Willetts has worked with both shows and when I spoke to him in 2015, he was involved in writing the book for a further musical based on the Jekyll and Hyde story, The Man Inside, which has since had it’s premiere, Willetts of course taking the lead.

The majority of the other tracks are not from musicals and are such an eclectic mix that you have no option but to believe that these are personal choices.  Fun is the word that springs to mind when listening to You Took The Words Right Out and San Francisco Bay Blues – they would be great to listen to live.  Tears in Heaven and Smile allow Willetts to show his tender side while Bridge Over Troubled Water lets that rich tenor soar.  Leaving all this aside, the song I’ve taken away from this album is a duet, with Lara J West, on I Swear, a massive 1990’s hit for All4One.  As soon as you hear it, you’ll know it, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

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For fans of musical theatre, the name Dave Willetts is synonymous with the West End.  Over a career spanning more than thirty years, Willetts has appeared in many shows, including the lead in Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera.  He continues to perform in musicals around the UK and as befits an actor who was part of the original Les Mis production at the Barbican (understudy to Colm Wilkinson), Willetts more often than not, chooses to work with new musical projects.

Alongside this illustrious stage career, Willetts has also enjoyed success with a number of albums.  One such offering is Timeless, an album first recorded a while ago but only now finding it’s way into the mainstream, which for fans of rich, tenor voices and musical theatre alike, is nothing short of miraculous.  After all, we don’t often get the chance to hear new material from such a seasoned actor and singer.

I described Willetts as an actor and singer in that order as it happens to be the way he described himself when I interviewed him back in 2015 when we talked about Dave Willetts as Jean Valjean.  For him, this is the crucial distinction when performing in a musical.  It is somewhat of a surprise then to find that his back story has more in common with Alfie Boe than Michael Ball. Like Alfie, Willetts has a non performance background, working in engineering as a day job and relaxing through the medium of amateur productions. While performing in Charlie and Algernon at the Priory Theatre in the Midlands, Willetts was spotted by the art director of the Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and after a successful audition, became a professional actor, with a first role in the chorus of Annie. Twelve months later he was in the West End with Les Mis and the rest, as they say, is history.

Timeless is a collection of songs that are exactly that; timeless.  Encompassing popular standards and songs from musical theatre, the album feels full of choices personal to Willetts and needless to say, they show off his vocal range and versatility to perfection.  This is a singer who through his vast acting experience, is able to convey warmth, tenderness, fun, pathos whilst also projecting enormous vocal power.

My favourite tracks are those from musical theatre, particularly I Dreamed You and This Is The Moment, from Tony Rees and Gary Young’s Jekyll and the Broadway production Jekyll and Hyde, respectively.  Willetts has worked with both shows and when I spoke to him in 2015, he was involved in writing the book for a further musical based on the Jekyll and Hyde story, The Man Inside, which has since had it’s premiere, Willetts of course taking the lead.

The majority of the other tracks are not from musicals and are such an eclectic mix that you have no option but to believe that these are personal choices.  Fun is the word that springs to mind when listening to You Took The Words Right Out and San Francisco Bay Blues – they would be great to listen to live.  Tears in Heaven and Smile allow Willetts to show his tender side while Bridge Over Troubled Water lets that rich tenor soar.  Leaving all this aside, the song I’ve taken away from this album is a duet, with Lara J West, on I Swear, a massive 1990’s hit for All4One.  As soon as you hear it, you’ll know it, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Timeless is released on 2 February and is available for pre-order:

If you can’t wait that long, I have a copy to give away!  Just answer the following question – competition closes at Midnight on Sunday 21 January.

Which West End show did Dave Willetts star in after Les Mis?

This competition is now closed.

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Week five in our study of Jean Valjean over the last thirty years and we come to our earliest and only original cast member, Dave Willetts.  Willetts was in the ensemble at the Barbican and also understudied Colm Wilkinson, taking over the role when Wikinson went off to the Broadway production.

Although I enjoyed interviewing all the JVJ’s for this series of posts, one of the most fascinating was with Willetts due to his extraordinary back story.  I was completely unaware that until a chance meeting with the artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre, Willetts was happily enjoying life as an engineer, only performing in amateur productions.  As he tells it, he had no ambitions to be a professional actor or singer, he just relaxed by performing in amateur dramatics and singing with  a jazz trio, in a dance band and in folk clubs.  However, that changed when he was offered an audition for a professional production of Annie which was successful and he was then cast in the chorus.  Twelve months on from that, he attended an open audition for Les Mis, was called back for a second audition, which was lucky for Willetts as he only went to the first one in the hope of seeing Trevor Nunn who wasn’t there.  Happily, he was there for the second audition, as were the writers, who upon hearing him sing Lucky Be A Lady, then handed him the music to the soliloquy and said ‘away you go with that’.  He was of course cast and went on to play amongst other West End roles, the Phantom.  Since then, he has appeared in the the 10th anniversary Sydney production and directed many schools productions.

Willetts remembers the whole experience, from the rehearsals to the performances themselves, as being the best bits of the show.  Creating the show from the ground up was exciting, meeting Pavarotti backstage was even more so.  Singing Bring Him Home was again special, as Willetts says “those bottle moments, those moments you put away in a bottle and every now and again you take the cork out and look at them”.  All these moments ensured that the rest of his career happened, singing with Tony Bennett for example would never have happened without Les Mis.

As with all the other interviewees, I asked Willetts about the worst aspects of JVJ or any disasters that has befallen him.  His response was “how long have you got?  In the early days there were loads” which I suppose is typical of a new production, especially one that used a revolving stage.  One of Willetts’ most memorable disasters was the stage getting stuck at the end of the barricade scene and all the dead actors who were supposed to get off stage without being seen had to get up and walk off in full view of the audience.  Far from ruining the show though, these experiences enhanced the entire evening for the audience.  As Willetts says, it’s the “beauty of live theatre”.

Along with Alfie Boe, Dan Koek, Peter Karrie and Geronimo Rauch, Willetts’ favourite song to sing in the show is the soliloquy and broadly for the same reason: the journey of the character within the song.  Willetts said “there’s not many roles written like that”.  Uniquely, Willetts’ favourite song by another character is Master of the House because of where it comes in the show and it’s a “barnstormer” in Willetts’ words.

Willetts has recently played God in the tour of Love Beyond, the complete story of the bible and as he said to me “there’s nowhere to go from there”!  However, he has also co-written a couple of musicals, J’accuse, (the life of Emile Zola) and The Man Inside, an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde.   His most recent album, Once in A Lifetime, features songs from both these.

Next week’s Club 24601 JVJ is Hans Peter Janssen.

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On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Les Miserables in London, let’s take a look at 26 highlights and facts from Alfie to Miz!

A is for Alfie Boe of course! Alfie played the role in the West End for six months, having first taken the role at the 25th anniversary concert, and is now Jean Valjean on Broadway

B is for bread.  JVJ is jailed for stealing a loaf of bread but the onstage bread was once responsible for almost choking Dan Koek! Whilst pretending to eat the bishops’s bread, a crumb went up Koek’s nose and lodged at the back of his throat…and stayed there for the whole of the soliloquy!

C is for Carrie Hope Fletcher. London’s current Eponine, is the younger sister of McBusted’s Tom Fletcher…who appeared with Alfie at the Royal Festival Hall on the Bring Him Home tour

D is for Do You Hear the People Sing? We can and we can’t imagine ever stopping!

E  is for Eponine, brilliant character – surely, I can’t be the only one rooting for her over Cosette in Marius’ affections?

F is for Frances Ruffelle, original Eponine, winner of a Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and mum of singer Eliza Doolittle

G is for Grantaire, a glorious character who spends most of his time onstage in an alcoholic glaze

H is for Hans Peter Janssen, the only Belgian actor to play JVJ in London

I is for I Dreamed a Dream, iconic song from Fantine, memorably performed by Lea Salonga at the 25th anniversary concert.  Went into the entertainment stratosphere with Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition

J is for John Owen-Jones, the youngest Jean Valjean (he was 26).  He most memorable Les Mis moment came in rehearsal with Claude-Michel Schonberg for the 25th anniversary tour.  John says “I was rehearsing Bring Him Home with Claude-Michel in a room backstage at the Barbican. We were running through the song when he suddenly stopped playing the piano and looked slowly around the room with a quizzical look on his face. Then he looked at me and said in that wonderful French accent of his: “Wait…zis room…it is where I wrote zis song!”

K is for Karrie, Peter who played JVJ for three years from 1986.  In a recent interview he told me that he worked with one Javert who made him corpse one day at the end of the cart scene: “he clicked his heels together and turned to walk off, his microphone was already off, and he said so only I could hear, if you don’t have that cart moved, I’ll have it clamped!  I laughed so much I had to feign a coughing fit and run off stage quickly!

L is for Lea Salonga who played Eponine in the 10th anniversary concert and Fantine in the 25th anniversary

M is for Mackintosh, Cameron, the producer of Les Mis as well as many more musicals around the world

N is for Norm Lewis, picked as his favourite Javert by Alfie Boe in his Club 24601 interview with thoughtsofjustafan

O is for One Day More – best ending to a first act in musical theatre bar none (the combination of Michael Ball and Ramin Karimloo is superb here):

P is for Peter Lockyer, current London JVJ –  first played JVJ whilst directing an amateur production in Hawaii

Q is for the Queen’s Theatre, home to the London production

R is for revolving stage, no longer in evidence in the Broadway show.  Dave Willetts remembers several shows in the early days where the stage stopped revolving at awkward moments, notably at the end of the barricade scene when all the dead actors had to get up and walk off stage in the full glare of the lights!

S is for the Soliloquy, favourite song of several of the Club 24601 JVJ’s

T is for Thenardier – a villain we love to love

U is for understudies – Dave Willetts understudied for Colm Wilkinson before taking over the lead when Wilkinson originated the role on Broadway

V is for Valjean, one of the most iconic roles in modern musicals and the Valjean Quartet from the 25th anniversary:

W is for writers, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer

X is for Enjolras’ xylophone vest at the barricades (trust me, it’s real) – big thanks to Debbie Bannigan for telling me!

Y is for young performers – Little Eponine, Little Cosette and Gavroche

Z is for Miz which is the twitter spelling for the Broadway production

 

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The time has come, the day is here and Les Miserables is shortly to celebrate its 30th anniversary.  This also means thirty years of Jean Valjean and a considerable number of actors who have portrayed one of the most challenging roles in modern musical theatre.  Some have played the role for a short time, some played the role for a number of years and I spoke to some of the more notable names (mainly in the London production) over the past few months to get a feel for what it’s like to play such an iconic role.

In no particular order, thank you to Alfie Boe, Peter Lockyer (the current London JVJ gave me the title to this piece: Club 24601, a very exclusive club), Geronimo Rauch, John Owen-Jones, Simon Gleeson (currently in the Australian production and to lead the Manila show in 2016), Hans Peter Janssen, Peter Karrie, Dave Willetts and Dan Koek for being so generous with their time.    The role is famously challenging in all sorts of ways and something I was interested in was how the actors changed their interpretation of the role as their run got longer or in some cases, when they returned at a later date.  For John Owen-Jones, being the youngest ever JVJ at 26 meant that the emotional challenges of the role took on new meaning when he returned a few years later.  He says “I had a more rounded outlook on life and more life experience to draw on when I was older. I had two children in the intervening years and suffered some loss in my family and had grown up a lot. I therefore was naturally able to give the character more depth and I like to think my approach to interpreting the role was more mature than when I was 26”.  Hans Peter Janssen, who played the role in London from 2000 – 2003 agrees with John: “I matured in my portrayal…especially in my understanding of JVJ as an older man”.  In contrast, Geronimo Rauch who had previously played the role in Spain said the biggest difference for him in returning to the role was the language; a phone audition with Cameron Mackintosh to see if his English was good enough obviously did the trick as he then got the London job.

This piece has been some time in the works and when I interviewed Alfie, he had yet to start on Broadway.  As we know by now, Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean in New York has been a runaway success but Alfie’s focus back in July was on the production as whole.  He explained that “the main difference is that the production is completely different, it’s not the same show I performed in the West End.  Although the music is the same, the structure of the show, the choreography of it is different.  I’m so excited to embrace the new direction of the role”.  Alfie also mentioned that “although I’m a little more known than I was back then, I’m not focused on that.  I’m just focused on doing the job, doing it properly, performing each show I’m in to the highest standard”.  Judging from the reviews so far, Alfie, you’re certainly doing that!

Peter Lockyer said that JVJ is the “best role in musical theatre” as it “goes through so much of life; everything is there on stage” and again, this is reflected in the experiences of the other actors.  When asked about the best thing about playing JVJ, every single interviewee cited the emotional, vocal and physical challenge to do the part justice.  Simon Gleeson mentioned “sharing the scope of the the story with an audience” and Peter Karrie (1986 for three years) said that he found the role “very satisfying as an actor and a singer”, something that was repeated by all the interviewees.  Another common link is the music – all the actors mentioned the joy and privilege of being able to sing such an amazing score night after night.  Of course, that incredible score can also be one of the downsides to the role; John Owen-Jones compared it to “climbing a mountain if you’re not 100%” and Dan Koek (2013-2014) said that the “pressure to always be amazing is hard, especially if you’re tired”.  The last word on this goes to Geronimo though, who when asked what the worst thing about the show was answered that it was very demanding but “at least we don’t have to dance as well”.  That really would be something to see, a dancing JVJ!

Thirty years of Jean Valjean, one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre, has given us some wonderful musical moments –  all the Valjean’s interviewed mentioned the incredible score as the high point of their time in the show and I wanted to pinpoint their favourite songs: would they all choose differently?  Without exception, Bring Him Home cropped up, but as a given; no one who performs the role would say anything else I suspect.  However, several of the Valjean’s (Alfie, Dan Koek, Dave Willetts, Peter Karrie and Geronimo Rauch) also chose the same second favourite, the Soliloquy.  As Dave Willetts (1985-6 as understudy and then took over from Colm Wilkinson) says, this song shows “the journey of the character of Valjean” and in Alfie’s words, it shows “what Valjean has become and what he has come from, a chance to show the anxiety, fear and passion of the character”.  John Owen-Jones chose Bring Him Home as a singer and Who Am I as an actor whilst Peter Lockyer named the Epilogue as one of his favourite moments.  Alfie also mentioned the emotional intensity of the Epilogue but I got the feeling he would have named all his songs as his favourite!

Six months ago, when I started researching and interviewing this piece I had a good idea of how I wanted it to turn out.  I thought that there would be enough material for an interesting look at the different portrayals of Jean Valjean over the years but I never thought there would be so much material that I couldn’t use it all!  Several hours of interviews meant that there was enough material to publish this piece five times over, so I’ve decided to publish each interview in full, starting with Alfie himself, on a weekly basis.  If you want a sneak preview of Alfie’s interview, make sure you’re a subscriber – you get it ahead of everyone else so check your emails shortly for the password.

Tomorrow we get to hear if we got lucky and won tickets for the 30th anniversary gala – come and tell us if you won!

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