20 Questions With…Marti Webb
Date: 9 February 2004
Veteran West End diva Marti Webb - who’s now returned to the Tell Me on a Sunday part created for her by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Don Black - talks about turning back the clock, Broadway regrets, touring hopes & researching Eva Peron.
Singer-actress Marti Webb was still a teenager when she landed her first job in the 1963 London production of Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.
From her chorus part in that show, she quickly graduated to star opposite Tommy Steele in the hit Half a Sixpence, and many more major musicals followed in the 1970s, including Oliver!, The Card, The Good Companions and Godspell, in which she appeared with David Essex, Julie Covington and Jeremy Irons.
In the 1980s, she came to even greater stage prominence when she took over from Elaine Paige in the title role of Evita in the West End. It was at this time that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Don Black penned the song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday especially for Webb. A television broadcast spawned an album, and the song “Take That Look Off Your Face” climbed into the Top 5 in the UK charts.
The piece was later combined with a choreographed piece, performed by Wayne Sleep, to become the show Song and Dance, which ran for two years at the Palace Theatre, before being revived on Broadway, with Bernadette Peters, and again in the West End in the 1990s.
Webb’s other stage credits have included Cats, The Goodbye Girl, Annie, The King and I, The Magic of the Musicals and, most recently Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Last year, an expanded version of Tell Me on a Sunday was revived in the West End as a solo musical for Denise Van Outen, who Webb has now replaced in the role of a single English girl in New York. At the end of her limited London season, the show embarks on an extensive UK tour, during which Webb will alternate with Patsy Palmer and former Steps star Faye Tozer (See News, 27 Jan 2004).
Place of birth
I was born in Hampstead in London.
Lives now in…
I’ve lived in a flat in Westminster in London for over 20 years; and I also have a house in the country, down in Somerset, so I have the best of both worlds.
First big break
Stop the World – I Want to Get Off (1963). I did that with Anthony Newley, it was my first West End show. He was my mentor, and I think he taught me everything I know. He was never off, and just amazing to watch; and Anna Quayle, who was just as extraordinary as he was. It was wonderful. I did the whole of its London run.
Career highlights to date
It has to be Evita and Tell Me on a Sunday, though Half a Sixpence does also come close, since it was the first time I’d had a leading lady role. Tell Me on a Sunday started off as a recording, and I was already playing Evita at the time – I went in for a month when Elaine Paige went on holiday, and was the first alternate. It was while I was in for a month, I went for dinner with Don Black and he told me he’d written a couple of songs with Andrew and would I record them? It was like a present given to me. That’s literally how it started – I did two songs, and all the songs grew and I stayed with Andrew at Sydmonton while he wrote them. Because I was still in Evita, they arranged to bring me backwards and forwards so I could work during the day with Andrew and Don. Andrew is just so creative, it was amazing to be around him as he was creating, and to watch something grow. You very rarely are in that position in a musical – you go in, you audition for a part, and you get it, but it’s already written. They may alter it for you if you’re lucky, but to be there when they were actually creating it was amazing. The piece is also written in so many styles, but for one voice. Andrew said to me I sang in his keys, and I replied, ‘you write in mine!’ My voice was well suited to his music. I was so lucky. I still can’t believe my luck that he did that for me, and to be there and watch him work.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
That’s very difficult, because there are so many, for different reasons. I loved playing Nancy in Oliver!. The set by Sean Kenny was just so incredible, and it was an amazing experience to work on that set and do that show. I went in after six years and did the first tour. That was quite an experience – we opened in Manchester as Lionel Bart was doing Twang! there – and he was so sweet, because he came straight down to see us, and it was the first time I’d met him and I thought he was so wonderful! We were such a huge hit, but Twang! alas wasn’t! And of course our ASM was amazing – he was absolutely incredible! He became a producer – he was called Cameron Mackintosh. I’ve known Cameron since then, and it’s been wonderful watching him develop. He was only a teenager when he started, but he loved the theatre so, and he’s done it all. You can never pull the wool over Cameron’s eyes, because he’s been there, done it! He and Andrew have done so much for British theatre – it was always very good, but they made musicals international.
After touring Oliver!, they brought it back to the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End, and I did it with Barry Humphries as my Fagin and he was wonderful. He was in the original production of Oliver! as Mr Sowerbridge, and understudied Fagin. Another favourite production was Godspell. We had a great cast that included David Essex, Julie Covington, Jeremy Irons and Gay Soper, and we’ve all kept in touch. Gay and I went to see David at the Royal Albert Hall!
Working with Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence was an extraordinary experience. It was his first stage show and he was a big star, I was really scared of him. But he was fun to work with! Barry Humphries was great in Oliver!. Gary Bond, who was my first Che in Evita, was wonderful and so good to me; and Joss Ackland was also fantastic as Peron. Then I had the wonderful John Turner, and he was also extraordinary – he looked very much like Peron. I did Evita for just over two years, and then did the tour in 1995 and 1996. With Godspell, I can’t pick anyone out – someone said we were like a ten-pointed star, because we were all equal – but it’s nice that my friendship with David and Jeremy and Gay is still there. You don’t usually do shows where you are so much together and a family and very dependent on each other. It was also very spiritual in some ways. And when we did Tell Me on a Sunday on-stage as part of Song and Dance, I had my wonderful little Wayne Sleep doing the dance – and we did a song together at the end, that I’ve never done as a solo before now! “Unexpected Song” was a duet originally, but now there’s only me singing it, which is really weird! What Wayne did in that was quite extraordinary, and Anthony van Laast’s choreography was brilliant, it was so hot! I would always go out front and watch it, I loved it.
High on the list has to be the wonderful John Dexter, who directed Half a Sixpence. He was an extraordinary character, and I was his whipping boy at the time. I was only a teenager, it was only my second West End show and I had a lot to learn anyway, but he taught me so much. If you’re lucky in life, you get people who open doors for you and show you another way, that lasts you all your life, and he did. Another person who inspired me in so many ways and actually made me use the craft that I’d have picked up through the years was Hal Prince, by just having confidence in me. He was absolutely inspiring, rather like Matthew Warchus on this production of Tell Me on a Sunday. I said to him, I really don’t want to be ‘same old, same old’, doing the things everyone’s seen me do already, I asked him to stretch me. You can never see yourself. That’s why directors are so important, they can bring something out of you or get rid of it, whatever the case may be. Hal said about me that I was the hungriest person he’d known for direction – I eat it up, because I need an outside view. You need someone to say that’s right, wrong or indifferent. We had a wonderful resident director called Christian on the tour of The King and I last year. He was so good, really kept us on the ball.
Favourite musical writers
There are so many, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is still my favourite. Since I first sang his music in Evita, he touched my soul. It’s so extraordinary, there’s something from inside. He has such beautiful tunes, and the new one in Tell Me on a Sunday, “Ready Made Life”, is so simple but so beautiful.
I’ve not done any Sondheim – I like tunes! I had never done Rodgers and Hammerstein, either, until I did The King and I, but always wanted to. I used to sing it when I was a child. But to do that show was amazing, and the orchestrations were wonderful. That’s what makes the music – the end product that you actually hear, and it’s so well done in Rodgers and Hammerstein. I also like Kander and Ebb – partly because I love Bob Fosse – though, again, I’ve never done it, but would love to!
What roles would you most like to play still? Carrying on from what I’ve just said, I always wanted to play Roxie Hart in Chicago and also Sally Bowles in Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, but I have a feeling I won’t now! I’ve also always wanted to play Maria in The Sound of Music, but don’t suppose I’ll ever do that either! I heard Mary Martin sing Maria on the original album, and I just loved her. One of my greatest thrills was when she came to see us in Song and Dance when we last did it at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1990, and she asked if she could meet us! She was so lovely.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
The very last thing I saw was Tell Me on a Sunday with Denise Van Outen, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but that’s a bit biased, isn’t it?! The same thing with Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I was also in until the producer Paul Elliott, bless his heart, let me out of it to do this! I really just sat and cried when the phone call came to ask me to do this. All the elation came back and all the wonderful memories, and I really, honestly thought I’d never sing it again. I’d seen it with Denise when I had a week out from The King and I, and I was so thrilled that somebody was doing it and to see it again.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
To help make it more accessible for the public to come and see us, with parking and access! And to be a bit kinder to the managements and the people running theatres and to listen to them. They do know their jobs, and theatre makes up such a big part of the money that comes to London in tourism. These people work very hard and don’t get a hand-out from anyone. They need help to let them do their job.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
The grass is always greener. You think how wonderful it would be to be someone else, but I don’t think I would like it. I’m thrilled to observe other people, but I don’t want to be in their shoes. If I got there, I might find it not quite what I expected, and it would break my illusion, and I don’t want that!
Wuthering Heights. I read it when I was very, very young, and just adored it. I read it again later when I understood it more, and it’s one of those books that has run through my life. I’ve kept going back to it. I adore Charles Dickens – I love his characters, they are always so involved. And I love historical novels and science fiction by John Wyndham – I like anything that takes me out of myself – and also Claire Rayner, who did a wonderful series of novels about London. I got quite hooked! I used to belong to about three book clubs, which is always dangerous!
When I played Eva Peron, I got so many books out about her. Hal Prince couldn’t believe that I’d done so much research, but when you get the opportunity to play someone who is a real person, it is fascinating to read about them. Eva was an enigma, people either loved her or hated her. The best book on her is her own, which is the worst book ever written because it’s just propaganda, but it’s interesting to see how she wants to be viewed. That was a great eye-opener. When I did Oliver!, I read Mayhew’s London’s Underworld. It was written at the same time as Dickens, and he interviewed people of the time and wrote about them.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’m not a great holiday person, but I’ve had a couple of wonderful ones. When I went to Sun City in South Africa, I stayed for three weeks. They asked me if I was sure I wanted to come for that long, so I said, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ People usually only come for a couple of days or a week, but I absolutely adored it: there’s always something going on. I also loved Cyprus. I went to a spa hotel, and it was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever done in my life! I’m the last person to do all that, but to have all those massages and treatments, I’ve never felt so relaxed!
Favourite after-show haunts
I suppose it has to be Joe Allen’s. I love Joe’s because you don’t have to dress up, they always treat you well and it’s a very relaxed atmosphere.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I went to Ada Foster stage school in Golder’s Green when I was 12, so I think my fate was sealed then! And I went to dancing classes from the age of four. The discipline of that has lasted all my life.
What are the challenges of reprising the role after so many years?
I was a bit daunted at first. But since I’d seen Denise do it - and had loved the way Matthew Warchus directed it and the new set by Rob Howell that is just so gorgeous and so different - it’s almost a new show for me. Out of the 32 songs, I only knew five of them, and one I’d always sung as a duet. Of the rest, for some I knew the tunes, but they’ve all been changed and have completely different lyrics or are in different places and situations. So I’ve had a lot to learn!
What do you think of the changes since the original?
I think they’re great. Things have to grow and move on. Otherwise, it’s a period piece. We could have done it as it was, but people might have found it a bit naïve and set in a time-warp. You have to move on. In fact, the piece has always been adapted for whoever has done it. When Lulu, Liz Robertson and Gemma Craven took over in the original run, it was also changed for them. And now it’s been re-adapted for me. We’ve also brought back some things, like ‘Sheldon Bloom’, that Denise didn’t do.
What’s your favourite number from Tell Me on a Sunday?
I have two favourites. One has to be “Tell Me on a Sunday”, it has such a beautiful melody; and the other is “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known”, because it’s so simple. The music really touches your heart.
Are you looking forward to taking Tell Me on a Sunday on tour after the West End?
I am! But I have enjoyed it in a smaller venue, the Gielgud, which is the smallest I’ve ever done it in, and it’s wonderful because it is such an intimate piece! So I may be a bit daunted again by the Palace Theatre in Manchester! I’m doing very nice venues, including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Swansea, Woking, Glasgow, Leeds and Belfast. I’ve got time off in between some of them, when Patsy Palmer and Faye Tozer do it. They came in the other week and saw me and were so sweet and lovely. I said to them, you’ve seen Denise and Julie-Alanah Brighten (who does the Thursday matinees) and me do it in completely different ways, and now you’ve got to find your own way. Just be true to yourself, and it will work: as long as you believe it, the audience will.
Were you disappointed when you didn’t take the show to Broadway originally?
I think I was. But then I’ve been threatened with Broadway so many times on so many shows, it’s almost like a joke. It’s like the carrot at the end of the stick! I’ve been to New York as a visitor often – last time I saw nine shows in seven days! - and I’ve met Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters, but they’ve never seen me on-stage there.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It’s very exciting to be suddenly thrown back into this. Don Black always said to me, a phone call can change your life! And it certainly did this time!
- Marti Webb was speaking to Mark Shenton
Tell Me on a Sunday concludes its extended West End season at the Gielgud Theatre on 14 February 2004, then tours to 20 further venues until July.