Friday, 22 June 2007

And I Can Tell You How It Began (New Column!)

Over the preceding months I have, amongst other things, written about my (personal) essential musicals and a handful of essential performers. Today’s column is a little different in that it features an essential performer and an essential musical. The reason for this is that the two are so inextricably linked that it would be impossible to separate the two.

So who is my essential performer? Well to give a clue she has been a West End leading lady since 1964 and last appeared in a leading west end role just a couple of years ago. So firstly lets go back to the beginning. Born in Cricklewood in 1944 , after appearing in “Stop The World I Want To Get Off” in 1963, Marti Webb got her big break, at nineteen, playing Ann opposite Tommy Steele in David Heneker’s “Half A Sixpence”. The show was a big hit, in fact one of the all time great British musicals, but sadly, when Steele took it to Broadway Marti did not get to join him. However when she also lost out on the film role to Julia Foster she discovered that every cloud has a silver lining when she was asked to dub Foster’s vocals. The next notable role for Marti was in 1967 when she played Nancy in the first major revival of Oliver opposite Barry Humphries as Fagin. The early seventies saw a string of leading roles for her. In 1971 she was one of the stars of Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell” alongside three other performers who were to become big stars in the future - Julie Covington, Jeremy Irons and, Jesus himself, David Essex. Tony Hatch’s musical version of “The Card” at the Queens Theatre followed, where she starred opposite Jim Dale and sang the lovely “I Could Be The One”. Next stop was Her Majesty’s in 1974’s stage version of “The Good Companions”, with music by Andre Previn. Amongst her co-stars were Christopher Gable, John Mills and Judi Dench and the production was notable in being the last to feature lyrics by the legendary Johnny Mercer So for over ten years Marti had been a major player in the West End, not only playing leading roles but originating them. Possibly however her biggest break came in a show where she wasn’t strictly the star. When “Evita” opened to great fanfare in 1978 it was Elaine Paige who was cast in the title role. However Webb was cast as the alternate in this particularly demanding role, and when Paige moved on it was Webb who took over the role. The roles somewhat wordy score suited Marti’s talents perfectly and it was around this time that, the shows composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber took particular notice of Webb, and paid her the ultimate compliment by asking her to work on his next project

So this brings me to my essential musical! “Tell Me On A Sunday”, with lyrics by Don Black, is a song cycle telling the story of an English girl in America, and the men that come in and out of her life. Although a little work had been started on the show when Webb came aboard the majority of the songs were written with her in mind. Initially conceived as a one woman show for the BBC and an album it proved to be a huge hit. Both the album and the single “Take That Look Off Your Face” climbed high up the charts and Marti Webb seemed to become a household name overnight, a regular face on television for the next decade or so, and even having her own BBC2 show. Listening to the original album now it has some lovely songs, and Marti’s rendition of “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known” is quite beautiful. Where Marti truly excels, however, are in the pieces dramatic numbers such as “Let Me Finish” and “Let’s Talk About You” proving that she is one of the best singing actresses in musical theatre. So “Tell Me” was a hit record, and you may think that this should be enough, but hot on the heels of “Evita” and “Cat”s Andrew Lloyd Webber was looking for a new project for the theatre. “Tell Me On A Sunda”y seemed like a ready made hit but it was felt that it was too short. The answer was there all the time however. The solution was to pair the show with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s previously written “Variations” project. Originally conceived as a classical piece for his brother, cellist, Julian it was felt that, slightly restructured, it could be developed into ballet. As the first act, “Tell Me On A Sunday” once again starred Marti . New songs were added, for instance the stunning “The Last Man In My Life” and the entertaining “Married Man”. The lyrics were worked on as well to make it work better for the theatre, and the drama was heightened in many numbers, particularly the reworked title song. A little more humour was added to the show too, particularly in the “Letter Home To England” numbers. All in all the show proved to be an absolute tour-de-force for Webb. As our un-named heroine she took us through an emotional journey that ran the gamut as the original cast recording will testify. The second act saw dance take centre stage with Anthony Van Laast’s ballet inspired by the “Variations” album. The piece featured most forms of modern dance so Ballet, Jazz and tap all had a part to play. The principal dancer was Wayne Sleep, at the height of his powers and popularity and fresh from Cats. Bringing the evening of the show to a close was a finale with Wayne joining Marti in singing “When You Want To Fall In love” and Marti dancing! The show opened at the Palace theatre in 1982 where, as “Song And Dance”, it ran for over 700 performances. Marti was succeeded in the show by Liz Robertson, Gemma Craven and Lulu but even after the show had ended it’s West End run it continued to develop. 1984 saw the show, in it’s entirety, being video recorded and shown on BBCtv. Wayne Sleep reprised his role but Marti was succeeded by Sarah Brightman. It was for this version of the show that “The Last Man In My Life” was replaced by, what many consider to be one of Lloyd Webber’s greatest songs, “Unexpected Son”g. Shortly after the show was revised yet again for Broadway, seeing new songs and radical changes to many of the lyrics with the assistance of lyricist Richard Maltby. An attempt was also made to make the two halves of the show a more coherent whole by giving the lead character a name, Emma and making her a hat designer! Also the dancer of the second half was supposed to be one of Emma’s lovers. The show lead to a Tony award for best actress Bernadette Peters who apparently gave an amazing performance. Certainly her version of the song “Tell Me On A Sunday” is heart breaking but, I feel, much of Broadway cast album is spoiled by her dreadful London accent!

So this takes the development of “Tell Me On A Sunday” up to the mid eighties. Now this isn’t the end of the story but it’s time to go back to Miss Webb and see what she was doing! As well as a couple of stints in “Cats” as Grizabella, Marti also did panto for the first time when she starred in “Babes In The Wood” at The Palladium. Since the success of “Tell Me On A Sunday” much of the rest of the decade was taken up as a recording artist. “Won’t Change Places”, featured a mix of pop songs and show tunes with a couple of brand new Lloyd Webber/Black compositions thrown in for good measure. This was followed by “I’m Not That Kind Of Girl” in 1982. 1985 saw one of Marti’s biggest hits with the single “Ben” released in conjunction with TV’s “That’s Life” as a fund raiser for their Ben Hardwick campaign. This was swiftly followed up by the album “Encore”. It wasn’t long before she returned to the top ten again with “Always There” a vocal version of the theme from hit eighties drama “Howards Way”. An album of the same name followed, featuring a collection of small screen themes, and this was followed by 1987’s “Gershwin” released to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the composers death. Her last album of the eighties saw a return to familiar territory with the release of “Performance” a collection of show tunes. Then, as the decade drew to a close Marti was once again imploring us to take that look off our face as she and Wayne Sleep toured again with “Song And Dance”, which enjoyed a season at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

The early nineties saw Marti begin her first tour of “The Magic Of Musicals” a production which she continued to participate in sporadically over the next decade or so. “Evita” also beckoned again as she undertook a major national tour in 1995-1996. Other highlights included the tours of “Annie” and “The Goodbye Girl”, and “Divorce Me Darling” at Chichester. “The Magic Of The Musicals” and “Divorce Me Darling” were both released on CD as was a budget Songs From Evita collection in the mid nineties. The new millennium has been a particularly productive period for Marti, kicking off with the national tour of the Palladium production of “The King And I.” Around the same time Marti returned to the recording studio for her “Limelight” album which included new material as well as re-recordings of previous hits - Notably a long overdue recording of “As Long As He Needs Me” which she performed in “Oliver” more than thirty years before. Now this brings us almost up to date for Marti so it’s a good time as ever to go back to developments on the “Tell Me On A Sunday”.

2003 saw “Tell Me On A Sunda”y (on this occasion minus “Variations”) return to the west end as a vehicle for actress and television personality Denise Van Outen. New songs were written yet again, and lyrics were yet again adapted to allow for a younger central character and also the changes in society in the twenty years that had passed since the original. The show once again struck a chord with the public and had a successful run at the Gielgud Theatre and went on to have a successful national tour.

Now this in turn brings us back to Marti Webb . After a break of many years she was back in the West End playing the alternate Mrs Mears in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” when the call came for her to return to her defining role. So Marti was back where she belonged, in a lead role in the west end and what’s more, in “Tell Me On A Sunda”y the show that had been written for her back in 1980.

Of course the story continues and she went on to do several tour dates of “Tell Me On A Sunday” and, more recently, has starred in “Hot Flush!” I am hard pressed to think of any other musical theatre leading lady, with a career spanning over forty years, who has been active in the West End for such a long period. My only wish for Marti would be that she would get to tackle some more roles that her would provide the same challenges that “Evita” and “Song And Dance” did for her. As one of our finest singing actresses she excels with wordy literate songs bringing real wit and drama to them. I have always thought she would be wonderful in some of the great Sondheim roles such as Mrs Lovett and Phyliss Rodgers Stone. I can only hope!


Tell Me On A Sunday – as a record the original album by Marti is great, but the show really came into it’s own with the London Cast Recording of “Song And Dance”. In my opinion it’s the musical at its absolute best in every way – musically, lyrically and of course actressly! It’s the absolute marriage of great theatre with a performer at the top of their game with an amazingly witty, dramatic and heart wrenching piece of the theatre. The Bernadette Peters version isn’t nearly as successful for me, sadly the faux London accent can be incredibly distracting and for every number such as her stunning “Tell Me On A Sunday” there is another which sounds terrible! I do have an old LP of the German version too with Angelika Milster. Bless her! Very German! The most recent version with Denise Van Outen is also worth a listen, she sings the score beautifully, particularly on the newly written songs but, for me, she lacks the drama of Marti Webb’s performance that really makes the piece work. So given a choice go for the live “Song And Dance” but they all have their merits! Whichever one you may choose you at least get top hear this wonderful musical theatre score!

n.b The Sarah Brightman version is also due to be released on CD for the first time very shortly.

Marti Webb - Many of her recordings are no longer available or have never been released on CD. We can only hope that the London “Godspell” someday gets a release as it really is excellent, but “Half A Sixpence” and “The Card” are both available and both worth exploring as British musicals. Of her solo works, “Tell Me On A Sunday” is out of print and sells for upwards of forty pounds on ebay. “Gershwin” is also out of print but its an album containing some real gems if you should come across it. You can still get her “Evita" collection which isn’t the best recording ever but does give a taste of what she brought to the role, and I believe “Performance” is still widely available.

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