Of the living divas that I've been long-time fans of, Marti Webb is the only one I've yet to see perform live. Perhaps that will change now that the acclaimed actress-singer has been cast in the London production of Richard Morris, Dick Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori's Thoroughly Modern Millie, alternating the role of the evil — but hilariously funny — Mrs. Meers with Maureen Lipman.
During a break from rehearsals of the Tony-winning musical, which begins previews at London's Shaftesbury Theatre Oct. 11, I recently had the chance to chat with Webb, whose upbeat personality and conversation is sprinkled with much laughter. Before she accepted her latest role, the award-winning Webb headed to the U.S. to check out the New York production of the musical at the Marquis Theatre. "I loved it," says the actress whose stage career has included roles in Stop the World I Want to Get Off, Half a Sixpence, Oliver!, Godspell, The Card and The Seven Deadly Sins. "I thought it was fantastic! It's just so entertaining — that's the main thing. It entertains on so many levels, it's wonderful."
Webb caught the New York Millie just one day after this summer's much-in-the-news blackout. She was on line at the Shubert Theatre (Gypsy) box office when the lights literally went out and then returned to the Milford Plaza where she was staying during her five-day visit. "Unfortunately I was on the 26th floor, so I had to walk up 52 flights of stairs. I was nearly dead when I got to the top!" says Webb. "People were very good-natured; there was really hardly any trouble at all, which is amazing. It was just an amazing time to be there. I would have to pick it, wouldn't I?" laughs the actress. She did, however, get to see four other musicals during her brief trip, including the Brian Stokes Mitchell Man of La Mancha and Gypsy with Bernadette Peters as Rose — "a role I long to play."
Although Webb is best known for her clear, powerful voice and her striking delivery of rangy, belty ballads — as well as a string of hits on the London charts — she began her career with the hope of becoming a dancer. "When I went to stage school, I went [because] I wanted to be a dancer more than anything else. And I enjoyed the acting. We had to do everything at stage school, which was a great grounding, because you were taught all different types of dance and singing and acting and elocution. Slowly the roles you got, you found you were singing more and acting more, and I actually danced less, so it was one of those funny things." She did, however, get to demonstrate her dancing skills opposite Christopher Gable in the 1974 London production of The Good Companions. "I couldn't have had a better partner really. So I thoroughly enjoyed that, and that's the most [dancing I've done], besides a little bit in Cats. Really, I don't dance that much anymore — it's funny, isn't it, just mainly singing roles came up."
Although she had already appeared in a number of musicals, it was the original London production of Evita at the Prince Edward Theatre that brought a whole new level of fame for the actress, who replaced original leading lady Elaine Paige while she was on vacation. "Elaine was going to go on holiday," Webb explains, "so I went in for a month. And [director] Hal [Prince] was absolutely fantastic, he was wonderful. He came and directed me in, and just gave me so much confidence. And, he insisted that I stay to do more shows. I said, 'Well, no, I'll come back when [Elaine has] left.' She was staying another six months. And he said, 'No, stay, because it's very involved with all the changes, and I want people to be used to the fact that you're here.'" It was during that time when a meeting with Evita composer Andrew Lloyd Webber changed Webb's life. "Andrew came in and asked me out for dinner with Don Black, the lyricist," says Webb, "and they took me to dinner at Mr. Chow's. I've never forgotten it. . . After we had the meal, Andrew came up to me and said, 'Well, Don and I have written a couple of songs, which we'd like you to sing. Would you be willing to record them?' And I said, 'Of course! Oh, I'd be delighted.' He said, 'Now, Marti, I'll sign you for a recording, if that's all right, but because of a conflict of interest, I can't manage you. Don's done some management, so is that all right?' This fantastic gift had been given to me. I just couldn't believe it."
Those two songs were the beginning of what would become Tell Me On a Sunday, the one-woman song cycle about an English woman in New York that became a number one selling album and scored Webb a number two hit on the British charts with "Take That Look Off Your Face." Webb says that being a part of the genesis of the project was equally as exciting as performing the finished product. "[Tell Me On a Sunday] grew daily, weekly, with different songs and different ideas. It was just amazing to be there at the conception of the show. You're so rarely there when it happens — especially watching Andrew just compose one song after another and Don would turn up with a lyric. . . . Then, after the end of recording, Andrew says, 'We're seeing the BBC today, Marti, so will you come along?' And I turned up, and Andrew played all these different things for them, and then they said, 'Could we hear Marti sing live?' And I remember singing 'Tell Me On a Sunday' with Andrew playing the piano, which was fabulous. I love doing it with Andrew, nothing quite like the way Andrew plays it. It's just different. Same when he does '[Don't Cry for Me] Argentina.' There's something different, just something wonderful the way he does it. And then, suddenly, there we are — we're doing [Tell Me On a Sunday] on television, which was so remarkable for me, who'd hardly done any television. It was quite exciting, the most amazing time. It really was."
The BBC broadcast was just the beginning of the Tell Me On a Sunday adventure, for soon after, it was decided that the song cycle would be the perfect piece to join Lloyd Webber's cello "Variations" to form the theatre double-bill Song & Dance. That production was directed by John Caird and earned Webb a Laurence Olivier nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. Webb remembers that experience fondly: "I was very lucky in having John, who directed it. It was really [John] who managed to link the two things together. And, of course, I had the wonderful Wayne Sleep and the eight dancers and the fantastic orchestra on the stage and this amazing set that David Hershey did. And fantastic pictures we had on the back. John worked it out that we would go through the four seasons, so people would realize that there was a passing of time. So you wouldn't think that it was all one-night stands! That was always the danger. I tried to keep the clothes really simple, so you just have a coat on or take the coat off because it's continuous. It's not stopping. That was very exciting, and we were a huge hit. . . There were so many people who'd seen the television [special] and got the album, and it managed to run for about three years. I did it for about a year."
Tell Me On a Sunday, in fact, changed Webb's whole world. "You do musicals, you play the leads, and you enjoy it," Webb says, "and you're known by a few people, the people who go to musicals. You're known, you have a certain amount of fame, so that's fine, but suddenly when I did Tell Me On a Sunday, it was like a whole new ballgame. It was just so frightening. Everybody wanted to know you, everybody recognized you. I thought, 'This is funny. I'm still doing the same sort of things.' Of course, I was still playing Evita. I think that kept my feet on the ground, being there every night. It was quite an amazing experience to have hit records and things like that — it's another life really. You just don't believe that's ever going to happen for you in the theatre."
That fame has also allowed the actress a chance to tour the United Kingdom in sell-out concerts and musical productions, including The Goodbye Girl, Annie and, most recently, as Anna in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. "I spent a year in The King and I," says Webb. "I've always wanted to play Mrs. Anna, and suddenly got the chance to do it, and it was everything I expected. It was even more than I thought because I'd never actually seen the show. I loved the film, of course — I was brought up with it. I love all the music, especially the incidental music I think is just incredible. It's a great acting role. You can actually get your teeth into it. She's not a little wimpy person. She really stands up for herself Mrs. Anna!"
Webb also recently released her latest solo CD, "Limelight," which joins a string of wonderful recordings that includes a tribute to the music of George Gershwin ("Gershwin"), an album of television theme songs ("Always There") and a disc of theatre favorites ("Performance"). Her new, self-produced recording features her three big hits — "Take That Look Off Your Face," "Ben" and "Always There" — as well as such musical theatre fare as "With One Look," "Shall We Dance?," "Hello, Young Lovers" and Aida's "Elaborate Lives."
But, for now, she's focusing on her role in Millie, a change of pace for the actress who often plays characters who "cry their eyes out. . . That's why I'm looking forward to Mrs. Meers because it's doing something different, and, of course, Michael Mayer is such a fantastic director. That's the icing on the cake for me. I saw Triumph of Love on Broadway, and I saw Side Man, and I loved them. . . [Michael is] so fantastic to work with — he's like a little ball of fire. All this energy, and he plays all the parts so well! . . . We're so lucky because we've got all the American [creative team]. They've all bothered to come here and make it our show, which is really nice. You don't feel like you're a carbon copy or just another company. It really makes you feel special, which is lovely for us here. And, Amanda Holden, who's playing Millie, is lovely, she's delightful."
Webb says that she's keeping her fingers crossed that the show will be a big hit, but she's sure the British public will enjoy the show. "People want a musical like this. They want to sit there and just enjoy themselves. It's so fast, too, lovely and fast. It doesn't linger. It's got a wonderful pace to it. It's funny, the book is so good, which is so important in a musical. . . .Millie seems to hit you at 100 miles an hour and doesn't slow down at all. I really enjoyed it so much when I saw it. Although I'd heard the CD and knew about it, it wasn't the same as seeing it onstage."
And, would Webb like to bring her Mrs. Meers to Broadway? "Oh, that would be lovely," says the actress. "That would be fantastic. It would be rather strange to come with a part like Mrs. Meers, wouldn't it? It would be delicious!"
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