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!"
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK October 14 will be an especially exciting day for Barbra Streisand fans. Not only will Streisand's latest recording — "The Movie Album" — hit stores that Tuesday, but the award-winning actress-singer-director will also guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," where she will sing the Charlie Chaplin composition "Smile." . . . Tony Award winner Sutton Foster will vacation from Thoroughly Modern Millie Nov. 17-23. Her official website also reports that the young singer-actress is contracted with the Tony-winning musical through Jan. 11, 2004, although it is a tentative last performance that is subject to change. . . . Another Tony winner, Christine Ebersole, has joined the roster of artists taking part in this season's American Songbook series, which is devoted to the popular American song. Ebersole replaces the previously announced Carolee Carmello and Gregg Edelman, the husband-and wife duo who were scheduled for the Oct. 17 concert. (Edelman was recently cast in the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town, and Carmello, of course, continues her Broadway run in Urinetown). During her evening of song, Ebersole will be accompanied on piano by 2003 Tony Award-winning Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman. His partner, another Hairspray Tony winner — Scott Wittman — will direct the evening. Tickets for the Oct. 17 concert are priced at $45 for the 8 PM concert and $30 for the 10 PM show; call (212) 721 6500 for reservations. The American Songbook concerts are held in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, 165 West 65th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam in the Rose Building, tenth floor. . . . Following an acclaimed eight-week run of A. R. Gurney's Love Letters with a rotating cast of actors, The Storefront will present an encore performance of the two-character play Oct. 27. Cabaret veteran Mary Cleere Haran and theatre-film critic Rex Reed will take on the roles of, respectively, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III in the play, which traces the lifelong correspondence between the two friends. Showtime at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre is 7 PM. Tickets for Love Letters are priced at $18 plus a two-drink minimum; call (212) 255-5438 for reservations. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located at 61 Christopher Street. . . . Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta Jones, Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and recent Chess star Josh Groban will take part in the third of three benefit concerts to inaugurate the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Oct. 25 evening, entitled "Gala: Soundstage L.A.," will feature the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Williams as conductors. In addition to the aforementioned Zeta-Jones, McDonald, Mitchell and Groban, the concert will boast special guests Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Selections from the Oct. 25 concert — as well as tunes from the Oct. 23 and 24 evenings of classical pieces — will be part of a "Great Performances" special at the end of the month. "The Los Angeles Philharmonic Inaugurates Walt Disney Concert Hall" will air on PBS stations around the country on Oct. 29. WNET/Thirteen in the metropolitan area will broadcast the special Oct. 29 at 8 PM with an encore presentation Nov. 2 at 1 PM; check local listings. Designed by Frank Gehry, the new Walt Disney Concert Hall is the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The Hall is located at 111 S. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, CA. For tickets, call (323) 850-2000. For more information, visit www.musiccenter.org. . . . Liza Minnelli, Maureen McGovern, Judy Collins, Lainie Kazan, Karen Mason, Carol Woods, Sal Viviano, J. Mark McVey and Jim Caruso are all scheduled to interpret the works of Kander and Ebb at the annual "Reach for Tomorrow" benefit for the Lauri Strauss Leukemia Foundation. The 90-piece New York Pops Orchestra — under the direction of Skitch Henderson — will also be part of the Nov 3. Carnegie Hall evening, which is being produced by Barry Levitt. Tickets to the Nov. 3 concert are priced $15-$90 and are available by calling CarnegieCharge at (212) 247-7800. . . . Rhapsody in Seth star Seth Rudetsky — who was also the recent musical director and artistic producer of the Actors' Fund benefit Chess concert — will host the 2003 SHINE Awards. The Oct. 18 event at L.A.'s The House of Blues will also feature a host of celebrity presenters as well as a performance by Lorna Luft, who is currently enjoying a success with her one woman show, Songs My Mother Taught Me. As of press time, presenters will include Kelsey Grammer, Mariska Hargitay, Craig T. Nelson, Sara Rue, Ming-Na, Alex Kingston, Ernie Hudson, Enrique Murciano, Hattie Winston, Justina Machado, Shelley Morrison, Bret Harrison, Lynsey Bartilson, Megyn Price, Roger Aaron Brown, Jill Jones, Chico Benymon, Thea Gill, Robert David Hall, Sharon Case, John Hensley, Harris Allan, Chad Allen, Sandro Finoglio and Carla Ortiz. Produced and directed by Ben Rimalower, the SHINE Awards (Sexual Health IN Entertainment), honor "positive portrayals of sexual health issues on television." Special awards will be bestowed upon Viacom Chairman and CEO Sumner M. Redstone and "Law & Order: SVU" Executive Producer Neal Bear. Tickets — which begin at $150 — are available by calling The Media Project at (818) 762-9668. . . . And, finally, Timeless Divas, the series that salutes performers over 40 in the worlds of cabaret, theatre and songwriting, continues with two concerts hosted by Broadway veterans. Leslie Uggams, who is currently starring in the Tony-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, will host the Oct. 26 concert at the Engelman Recital Hall at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Those scheduled to perform at the 7:30 event include Ann Duquesnay, Annie Hughes, Terri Klausner, Amanda McBroom, Heather Mac Rae, Karen Saunders, Neva Small, Mary Stout and Deborah Tranelli. The Engelman Recital Hall is located at 55 Lexington Avenue at 25th Street. Recent Man of La Mancha star Marin Mazzie will host the Dec. 7 evening, also scheduled for 7:30 PM. Those scheduled to sing at the York Theatre Company at St. Peter's (Lexington Avenue at 54th Street) include Julie Budd, Angela LaGreca, Sally Mayes, Rebecca Spencer and KT Sullivan. Tickets for the concerts are priced at $50 each, which includes a pre-performance cocktail party at 6:30 PM. Call (212) 615-6966 for reservations; visit www.durellproductions.com/sharell for more information.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Oct. 18 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, GA
Oct. 28-Nov. 8 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 22 at the Dominican University in River Forest, IL
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Oct. 11 with the Binghamton Philharmonic Pops in Binghamton, NY
Oct. 12 with Jason Graae in Coral Gables, FL
Nov. 8 with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Hartford, CT
Nov. 10 in The Three Leading Ladies of Broadway in Washington, DC
Dec. 13 in Arlington, VA
Jan. 17, 2004 in Asheville, NC
Jan. 31 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 8 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
Feb. 14 with Jason Graae in Palm Springs, CA
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Barbara Cook in Concert:
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Karen Mason in Concert:
Oct. 18 at the Emelin Theater in NY
Nov. 15 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ
Christiane Noll in Concert
Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!