Many moons ago, when London was a swamp and the city was moving slowly through the PSE (Pre Starbucks Era) the London Bluebird put her tap shoes on and trained in musical theatre. She is not quite sure why this was, only that she loved to sing ,and thought that a childhood spent overdosing on black and white musicals was finally coming home to roost. But it turned out to be a wrong turn, because the London Bluebird was a vaudevillian, fast-talking dame, and was crestfallen to discover that the world of musicals had gravitated to soft rock, suburban hairstyles and Queen songs. Twas not meant to be this way, thinks the London Bluebird. Somewhere along the way, she was supposed to be a singing and dancing Claudette Colbert and somewhere it had all gone horribly wrong.
However, the London Bluebird hath no snobbery and adores the television competitions that have been run by MiLord Lloyd Webber. It is much better to be a punter than a those that get punted (competitors) in this industry. When Lloyd Webber turns up on telly with a rash of Marias, a school of Josephs or a busload of Nancys, numbers are frantically dialled and winners are passionately voted for. Whole Saturday nights are centred around the sing-off in our house. There are some people in the industry, dawhling, who fail to appreciate these programmes. They are nonplussed by them, they think them shabby and unprofessional. The very populism of these shows offends them. But the truth is that the acting industry is full of chancers and people who need to be kept on their Grade IV ballet toes. The idea of someone singing their lungs out on primetime Saturday night television makes the rest of the hoofers realise just how much talent there is out there. I trained as an actor for three years. I learned nothing; I spent three years being told what to do by a never-ending line of dipsomaniacs in tights. It did me no good at all. I enjoy it hugely when someone wins who has not wasted thousands of pounds on the bitter dipsomaniacs in tights. It’s good for the drama schools to have a slap in the face once a while (trust me, I slap drama teachers daily. It’s character-building.)
Which brings me to Wednesday night. Me and my theatre buddy went to see Lee Mead in ‘Wicked the Musical’. We did this because we go to see Lee Mead in everything and basically follow him around. Now, Lee is trained in musical theatre. He’s also got a BA in smouldering. We think he is tremendous and have his CDs. Other people think we are slightly dotty, but we don’t care because we utterly adore Lee and think that everything he sings from his lovely little lungs is somewhat fab. Between him and Michael “Mickey Bubbles” Buble you have my favourite two male crooners of the hour. My theatre buddy and I both voted for him for the show that searched for Joseph (Lee Mead, not Mickey Bubbles). Lee was quite clearly the only one worthy of the coat. We could not stomach the idea of Chipmunk Keith or lank as piss Lewis in the lead role, my friends.
Several months after Lee claimed the Technicolour Dreamcoat crown and went off to be an Israelite with Tim Rice lyrics, I emailed my theatre buddy to see if she wanted to see Joseph. Her reply arrived with such rapidity that I thought I saw a trail of smoke behind it as it scorched the office internet router. I purchased two magnificent Stalls seats forthwith, our enthusiasm not dampened by the fact we had to wait five months for our seats (had Denise Van Outen bought all the others?).
By the time Joseph day rolled around, we were whipped into a feverish frenzy and arrived at The Adelphi after a jolly supper and a bottle of wine, but then something happened that not only affected the whole evening but appeared to change the whole mood and sober us up with immediate effect:
“Lee Mead will not be performing tonight. Lee Mead will not be performing tonight.”
It was a small man, parroting away at the entrance doors to the lobby, sweating through his cheap suit and handing out flyers that said exactly what he said, but on paper, for those theatergoers who hadn’t had the misfortune to hear him.
I do not remember this but my very good friend with me assured me that I turned around, stared at the man, opened my eyes and mouth to equal width and said:
He just kept on saying it, “Lee Mead will not be performing tonight,” whilst staring at me like I was an affectionate, yet slightly slow child who had been placed in his care and for whom he felt grudgingly responsible. I was most disappointed by this. Meanwhile, inside the theatre, it was fucking carnage.
People had come from all over the British Isles, judging from the mish mash of accents. Television had enveloped everyone in the country within its greedy arms and pulled them towards the theatre. Humberside husbands were getting angry at ticketsellers because they’d come down from wherever they had come from and paid for a Travelodge and theatre tickets so the wife got to see the boy she fancies from the telly, only to discover that had A SORE THROAT. Yorkshire accents bounced off the art deco lobby interior. The Strand hadn’t seen so many provincials since the last Countryside Alliance march. A lady in the queue to exchange tickets told me the cast were enduring a plague of sore throats which has reduced Joseph’s biblically accurate 11 brothers to a measly 9. And, bizarrely, some of the ladies would be played by boys that evening (Plus ca change – this is musical theatre).
The lady behind the (let’s hope bulletproof bearing in mind some people’s anger) plastic ticket booth was lovely and gave us a special letter. The letter went on about Lee and his sore throat and that SEE tickets would honour us and we had to make a telephone call and then we would get tickets reissued.
And then, six weeks later, on the day of our replacement tickets, Mead comes down with a chest infection and gets signed off by the theatre doctor.
We suspected a personal vendetta – he seemed to know when we are turning up and was resisting singing Close Every Door in front of us. This means we developed a pathological obsession to see the show – hey, if we were loons before, we are now 100-carat gold loons – the further it moved away from us, the more we wanted to see this rather peculiar show which was actually written by children. Oh, no, sorry – written FOR children. By Andrew Llord Webber. Who is not a child but who looks like a baby in a big man’s body. Third time lucky and it’s nearly Christmas. SEE tickets, God bless ’em, have enabled us to swap our tickets again. Which is a good job. Otherwise this whole Lee Mead Quest would have cost us thousands. So 18 months since Lee won his Joseph competition, he is still so successful (deservedly) that tickets are tough to get hold of. I mean, jeez, he only met Denise Van Outen on the show and they’ve managed to buy a palatial Kent pad and nearly get engaged in the amount of time it has taken us get to the Strand and take our seats. When we did eventually see it – in December, shortly before it closed – he was, of course, marvellous and fantastic and all the other remarkable attitributes you look for in a star who doesn’t wear much on stage. It is rare that someone with a bit of genuine charm and sparkle comes along in musical theatre so it is only right to treasure them when they appear.
So, now what feels like several years later – though is only two – we rocked up to ‘Wicked the Musical’. (Do they call it that in case we think that ‘Wicked’ is actually ‘Wicked the Football Match’ or ‘Wicked the Cleaning Fluid’? We know it’s a musical! If you: a) Paid £60 for a ticket, b) got your ears blown off by overloud vocals, c) went to a bar that charges £5.60 for a glass of Reisling that strips the skin off the inside of your mouth and deprives you of your will to live, then congratulations, you’ve been to a West End musical). Lee was playing Fiyero in a pair of very tight trousers that left nothing to the imagination. Fortunately, he was present, we were present and no one got ill. He danced charmingly, sang fantastically and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. There’s not multicolour or coats in ‘Wicked’ or anything – just green, green, green. Everything is green. Especially the reflection from the faces of other male juvenile musical theatre actors who haven’t got Lee’s job. hee hee. The score, unlike Joseph, is not written by children and is in fact written by a chap called Stephen Schwartz who has won all kinds of awards. Well-deserved, I say. My theatre buddy did get confused looking for the loo in the middle of Act I though, and I did keep seeing her going in and out of various doors to the auditorium with a puzzled look on her face, but she didn’t miss much.
Musicals lift you up, in a kind of ‘Wicked the Musical’ defying gravity way, and it is unfair to expect Londoners to brave the Victoria Line and come back to reality with a thud. We must be let down gently, and treated kindly. We should be shepherded to late carriages and driven home softly on a cushion of goosedown, or at least given a steak at Joe Allens. Sprites and muses should join us on our journey and serenade us with a soft medley of the musical we have just seen. Real life cannot intervene. That’s why I avoided the underground, jumped into the back of theatre buddy’s cab and kicked my shoes off and dozed all the way back to Bluebird Towers. A good musical should pep you up for about 24 hours (42nd Street once had me high for a whole week. Really) and should make you feel a trifle buoyant. If a musical doesn’t make you feel joyous then you should get every penny of your £60 back. Even if Lee Mead isn’t off sick.
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