CROSSING OVER

No, I’m not talking about things supernatural. I’m referring to performing artists moving from one area of the entertainment industry to another, specifically rock and pop stars becoming legitimate stage performers. There are two high profile examples of this on the London stage at the moment: Pixie Lott -best known as a peppy popster responsible for upbeat chart hits like “Mama Do” and “Boys And Girls”- is making her West End debut as Holly Golightly in Richard Greenberg’s adaptation of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS at the Haymarket. Meanwhile, across town at the Young Vic, Billie Piper has been garnering the kind of reviews that are a press agent’s wet dream in the title role of Simon Stone’s radical reinterpretation of the Lorca verse classic YERMA. 

Piper’s reinvention is a truly remarkable one: at 15, she was the youngest person ever to reach number one in the UK singles chart;  she then had a string of pop hits and became tabloid fodder for her somewhat unorthodox first marriage to DJ and presenter Chris Evans. Despite some creditable TV work including a stint as a beloved assistant to “Dr Who”, the announcement of her West End debut in a rare revival of Christopher Hampton’s emotionally charged play TREATS in 2007 was greeted with a certain amount of derision in theatrical circles. However, Billie’s raw, edgy, painfully vulnerable, impressively naturalistic performance -a precursor to her remarkable and possibly career-redefining current turn- silenced all critics and earmarked her as a stage talent to watch. There was a section near the end of the evening where her character, the lovelorn Ann, just sat centre stage alone crying in silence…..it was uncomfortable to watch and it was simultaneously utterly transfixing. Since then her acting cv has gone from strength to strength, including a starring role at the National in a role written for her by Richard Bean in GREAT BRITAIN, and she has now joined that rare band of players whose presence in the cast list ensures a sell out. If you doubt that, try getting a ticket at the Young Vic at the moment.

Pixie Lott has had a rougher ride in that her current play has opened to fairly ghastly reviews, although Lott herself has emerged from them with some positive feedback: for example, Holly Williams in The Independent referred to her “magnetism” and “distinctive charm”. However positive though, the mild compliments for Lott are not the kind of notices likely to keep Ms Piper or, say, Gemma Arterton awake at night. Wild horses wouldn’t drag from me what I thought of Pixie’s performance, although wine might.

Arguably less high profile but still noteworthy are the presences at the Arts Theatre of platinum-selling Newton Faulkner and X Factor alumna Amelia Lily in the cast of Green Day’s enthralling rock cantata AMERICAN IDIOT. However since that is fundamentally a rock show, I guess it is a lot less of a departure for its leading pair. Just up the road from them at the Dominion, Soul queen Beverley Knight is back in THE BODYGUARD, giving thrilling new voice to those Whitney Houston classics, although for me her acting is a touch lightweight; until she starts singing she doesn’t fully convince me as a demanding superstar diva. I was more of a fan of the stage role’s originator, Heather Headley. When she was on.

Looking back through theatre programmes I’ve collected in the last couple of decades I realise I’ve seen a large number of pop stars in theatre roles. Undoubtedly the most high profile was Madonna in an Americanised version of an Australian comedy about the duplicity of the art world entitled UP FOR GRABS which (unsurprisingly) did capacity business at the Wyndhams back in 2002. What was surprising -at least to me- was how uncharismatic and awkward the Material Girl turned out to be on stage. She couldn’t land a laugh to save her life, had a painfully thin speaking voice and delivered every line in a flat monotone as though sight reading the script for the very first time. As if acutely aware of the leading lady’s potential shortcomings, director Laurence Boswell surrounded her with a crackerjack supporting cast and a sumptuous physical production. Whenever Madonna was offstage, it was a very stylish evening in the theatre. It was somewhat disconcerting however trying to concentrate on the play when there was a suited, booted and sunglass-ed (!) burly bouncer on either side of the proscenium arch for the duration of the performance, presumably lest there be any acting coaches in the house who may have attempted to rush onto the stage and give Madge a few technical tips.

Maybe as somebody primarily known for her music (although I am aware she has been pretty terrible in a number of movies, Desperately Seeking Susan notwithstanding) she might have fared better in a musical. Certainly I remember Lulu being a delightful Miss Adelaide in the West End transfer of the National’s GUYS AND DOLLS back in the 80s, not as nuanced as Imelda Staunton nor as technically adroit as Jane Krakowski nor as quirkily off-the-wall as Sophie Thompson all in the same role, but still a sparky, funny and touching performance. 

Similarly, Bill Kenwright struck gold by repeatedly casting singers as Mrs Johnstone, the tragic lynchpin of Willy Russell’s long running, beloved musical melodrama BLOOD BROTHERS. Elton John’s old duet-partner and originator of a couple of well loved 70s chart hits Kiki Dee opened the revival back  in 1987; to be fair, her acting was perfunctory to say the least (you wouldn’t want to see her as Hedda Gabler, although she might have been convincing as the door Nora slams at the end of A Dolls House……yes she was that wooden) but when she launched into Russell’s mournful, folky, haunting songs she broke your heart and all was forgiven. Her replacements included a host of Nolan sisters, Aussie chanteuse Helen Reddy (genuinely very fine as both singer AND actress, although the constant references to the character as being “like Marilyn Monroe” really was pushing it with the matronly Reddy), Clodagh Rodgers, Spice Girl Mel C, and arguably best of all, former New Seeker Lyn Paul who displayed an extraordinary acting range, true gravitas as well as the expected vocal chops. The Broadway production fielded Petula Clark (who went on later to be a replacement Norma Desmond in the West End SUNSET BOULEVARD, a poignant performance that was perhaps surprising for being stronger dramatically than it was musically) and the great Carole King, now the subject of her very own musical of course.

Antony Costa, of the boyband Blue, also did a stint in the West End BLOOD BROTHERS, as the tragic twin Mickey, a role which has barely any singing, perhaps a surprising debut choice for somebody best known as a pop star. Actually, he was terrific: funny, charming and charismatic -his descent into crime and depression was one of the most moving I’d seen since the role’s originator Con O’Neill. In fact all of Costa’s band mates ended up in the West End, most conspicuously Duncan James who made an assured debut as a replacement Billy Flynn in CHICAGO and followed that up by a successful turn as the smarmy Warner opposite Sheridan Smith in LEGALLY BLONDE; he has since toured to considerable acclaim in PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT. Simon Webbe did a brief stint in SISTER ACT at the Palladium (no, not as a nun), and Lee Ryan gave an uninspired performance in a painfully cliched little play about infidelity entitled THE PRETENDER AGENDA which I struggled through at the New Players (now Charing Cross) in 2001.

To be entirely fair, a pop or rock star at the very top of their game is unlikely to want to jettison the huge amounts of money to be made from arena tours and travelling internationally to promote their latest album, in order to turn up eight shows a week in a play or musical. Madonna is one of the few examples of a megastar who really DID have somewhere better, or at least more lucrative, to be. That might also be true of Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin who did nearly a year on Broadway as Che in the 2012 EVITA revival. I saw him in that and while he did look stunning of course, he didn’t bring much else to the table, lacking the vocal dexterity and dramatic edge of Matt Rawle in the London version, and only really seeming fully comfortable in the raucous, upbeat Act Two number “And The Money Kept Rolling In (And Out)”. Even there though one had the unmistakable  impression that Martin and indeed his legions of fans would have been so much happier had they been able to interpolate “Livin’ The Vida Loca” instead at this point in the evening. I did see American Idol winner Jordin Sparks during her engagement as Nina in IN THE HEIGHTS on Broadway and she was absolutely superb, a beguiling and convincing actress but with the soaring vocals you’d expect. It will be interesting to see how M-O-R darling Josh Groban fares this season in his B’way debut in the fascinating, quirky indie/electro pop opera NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (try ordering tickets for THAT after a couple of vodka shots). 

Marti Pellow and Alison Moyet both did runs in the West End CHICAGO -always a production up for a bit of stunt casting, however misguided- and acquitted themselves well, any minor shortcomings in the acting being compensated for by their richly distinctive voices. Pellow has since gone on to forge a second career for himself in musical theatre, having headlined tours of  THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, JEKYLL AND HYDE and EVITA. Less successful, in my humble opinion, was Tina Arena looking forlorn in a lumpy wig and even lumpier frock as Esmeralda in the jaw-droppingly inept NOTRE-DÀME DE PARIS at the Dominion (one of her replacements was Danii Minogue in a bit of a career lull). At the same address in the mid 80s, Cliff Richard attempted to save the world from intergalactic destruction on a nightly basis in the deafening but banal space age extravanganza TIME. That was pretty hard to sit through and I think I’ve still got the tinnitus to prove I was there. Either way, the ‘Peter Pan Of Pop’ was a hilariously improbable planetary saviour. I giggled more at that than at many so-called Musical Comedies I’ve seen.

Then there was H from Steps –all teeth, pecs, questionable high notes and sheer smackability in the Kenwright version of JOSEPH. His former bandmate Faye Tozer however turned out to have an unexpected but joyous gift for camp comedy as the gloriously named Jubilee Climax in the first London revival of SAUCY JACKS AND THE SPACE VIXENS, although when you consider some of those old Steps routines and videos maybe the tongue-in-cheek humour should have been expected; anyway she was rather splendid.

Last but not least there are the examples of rock/pop stars taking over roles in their self-penned shows, usually in an attempt to boost flagging ticket sales. A fairly recent example of that occurred on Broadway a few years ago when Sting joined the cast of his well-intentioned but bottom-numbingly dull THE LAST SHIP. His presence did indeed keep the show afloat (pun intended) but the whole dreary enterprise foundered at the end of his stint. In London Boy George took over in his autobiographical TABOO, not playing himself but the outrageous 80s fashion icon Leigh Bowery. George was good value but nowhere near as edgily effective as his predecessor Matt Lucas; he did however put bums on seats although one suspects that if Lucas did the role now there wouldn’t be a seat to be had for love nor money (this was before Little Britain and Lucas’s film appearances.)  Madness frontman Suggs went into the frankly brilliant OUR HOUSE which seamlessly and ingenuously interpolated Madness  songs into an intricate Camden-set dual plot  to magical, moving and exhilarating effect. Not a particularly credible actor, Suggs had an innate warmth and likeability plus a winning way with those numbers that transcended any reservations one might have, in a show that received a mere fraction of the acclaim and success it deserved, although it did at least take home the Olivier Award for Best Musical of the 2002-3 season.

I guess the biggest coup of all would be to get Agnetha from ABBA in as Donna Sheridan in MAMMA MIA. Now that I would pay premium price for…. Who cares if she’s too old?! So was Meryl Streep. Bite me.

2 responses to “CROSSING OVER”

  1. And then there was David Hasselhoff as Billy Flynn in CHICAGO….,,a pop star in his mind (and in Germany) Xcellent post!

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    1. Thank you! Actually yes I saw the Hoff as Billy Flynn as I had a mate in the show at the time. He was surprisingly (?!) good. Xx

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