Week five in our study of Jean Valjean over the last thirty years and we come to our earliest and only original cast member, Dave Willetts. Willetts was in the ensemble at the Barbican and also understudied Colm Wilkinson, taking over the role when Wikinson went off to the Broadway production.
Although I enjoyed interviewing all the JVJ’s for this series of posts, one of the most fascinating was with Willetts due to his extraordinary back story. I was completely unaware that until a chance meeting with the artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre, Willetts was happily enjoying life as an engineer, only performing in amateur productions. As he tells it, he had no ambitions to be a professional actor or singer, he just relaxed by performing in amateur dramatics and singing with a jazz trio, in a dance band and in folk clubs. However, that changed when he was offered an audition for a professional production of Annie which was successful and he was then cast in the chorus. Twelve months on from that, he attended an open audition for Les Mis, was called back for a second audition, which was lucky for Willetts as he only went to the first one in the hope of seeing Trevor Nunn who wasn’t there. Happily, he was there for the second audition, as were the writers, who upon hearing him sing Lucky Be A Lady, then handed him the music to the soliloquy and said ‘away you go with that’. He was of course cast and went on to play amongst other West End roles, the Phantom. Since then, he has appeared in the the 10th anniversary Sydney production and directed many schools productions.
Willetts remembers the whole experience, from the rehearsals to the performances themselves, as being the best bits of the show. Creating the show from the ground up was exciting, meeting Pavarotti backstage was even more so. Singing Bring Him Home was again special, as Willetts says “those bottle moments, those moments you put away in a bottle and every now and again you take the cork out and look at them”. All these moments ensured that the rest of his career happened, singing with Tony Bennett for example would never have happened without Les Mis.
As with all the other interviewees, I asked Willetts about the worst aspects of JVJ or any disasters that has befallen him. His response was “how long have you got? In the early days there were loads” which I suppose is typical of a new production, especially one that used a revolving stage. One of Willetts’ most memorable disasters was the stage getting stuck at the end of the barricade scene and all the dead actors who were supposed to get off stage without being seen had to get up and walk off in full view of the audience. Far from ruining the show though, these experiences enhanced the entire evening for the audience. As Willetts says, it’s the “beauty of live theatre”.
Along with Alfie Boe, Dan Koek, Peter Karrie and Geronimo Rauch, Willetts’ favourite song to sing in the show is the soliloquy and broadly for the same reason: the journey of the character within the song. Willetts said “there’s not many roles written like that”. Uniquely, Willetts’ favourite song by another character is Master of the House because of where it comes in the show and it’s a “barnstormer” in Willetts’ words.
Willetts has recently played God in the tour of Love Beyond, the complete story of the bible and as he said to me “there’s nowhere to go from there”! However, he has also co-written a couple of musicals, J’accuse, (the life of Emile Zola) and The Man Inside, an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde. His most recent album, Once in A Lifetime, features songs from both these.
Next week’s Club 24601 JVJ is Hans Peter Janssen.
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