Theatre musical star Dave Willetts has enjoyed a career spanning 25 years, with leading roles in critically acclaimed West End shows including Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. He spoke about his new solo album and life in Warwickshire
It is often only at major milestones in life that people pause for a moment to take stock of what theyve achieved. The process of compiling his 25th anniversary solo album, Once in a Lifetime, released just before his 60th birthday, was such an opportunity for Dave Willetts. I had to go through all these boxes of archive material in my loft and found old cassettes of concert stuff, studio recordings and videos, and over the years you forget what youve done, he says. I sorted out photographs too and when you look back at the people youve met and worked with like Mickey Rooney and Sammy Davis Jr and experiences like singing at Old Trafford in front of 40,000 people [in 1994] you think, Blimey, thats pretty good actually!
The album includes 16 previously unreleased tracks, live concert recordings as well as two new songs a Randy Newman number, Feels Like Home, which Daves daughter Kerry chose for her first dance at her wedding, and Ill See You in My Dreams, which he regularly plays on his ukulele for his grandson Rafferty, son of his other daughter Leanne. The record company were very good and let me decide what would go on there, but it was harder to decide what not to put on, he says.
Despite his many years in the industry, and leading West End roles, there is nothing remotely theatre luvvy about Dave who, in his Brummie lilt, explains that hes never been into the fame thing: Ive always just gone to work, done my job and come home. Home, for nearly 30 years, has been Baginton on the outskirts of Coventry where he lives with his wife Lyn, a former nursery nurse. They built their current house after returning from a year in Australia, where Dave was performing in the 10th anniversary production of Les Misrables. When we went out to Australia people said youll never come back but it never entered our heads we wouldnt return to Warwickshire, he says.
Daves professional career launched in the mid-1980s. He was in an amateur dramatics production at the Priory Theatre in Kenilworth, when he was spotted by Bob Hamlyn, then artistic director at The Belgrade, who gave him the chance to audition for Annie. At the time Dave was working as an engineer, a job he describes as a bit of the sticky end of the lollipop, so my way to relax was to do amateur dramatics and I used to sing in folk clubs and in a big dance band. When he was offered a part in the chorus line for Annie, he left his job without a second thought. I didnt see it as brave, he admits. And I wouldnt have been selfish enough to do it without Lyns backing because we had two little kids. I had to hand back my car keys, so we bought two second-hand pushbikes, Lyn got a second job waitressing at the Old Mill (Baginton) and while we were still in rehearsals I took a job as a waiter at the NEC and it was all a big adventure. Perhaps it was navety on my part but I never thought Id be out of work.
His optimism was not misguided, for within 12 months he was playing the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Misrables on the West End and straight after, took over from Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera. He went on to perform lead parts in Sweeney Todd, Cats, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Jesus Christ Superstar and many more. I was in the right place at the right time and those shows, Les Mis and Phantom, did, and still do, open a lot of doors, he adds.
Having never had any formal singing, dancing or acting lessons, Dave would, in the early days: stand in the wings and watch people and see how to do things and how not to. And that has gone full circle because now you notice people in the wings watching you, he smiles. Its like with driving: you can go on forever with a man next to you with his foot on the pedal, but its alone on the M5 at rush hour that you really learn to drive. You have to be up there on the stage doing it.
He credits director Trevor Nunn, who gave him his first big break in Les Misrables, as having been a great influence on him. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of background work he puts in before you even get on the stage, talking about the character and also the way he gets the best out of people, says Dave before adding: But on the other hand American director Hal Prince is great at getting the spectacle, his vision is fantastic.
While he counts some of his roles in smaller productions, such as three-man show Let Us Fly, based on the life of Russian folk hero Vladimir Vyotsky, at the Kings Head pub in Islington as memorable as the large West End productions, Dave admits to at times having felt he was limited by his musicals background. The problem with this country is that you do get pigeon-holed and whenever you go for TV or whatever, they say Dave does musicals. I kind of got frustrated at times, but its been a long time since I felt like that because I enjoy what I do.
He started out in the industry as musicals were becoming the epic productions with which we are now familiar, but more recently he has seen a move back to simpler stage productions. A lot of the old shows are being revived, which is great because there is a place for everything, he says.
Mention the subject of TV talent search shows and he rolls his eyes. Its nothing to do with finding somebody, he scoffs. Normally you have three minutes to prove yourself in audition, not three months with people guiding you all the way. But it is a fantastic marketing tool to get bums on seats. He is, however, happy to help the next generation of budding starts and for years he has been involved with the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, and when not working he will help out building the set or acting as crew. Ive also done a little bit of coaching and directing and go and speak at sixth form colleges and things and I like doing that, he adds.
Now playing Julian Marsh in 42nd Street, which tours until December, Dave is also working on a new show, JAccuse, based on the life of French writer mile Zola, with music by Petula Clark. When summing up his 25 years so far, he admits: I never envisaged how it would all pan out, and just went where it took me, but its served me nicely.
For more details of Davids 25th anniversary album Once in a Lifetime and YouTube footage visit: www.davewilletts.com
Dave Willetts Warwickshire Life
My wife, Lyn, is from Warwickshire originally, while I grew up in Birmingham. We lived in Wales for 15 years when I worked as an engineer and then I got a job that brought us back to Warwickshire. When we were looking at houses, we drove through Baginton and we liked the feel of it. It has the village atmosphere with a pub and store and theres a Roman Fort, so it has an interesting history, too, but while it is peaceful and all you can hear when youre sitting in the garden is the birds, youre also not cut off from civilisation and its easy to get into Coventry or Warwick.
Where is your favourite spot in the county?
Stratford-upon-Avon holds a special place for me. When we were kids, on Sunday summer afternoons we would get together with various aunts and uncles and about 20 of us would go to Stratford and have a picnic and listen to the band on the bandstand and have a game of cricket, and we did the same with our kids over the years.
What do you enjoy most about Warwickshire?
Its just a great county. I wouldnt think about living anywhere else. You have places like Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick with its castle, and Leamington Spa is a lovely town to go shopping with all of the independents. We are members of the National Trust so regularly go to visit historic places, but also it has some fantastic local pubs and restaurants, like the Blue Lias next to the canal in Stockton, or The Red Lion in Hunningham. Its got it all.
Photographs: Antony Thompson