Gary Wilmot talks to Tony Cooke about starring in the musical A Bowl of Cherries and why he never predicted that he would make it in showbusiness
Taking a break from rehearsals for his new show, A Bowl of Cherries, at London’s Charing Cross Theatre, he’s not got much to say about vocal technique or training either. Of his formal musical training, he says simply: “I had no formal training.”
On the details of his singing tuition schedule, he says: “I’ve never had a singing lesson. The only time I do is during a rehearsal period, when I’m learning how to sing a song.”
Listening to him you might start to think his many musical theatre successes, such as lead roles in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Me and My Girl Oliver! and the world premiere production of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana, were just a stroke of blind luck.
Of course, that’s far from true. It’s clear, however, that Wilmot’s appeal to musicals fans for 25 years has been down to much more than just his ability to sing – which he does, by the way, far better than he claims. In fact, all those who harbour a dream of making it in the musicals, but worry that their voice may let them down, should listen up. The story of Wilmot’s success stands as proof that vocal fireworks are only part of the picture – heart and soul can sometimes prove even more important.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a singer,” he says. “I think of what I do, and I don’t mean to be pretentious, but I try to sell songs. I try to sell the lyric.”
It’s his ability to connect with the crowd and tell an engaging story that has really been Wilmot’s ticket. It was a skill he honed in the 1970s through the variety circuit, before appearing on TV talent show New Faces, followed in the 1980s by a string of TV comedy and kids’ shows – Copycats, So You Want to be Top?, Punchlines, and Cue Gary.
By the 1990s he had made the leap to musicals, worked with the Old Vic, landed the gig for Copacabana, and returned to the small screen with the BBC’s Showstoppers. That series harked back to the more stripped-down days of TV variety, pairing Wilmot with other stars for a half-hour of show tunes. “The toughest job I’ve ever done – you had two days to shoot each episode, with ten days rehearsal,” he says.
His journey up the ladder, however, seems to have been despite, rather than because of having a carefully planned career path. Wilmot didn’t just miss out on drama school – as a young man, just reading a script was impossible for him.
“I could barely read and write when I left school,” he says. “I had a comprehensive education that comprehensively failed me – I’d never read anything. But because my friends pushed me into showbusiness I had to learn about words.”
It’s a disadvantage he overcame handsomely, but one that can still create challenges for him. Playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2001 was, he says, not an enjoyable process. “I was over-awed by it all. I let it not get to me – as in I wanted to break down and cry – but I just thought I’m not enjoying this as much as I should be.”
He persevered, and soon realised tackling Shakespeare was like any other storytelling. “As brilliant as the words are, he was just writing a play. By the end of the run, I was saying I wanted to do it again,” he says.
For his latest project, new musical A Bowl of Cherries, he seems on more comfortable ground. A series of short plays linked by songs, it tells the story of two theatre ghosts, the spirits of a stagehand and a young starlet who were killed in a Blitz bombing, who now observe the goings on at their former theatre.
Wilmot was drawn to the piece by the chance to take on multiple characters, and some “brilliant” songs by David Martin, including Can’t Smile Without You, famously a hit for Manilow.
When we speak, Wilmot’s just two days into rehearsals. He says it’s a particularly rewarding time for him: “One of the most enjoyable periods of work for me is in the rehearsal room, when you’re creating new things. I’m not a great researcher. I have done when I’ve felt the need – but I like to dive in, swim around it, and see what comes out. Generally it works for me.”
During his career Wilmot has created new roles, such as Tony in Copacabana, as well as stepping into well-worn shoes, such as with Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. So would he approach a new role differently?
“I’ve always said, an actor can only take their own bag of tools into a rehearsal room,” he says. “Even if the part has been done before, acting for me is an extension of my own emotions. So I do think the techniques are the same, but you are at a slight advantage if something has been done before. Or sometimes it is a disadvantage, if you try and emulate something and it doesn’t work.”
Regardless of formal training, his own bag of tools has, naturally, been added to and sharpened-up during his various creative partnerships – particularly in the studio with Manilow. “I was very tired – it was right in the middle of rehearsals [for Copacabana]. He would say, just try this, or do this. Eventually we got what I think is one of the best musical albums there is,” he adds.
Working as an actor, Wilmot says that feeling of uncertainty never goes away: “It is amazing when you have a month, two months, three months out of work, you look at your savings and think, my God, I’ve got to get some work soon.”
However, Wilmot states now more than ever he is determined to stick to what he does best, and aim to always find the best scripts and talent. Don’t expect to see him on a reality TV show soon.
“The only one that I think is legitimate is Strictly Come Dancing – they all have a laugh and everybody works really hard. The idea of going into the Big Brother house – my God! I was asked to do Come Dine With Me as well. It fills me with dread when I think about that.
“Years ago, when people asked me to do things, I used to say to myself, would they ask Johnny Mathis to do it?, because he was the ultimate, classy performer. If they wouldn’t have asked him, I would say no.”
He says he would relish the chance to follow fellow song and dance stars, like Bradley Walsh, and make the jump to a TV soap or drama, but he won’t lose sleep over it either. He gets more animated at the thought of resurrecting the show that he sees as the biggest disappointment of his career, Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl saying: “I would love to direct it.”
Whether or not Wilmot manages that feat, he’s proud to have played his own part in musicals history, and feels like the art form is gaining credibility all the time. “I think we’re getting better about [musicals] now, because there are a lot of ‘legitimate’ actors who have tried to do musicals in the theatre, and then discovered how difficult it is.”
* A Bowl of Cherries is at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, from March 6 to 31, www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk
* Check back next Thursday when The Stage will be offering a chance to win a pair of tickets to see the show.