Q & A with Lee Mead: 10 years on.

Lee Mead: 10 years – The Anniversary Tour

Lee Mead is probably best known for winning the lead role in the West End revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, through the 2007 BBC TV show, Any Dream Will Do. Since then, the stage and screen actor has kept himself pretty busy, appearing in subsequent West End hits, releasing solo albums, undertaking concert tours and making regular appearances on TV.

Last month, James Rampton caught up with Lee for a 10 year Anniversary Q&A:

Q: How do you feel about your forthcoming album and tour to mark your 10th anniversary since winning the role of Joseph in the 2007 West End revival of the iconic Andrew Lloyd Weber production?

A: I didn’t think I’d make it this far! I am really excited about the tour and the new album release.

Q: Looking back on the last decade, how would you encapsulate it?

A: I’m very happy with the way my career has gone. I don’t feel that I have had to compromise along the way. I’ve been approached a few times to do reality TV and I love watching some of those shows, but I’m not sure I would do very well on something like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! The idea of eating crocodile testicles is not on my agenda! Touch wood, I like to think that over the last 10 years I’ve made the right career choices.

Q: What will the show  “Lee Mead – 10 Years – The Anniversary Tour” consist of?

A:  I’ll be doing more than 20 songs. I really believe in giving people their money’s worth. I’ll be doing the songs that have had an impact on me over the last 10 years – for instance, I’ll be performing Maria from West Side Story which is one of, if not the, greatest musical ever written. I thought it would be really nice to perform my own take on that particular song.

Q: What other songs will you be performing on the tour?

A: I recently took my daughter Betsy to see the film Boss Baby. Five minutes into the film, the girl has to move away because her dad changes job. She is upset and the song her dad sings to calm her and get her to sleep is Blackbird. At that moment, I started welling up. I thought, “I have to sing that song in my show.” I found a rehearsal recording of Paul McCartney performing it with an acoustic guitar. There is such a raw element to that interpretation. I just love that song. It’s so simple and yet so beautiful.

Q: Maria and Blackbird are on your new album, “Lee Mead – 10 Year Anniversary.” What other songs can we look forward to on the record, which is set for release on 23 February 2018, just in time for Mother’s Day?

A: I’m performing Dancing Through Life from Wicked, Hushabye Mountain from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Close Every Door from Joseph, Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, and As Long As You’re Mine, a duet with Rachel Tucker from Wicked. I loved working on the album.

Q: What in particular did you enjoy about the experience?

A: Working with my producer, Simon Small, who has also worked with John Ilsley from Dire Straits and Michael Xavier.      He’s got a great ear and is very passionate and very particular about getting it right. Everything has to be the best it can be – down to the tiniest string line. If you’re not working with similar minded people, it may not work. But it works brilliantly with Simon

Q: Are you looking forward to reconnecting with your very loyal fans on tour?

A: Absolutely. Every singer needs that support. If you’re lucky enough to have it, then it’s fantastic. People come to see me from LA, Norway, Holland. There are about 400 of them who are hard-core fans. They come lots of times to every show I am in. For example, they would come to see me in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang four times a week.

Q: Why do you think people are drawn to you?

A: Perhaps they connect with me because I’ve always tried to be an honest and open performer. I like to be more spontaneous than that. You can see if a performance is genuine or not. Ken Dodd said to me once, “It’s never about me performing to them.The show is a shared experience.”  You feed off each other and have an evening together. I love that. It’s the most wonderful feeling connecting with an audience. You can actually feel it.

Q: You’ve recently been performing in Panto in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend?

A: Yes. It’s great. I live a 10 minute walk from the theatre. As a child, I remember going to the panto there and watching Shane Ritchie and Frank Bruno and The Hoff. I’ve been very lucky to do a West End panto as well – last year I played Prince Charming at the London Palladium. But on my bucket list has always been to have top billing in my home panto.

Q: What do you love about panto?

A:  It’s such a laugh. I remember Nigel Havers saying to me, “Remember, panto is great fun.” My thinking is that if it’s good enough him, it’s good enough for me! I love the fact that it’s one of the only forms of theatre where you get three generations in the audience. That in itself is so great. It’s lovely for Betsy to be able to come and see me on stage, too. If I can, I’ll do panto every year!

Q: Tell us how you landed your first professional job.

A: I left drama school in Southend on a Tuesday and bought a copy of The Stage on the Thursday. I saw an advert for an open audition for lead singers on a cruise ship, and I got the job. I was so delighted, I immediately called my mum and dad and told them I had the job. It was a great feeling. I was 20. I was on £200 a week, but I was being paid for the first time. I was elated.

Q: What was the job like?

A: It was hard work. We went up and down the Bay of Biscay, which is the third rockiest sea in the world. I did five different shows a week. Once a month, there would be a booze cruise across the Channel. We’d have to sing in a cage because the passengers were so lively.

Q: What did you do next?

A: I did summer season at the Bridlington Spa Theatre. I was lead vocalist there. I spent the summer playing Wishy Washy dressed as a banana. I would come on stage to “Banana Splits”. I had to perform “Barcelona” to 42 people. It’s a huge vocal performance. I hit the last note and was greeted by silence. At that moment a dog went, “Woof, woof!” There was a blind man at the back of the stalls with a guide dog. Everyone’s a critic!

Q: Who else did you meet there?

A: I had many surreal experiences. For instance, I met Ken Dodd. He was lovely. He said, “Come into my dressing room for a chinwag.”  He’s the only comedian ever to have a number one single. He’s 90 and still touring – a tremendous example to all of us.

Q: What was your next gig?

A: I sang with a 15-piece band at Potters Resort in Suffolk. All the top comedians played there, everyone from Mike Reid to Joe Pasquale. I learnt a lot there about musical arrangements and singing with a full band. They invited me to stay, but I felt I should keep moving on.

Q: So what was your subsequent move?

A: My friend Ian had an audition for Joseph at the New London Theatre. He had no money and asked if I’d mind driving him down to London. I had a clapped-out old Red Renault, which was very temperamental, but we made it! As I sat waiting for Ian at the stage door, one of the defining moments of my life happened.

Q: What was that?

A: I don’t know what came over me, but after 10 minutes sitting there, I thought, “Is it worth me auditioning?” I hadn’t prepared anything, but I loved Joseph. I knew all the songs inside out. I saw it for the first time in Southend when I was nine. So on the spur of the moment, I got on my hands and knees and crawled underneath the lady taking names at the stage door and headed for the auditorium.

Q: So what happened once you had blagged your way onto the stage?

A: I was petrified. From the stalls, the director said, “Right, I know you have gate-crashed. You had better give us a good audition, then.” I tried to compose myself – I was shaking. But fortunately, I sang, “I Want to Break Free” by Queen, a song I know back to front, and I smashed it.

Q: And after you finished?

A: There was silence for about a minute. I was thinking, “Have I ruined my career before it has even started?” But then the director smiled and said, “Good job. very cheeky attitude and We’ll see you for the dance audition.” A week later I was rehearsing for the show.  Ian said to me on the drive back to Suffolk, “Only you could have got away with that!”

Q: You soon got promoted up the cast list of Joseph, didn’t you?

A: Yes. I ended up playing both the Pharaoh and Brother Levi. It was 12 performances a week in what is known as the hardest show in the business. At the end of the tour, I felt exhausted. But we had done amazing venues like the 2000-seat Palace Theatre in Manchester. It was so exciting.

Q: How did you make the next step up?

A: I was appearing in the chorus of Phantom of the Opera in the West End. One day, I was eating tuna pasta in my dressing room between shows on a Saturday when Graham Norton popped up on TV and asked, “Could you be the next Joseph?” It was a lightbulb moment for me. I can’t describe it. It felt like destiny.

Q: How did the auditions go for Any Dream Will Do?

A: After the first two stages, the casting director told me, “You’ve got something. I’d like you to sing for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.” I thought, “Hang on, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice?” My audition is now on YouTube. Andrew and Tim are like gods to me. They are men I have looked up to my whole life.

Q: What happened in the audition?

A: I remember my heart was racing as I walked in. The audition was acappella, which means you have got to be on the ball vocally. I sang “Anthem” from “Chess.” At the end, Tim said, “It’s a shame we’re not casting Chess right now because you’d be in the show!” I just couldn’t believe he’d said that! That was a turning point because I was suddenly on Andrew and Tim’s radar.

Q: Why do you think everyone loves Joseph?

A: It’s such an iconic show. Lots of people have done it at school. It’s part of everyone’s life. It’s so pure and honest. It doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. The lyrics are so witty. It’s a wonderful story about a guy who wants to get ahead in life. Quite apt for Any Dream Will Do, really. Joseph is a character I can relate to so much. He’s a dreamer with ambitions who wants to make things happen.

Q: How did you feel when you were announced as the winner of Any Dream Will Do?

A: Weird things go through your head when Graham says, “The winner is…” I was thinking, “If I don’t win this, I don’t care because I’ve had the most wonderful experience.” Then Graham said, “3 million people have voted.” I had a little chuckle as I thought, “That’s a lot of people!” When he said my name, it was so surreal, like an out of body experience. I sank my head into my hands. A huge weight had lifted, and I was overcome by sense of a happiness. Then I thought, “Blimey, now I’ve actually got to do the role!” But that moment changed my life.

Q: Did it feel like fate that you won Any Dream Will Do?

A: Yes. If I may say so, it did feel like it was my time. Everything came together. Joseph was the first show I’d seen. It was my favourite show and had always been part of my life. I simply love performing it. The greatest compliment I received was when Andrew said I was the best actor he’d ever seen playing Joseph.

Q: Now you’re starring in Holby City. How did you land that role?

A: I was a guest in an episode of Casualty, playing Harry, a schoolteacher. Afterwards I got a handwritten letter from Oliver Kent, the executive producer. He wrote, “We were so impressed with what you did. You were such a gentleman on set. We’ll keep our eye on you.” I thought, “Yeah, you hear that all the time.” But two years later, the producers asked, “Could you come and audition? We have a character called Lofty who we think might be up your street.” Within two weeks, I was in Cardiff filming my first scene with Derek Thompson. He’s a lovely guy and has become a close friend.

Q: Why has Holby remained so popular for so long?

A: People love the show. They like the familiarity of it. It has great characters, and the writers are constantly trying to keep it fresh with original storylines.

Q: You have a wonderful career, but what would you say is the most important thing in your life?

A: My seven-year-old daughter Betsy. I see my life as a pyramid, and Betsy is at the top of that. I’m fortunate in that I have a very busy career. It’s great to have work, but if ever I feel I’m not getting the balance right, I check myself and get back to the idea of the pyramid. Betsy always comes first.

Q: Can you give us an example of that?

A: Yes recently when I was recording my new album Betsy was in her school play. I’m in the middle of recording my new album, but I’m not going to miss her play. So I am going to watch it and then I’ll come into the studio afterwards. We all have priorities, and I put Betsy first. I’ve turned down major jobs on big shows because of her. There were big opportunities I could have taken, but for me there is nothing is more important than being a dad. Every time I see her, I feel recharged.

Q: It’s an enormous responsibility being a parent, isn’t it?

A: It is. You hope that when they are young, you bring them up correctly, put the work in and instil the right principles in them, so that when they’re older they make the right decisions.

Q: You have constantly worked hard for her sake, haven’t you?

A: Yes. When I got a part in the West End production of Wicked, I had a very intensive, ten-day rehearsal period. Betsy was born right in the middle of it, and I spent that time dashing backwards and forwards across London in a taxi. Looking back, it was insane. I remember holding Betsy and the script for Wicked on my chest and just falling asleep. But it was 10 months’ work, and as I had just become a dad, I couldn’t afford to turn it down.

Q: But you have always been a grafter, haven’t you?

A: Yes. My first job was as a paperboy. I’d be up every morning at 5.30 to work two hours, going up and down hills delivering papers. I would save five pounds a week from the paper round and use the money to buy Christmas presents and go to play snooker on a Saturday morning. Every week, I’d treat myself to a packet of crisps and a Coke. I was living the dream! So very early on, I learnt how to earn a living and the value of money. I want Betsy to learn that, too.

Q: Where do you think that very strong work ethic comes from?

A: My dad. He’s my hero. He would work a 90 hour week as a postman. My parents had nothing, but they would do anything for us. He spent £400 for my costumes when I was at college which he really couldn’t afford but he wanted me to have every opportunity.  That’s where my work ethic comes from.

Q: What was your upbringing like?

A:   I had a very happy childhood full of love.  My parents have been together nearly 40 years and have been through a lot together.   They have set a very high benchmark for relationships. I have so much admiration for them.

Q: How do your parents view your career?

A: They’re very proud of me, but they remain very unaffected. I’ll say to them, “I’ve just recorded an album,” or “I’ve just sung for Andrew Lloyd Webber,” and they will reply, “Do you want mash or chips?” I love that normality. That’s how it should be.

Q: Have you ever been motivated by money?

A: No. I’ve turned down jobs that pay better because I want to make the right choices. I have sometimes done jobs for nothing. Money doesn’t drive me.

Q: How would you sum up your approach to the business?

A: I’ve never taken anything for granted.  Some kids these days don’t want to do jobs for free. They think they’ll simply walk into the West End. But it doesn’t work like that. I give lectures in colleges and tell the students that they’ll be lucky if they work for six months a year. The first couple of years, I only earned £7000 a year.

Q: Do you still get the same pleasure as always out of your work?

A: Absolutely. For me it’s never been about money or fame or applause. I just love making people happy. I get as much pleasure out of playing to 80 people in a small room as to 80,000 at Wembley Stadium when I was invited to sing for the concert for Diana. It’s the same buzz for me. I adore connecting with people through music. I love my work. It’s a great privilege. I’m a very, very lucky guy.

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