Marti Webb on the over-the-top glam of La Cage Aux Folles
- Credit: Archant
The West End leading lady has starred in some our biggest productions. Now she's back at Norwich Theatre Royal stage in gloriously glamorous musical.
In musical theatre, Marti Webb has worked with the best. She first appeared with Tommy Steele in Half A Sixpence before a spell in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita prompted the composer and Don Black to write the one-woman show Tell Me On A Sunday specifically for her.
One of the West End's best-loved leading ladies, she has also seen her name in lights above Oliver!, Cats, 42nd Street and Thoroughly Modern Millie and more recently she has starred in Blood Brothers and Hot Flush.
Last at Norwich Theatre Royal in 2011 playing Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, now she is back in a glitzy new production of La Cage Aux Folles.
Written by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, and based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, La Cage Aux Folles follows the story of Georges, the manager of a St Tropez nightclub, and his partner, Albin, the club's star attraction.
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They live an idyllic existence in the south of France but behind the curtains of this sparkling extravaganza, all may be about to change when Georges' son Jean-Michel announces his engagement to the daughter of a notorious right-wing politician determined to close down the local colourful night-life.
Marti is playing Jacqueline, the owner of restaurant Chez Jacqueline and best friend of Georges, bring played by American actor Adrian Zmed, and the dazzling drag artiste Albin, a dream role for West End star and EastEnders actor John Partridge.
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With a glamorous setting, outrageous costumes, glitzy song and dance numbers and a new cast, Marti was clearly in her element as she spoke from the rehearsal studio.
'I've always loved the show. It's lovely, fantastic to look at and a fun story and this is a lovely cast,' she enthused. 'I've got a small part in it which is very nice as I don't have all that responsibility. Jacqueline runs a very successful restaurant. She is really is ghost of St Tropez because she knows everybody, heads of state and celebrities all come to her restaurant. Next door to it is La Cage Aux Folles, the nightclub that Georges and Albin run and she is great friends with them. The story revolves around these two establishments and the promenade in St Tropez. It is a very glamorous show.'
Though the story has its origins in a play and was successfully adapted for the screen in the 1996 film The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, the stage musical is packed with songs and dance numbers, making the most of its nightclub setting.
'It's a lovely mix,' says Marti. 'It is beautiful to look at, it is very funny and the music from Jerry Herman is fantastic. There are a lot of the songs that get you wondering where do I recognise this from, then you realise it is from this. It is one of those shows. There are a lot of songs in it actually, so it is not just a play with music.'
A tale of outrageous nightclub owners and drag artists, it can't fail to be over the top surely?
'Well it is set in the 1980s, which is when La Cage Aux Folles was originally done, so it is very glamorous and of that period,' agrees Marti. 'It is nice to be in something that is so gorgeous to look at. It is a show within a show of course. You are seeing the cabaret of the nightclub within the show, so yes the costumes and everything are glorious and all a bit over the top.'
Marti laughs as she recalls the first time costume fittings for the leading men. 'It is so funny when they first came out in wig and make-up, you go 'oh my goodness it's you!' They looked so different. How those boys dance in those high heels, I don't know!'
John Partridge, who recently wowed Norwich audiences in the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago, is no stranger to theatricality having appeared in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium, Cats and Starlight Express. His co-star Adrian Zmed may be best known in this country for playing Vince Romano in the 1980s US cop drama TJ Hooker opposite William Shatner, but is also an acclaimed stage star.
For Marti working with John was a chance to renew an old friendship, whilst making a new one with Adrian. 'I've known John for years because when I first did Cats in Blackpool he was in it as a child really, I think he was 16 or 17, so we've known each other a long time. It is great to do this with him because he is lovely.
'I hadn't met Adrian before but we've got on like a house on fire. I think I've become his translator, explaining that we call things one thing and them another. We went on a bus the other day and I was showing him all the sights and landmarks of London which was great fun.'
Marti's position as one of Britain's most popular and successful stage stars owes a huge amount to her unforgettable performance in Tell Me On a Sunday. Her album of the same name went on to top the charts, while the single Take That Look Off Your Face reached number two.
'It's a wonderful song,' she said. 'I'd done cast recordings but never thought I would be on Top of The Pops that's for sure – that was quite a shock to me and to be on there three times is quite incredible really.'
Having first appeared in Tell Me On A Sunday in 1980, she reprised her role in 2004, taking over from Denise Van Outen and she admits to having seen subsequent productions.
'I don't keep and eye on it as such, but I do go and see it occasionally because it is always interesting to see how other people have interpreted it,' she said. 'You sit and go oh they've done that, I wouldn't have done that or I couldn't have done that or it is marvellous they've done that. It is always interesting to see. It wouldn't change the way I would do it - and I'm sure the way I did it didn't influence them, but that is the joy of musicals. They are all so different and performances in them are all so different too.'
There's no doubt of Marti's versatility – or longevity – as a performer. But she modestly describes her success as 'something that just happened'.
Her first big break came starring opposite Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence, another show she has recently revisited after its revival in the West End.
'The show is slightly different to ours because of course it has got a new book by Julian Fellows, but the music is almost the same,' she says. 'There are a couple of new songs, but they fit in seamlessly. It's a great production.
It brought back a lot of memories to see it. There was a slight tear in the eye during some of the numbers because you remember all the times and all the people you worked with, some of whom are not here anymore.
'It was very exciting. It was Tommy's first show. He'd only been a rock'n'roll singer before that so there was a lot riding on it. It was a wonderful show to be in,' Marti remembers.
Despite being in many shows over the subsequent years, she remains as excited as ever at the chance to work on a new production.
'The process is exactly the same. You have to learn your script, learn your songs and the dances if there are some. We all start off from scratch with our books in our hands, then on stage and it gradually becomes a musical. It's an amazing thing. It's a magical journey and it is always exciting and always fun.'
Her passion for touring also remains undiminished. 'I still love it. There is always something wonderful to see in every place you go. I am always saying that to the kids in the cast: go out and find out about a place, you might never come here again. Luckily we are going to some really nice places on this tour, there isn't one where you go 'oh no, we're not going there are we!' Usually though there is always something new to see wherever you go. Our second week is in Dublin, so we're all looking forward to that.
'I've been to Norwich several times down the years. I came with Tell Me On A Sunday. Norwich is a lovely city, very beautiful. You've got a fabulous market there!'
Though she is having fun playing Jacqueline, she says she never compares roles and does not have a favourite character preferring to take something from each.
'I'm just so lucky to have played so many varied roles. That is way I look at it,' she says. 'There are so many extremes in the characters I've played and I've got to work with wonderful composers and lyricists and been so lucky.
'I've done this for so long now it is my life. It really is and I wouldn't do it if I didn't still love it. What a wonderful way to spend your days. Every day is fun.'
• La Cage aux Folles, Norwich Theatre Royal, until January 21, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Jan 18/19/21, £25.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk