West End and international singing star Dave Willetts apologises profusely for being one minute late for our interview.
This gentleman of the stage, our very own Mr Musicals, was putting the finishing touches to Pure Imagination, a celebratory show at London’s St James Theatre which honours the work of the multi award-winning and most celebrated of songwriters, Leslie Bricusse.
Dave has been a fan for years, often without knowing that his favourite songs were written by the acclaimed composer and lyricist.
By co-incidence his latest album and concerts bookend two Bricusse songs, so he jumped at the chance of being involved in a show which has access to a back catalogue bursting with musical gems.
Bricusse’s name is frequently said in the same breath as Tony Newley (they collaborated on songs like Once in a Lifetime and What Kind of Fool Am I? and the original Willy Wonka film score which featured Pure Imagination and Candy Man).
But, individually, he is also responsible for the soundtracks to Doctor Doolittle, Goodbye, Mr Chips and Scrooge. And then there are the Bonds – title songs, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, written with John Barry.
And not many people know that he also wrote the lyrics (under the pseudonym Beverley Thorn) of Lonnie Donegan’s biggest hit, My Old Man’s A Dustman.
So, with such a blockbuster CV it isn’t surprising they asked Dave Willets, who has 30 years’ experience in the business, starring in the West End’s top musicals including Phantom, Les Mis, 42nd Street, Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, South Pacific, Guys & Dolls, Sunset Boulevard and Oklahoma, to lead the cast of five.
Said Dave: “People are going to love it. I didn’t realise that Leslie wrote as many songs as he has. It’s fantastic.
“Although he’s lived in America for most of his life a lot of his Broadway shows are set around London. He really writes about love and relationships as well as, would you believe, My Old Man’s A Dustman!
“People will come and see the show will say:’ I didn’t know he wrote that!’ He’s such a lovely man. He’s been in rehearsals and puts his suggestions in.
“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to air his music. He wrote Once In A Lifetime and he wrote, from Jekyll & Hyde, This Is The Moment and I’ve just got a new album out and it’s called Once In A Lifetime. I open my concerts with it and finish with This Is The Moment, before I knew I’d be doing this! Am amazing coincidence.
“He writes a really good tune. A lot of them have been recorded by the greats – Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bassey. People are going to walk away from the show committed to getting one of his albums.
“I met producer Danielle Tarento & I Skyped with Chris Renshaw, the director, and agreed, on the spot, to do it. Easy as that.
“There’s more than 50 songs, some snippets, some complete songs in the show, and we’re all doing about 10 each. I’m singing Talk To The Animals (from Dr Doolittle) and Who Can I Turn To.
“At one point in the show I’m James Bond – who’d have thought! For five minutes I think I am! I come out in the old DJ to sing Goldfinger. It’s brilliant!
“Leslie is still writing, and I also get to do one of his latest songs. He’s currently working on a show about Sammy Davis Jnr.”
Sammy Davis is a big hero of Dave’s “I’ve met some fantastic people doing this job. One of my heroes from my childhood, was Sammy Davis. I then got to meet him.
“He was in the UK doing concerts with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. I had a phone call one night inviting me to a party. I got there. Thought it was going to be one of those big show biz parties – which I was dreading – but the only other showbusiness person there was Bob Hoskins and the rest was Sammy’s family. Then he asked me to sing with him! Just incredible.”
The father of two girls, and pops to three grandkids, had been working as a troubleshooter for a midlands engineering firm, and acting in am-dram, when he was talent-spotted and given a role in the chorus of a professional production of Annie.
He’s never looked back, starring in some of the biggest musicals ever written. It now takes a special show to lure him away from his family and Pure Imagination is it.
When he’s not on the London stage Dave fronts up his own two country rock bands, Vintage and the Mill Hillbillies, which tour pubs in Warwickshire and the Midlands (next gig Oct 31, Oak pub, Bagington, nr Coventry), is a patron of youth theatre groups and is writing his own play.
Pure Imagination, starring Dave Willetts, Julie Atherton, Niall Sheehy, Siobhan McCarthy and Giles Terera, runs at St James Theatre until October 17.