Becoming a Pizza Express Live member is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Over the past year alone, I’ve got to see a number of my musical heroes and heroines perform: Paul Young, Patti Boulaye, Steve Norman and Newton Faulkner, to name but a few – as well as some exciting new talent.
It’s no secret that I love a show tune and tonight I was eagerly anticipating Marti Webb’s one-woman show at The Pheasantry. This is a lady who needs little introduction: having begun her career at the tender age of 15, she is still much in demand sixty years later and recently completed a gruelling stint in the West End production of ‘The Glenn Miller Story’.
She is a serene and confident presence on stage, introducing us to John Cooper on bass guitar and Clark Wilkinson on piano & vocals (the latter, in particular, plays a key role in the show, duetting with Marti as well as contributing a couple of well-timed solo performances).
It’s a captivating evening, featuring all the classics you’d expect from shows including ‘Pippin’ (“Another audition I never got!”), ‘Godspell’, ‘The King and I’ and ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’. I particularly enjoyed Marti’s touching tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who Marti met for the first time in New York; having just watched a preview of ‘Sweeney Todd’, starring Angela Lansbury, Marti bumped into the legendary composer in a coffee shop, chatting to Anthony Perkins. Sondheim promptly invited her to the show’s first night performance, where she sat next to Elliott Gould.
As anecdotes go, they don’t get much better – and what a treat it is, to hear Marti sing ‘Not While I’m Around’ and – oh, the goosebumps – my favourite Sondheim song of all: ‘Send in the Clowns’, from ‘A Little Night Music’. I swear as I looked around I saw tears in the eyes of my fellow audience members.
Another of my favourite musicals is ‘Evita’ and I was thrilled that Marti performed ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, explaining to us that, at the point in the show when this is sung, Eva Perón would have been at the height of her powers – but was already suffering from the cancer that would kill her, aged just 33.
A moment of musical bliss, and one that was hard to match: many of us grew up with that song and I’m lucky enough to have visited Eva’s tomb, at Reloceta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, as well as the museum dedicated to her achievements. That song was written by another of my musical heroes, Andrew Lloyd-Webber – as was ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’, which had all of the audience bellowing helpfully (if somewhat tunelessly), “WELL I’VE GOT NEWS FOR YOU…I KNEW BEFORE!!!”
Just as well for our collective blood pressure that Marti took it down a notch or two before the interval, seguing into a more reflective moment and recollecting Esther Rantzen’s ‘That’s Life’ heyday. “She asked me to record a song for Ben Hardwick, to raise money for organ donations for children – and the British public donated a massive amount of money”. ‘Ben’ was previously recorded by another of my musical heroes, Michael Jackson, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a lump in my throat listening to Marti perform it.
I couldn’t wait for the second Act to begin and Marti didn’t disappoint, launching, with a beam on her face, into ‘Limelight’. Those lyrics are so evocative: “I can hear the roar of a distant crowd…they are waiting for me, calling my name, shouting out loud; holding on isn’t always easy, but I ain’t gonna change my mind: Limelight: you were all I ever wanted, since it all began”. As Marti beams at us, you understood that this is the song she was born to sing; it’s as though she is looking back over her life. The song itself was written by Alan Parsons, who Marti has known “for a long time”.
There followed a medley from the old and new ‘Mary Poppins’ films: fitting, given that PL Travers lived just down the road from The Pheasantry, at 50 Smith Street. A second medley encompassed songs from ‘Oliver!’ and ‘Half a Sixpence’. Marti starred in the very first productions of both shows and tonight she moved seamlessly from character to character. What I would have given to see her treading the West End boards when those productions were running in London.
We were nearing the end of the evening, but Marti had several more treats in store and I particularly enjoyed her rendition of ‘Love of My Life’. Marti met Freddie Mercury through her friend and co-star Wayne Sleep. “I adored Freddie”, she told us, “and I’m thrilled that a whole new generation is getting to know his work through the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ film”.
Following a duet with Clark of ‘Easy Street’ from ‘Annie’, another show in which Marti starred, as Miss Hannigan (surely one of the best baddies of all time?), it was, sadly, time for the evening to come to a close. “There’s one song I haven’t sung yet, that I think I should end with”, smiled Marti: it was, of course, ‘The End’.