Will Young on his ‘game-changing’ stage role

Will Young as Emcee in Cabaret. Picture: Comp
Will Young as Emcee in Cabaret. Picture: Comp
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The original TV talent show winner, Will Young will always be grateful for Pop Idol. The singer and actor talks about his journey from criticism by Simon Cowell to his ‘game-changing’ role in Cabaret

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t like Will Young? Anyone apart from Simon Cowell, that is; a man who, during his time on Pop Idol, dismissed the former boarding school boy from Berkshire as “distinctly average”?

I ask because, whenever I mention to people I’ll be interviewing him, the universal response is: “Ah, Will Young, nice bloke, like him.”

The one-time talent show winner has managed to survive 12 years of the vagaries of the music industry, in the process keeping his dignity and his credibility intact. No “Will’s gone to Iceland” adverts for him.

He’s combined a successful singing career (three number one albums, Brit awards, and an Ivor Novello gong) with writing (he penned his autobiography last year), acting (there was a well-reviewed, if under-dressed role in Mrs Henderson Presents, as well as parts in Skins and Miss Marple) and a key position as executive producer for the film of Coriolanus, which starred Ralph Fiennes.

Now, every night for months (plus two afternoons a week) he’s been happily tucking that nice guy image away in a dressing room drawer as he dons the make-up, corset and character of the leering Emcee, in what he calls a career game-changer – a nationwide, Olivier-nominated tour of the musical Cabaret.

“I have this routine now where I always have a shower beforehand,” he explains. “Then I put on the make-up and the outfit, so by the time I’m in the costume I just am him by default. Then always at the end of the show I have a shower, not just to get rid of the make-up and everything but to kind of wash him off. Otherwise you can get occupied by a character and I wouldn’t want to be occupied by him.”

He laughs – an infectious chuckle – adding: “The corset’s great. It holds in a lot of sins.”

It’s a world away from performing on stage as Will Young, pop singer, when he works with his band, and they’re mates and all in it together and everything, “but I guess I’m also the boss.

“In this show, though, I play my part, I get on and I get off then go and do other things and I think that’s what’s great about being in a company. We spend all our time together so there’s a real unity there. And also, I’m a character so I’m a lot more sheltered because I’m playing someone else.

“I don’t think it’s hiding behind so much as occupying someone,” he adds. “Just to stand on stage as yourself, not giving off any energy, is terrifying. It’s like, ‘Oh my God what am I doing here?’ But if you’re prepared for something and done up and ready, it’s a lot easier. And if you’re playing a character it’s even better. It’s brilliant. I’m not even me.”

As a politics graduate – not many pop stars can add an appearance on the Question Time panel to their CV – there is the added appeal of a show that taps into one of his great passions. “Cabaret is very political,” he says. “It’s kind of like three things I love: social commentary, comedy and performance. I can’t help but sing a song about money and have a sense of what the political meaning is and the social repercussions are. It seeps into what every number is about.”

It’s certainly a long way from his first stage appearance – as a fir tree at the age of four. “I said: ‘It’s Christmas,’” he laughs. “Apparently they still talk about that performance. Great reviews, it was fabulous.”

And while he now considers himself as much an actor as a singer, he adds: “Cabaret has been quite a game-changer for me. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I just really love it. It’s opened up a whole world. I do a bit in my videos of playing characters, quite subversive characters sometimes, and it’s just reminded me how much of that I enjoy and how much that means to me, and how much I believe in relaying a message through a character. It’s really fun to occupy someone else, it’s just very fulfilling.”

He admits it isn’t always so straightforward for the punter who sees him as a singer one minute, only to then see him pop up, all painted-on smile and fishnets, in a musical. “I can understand – if there’s not a clear message about something it’s confusing and sometimes I think that might be detrimental to me but, at the same time, it’s what I want to do so I just think, well, that IS me.”

Besides, after the tour of Cabaret, he’ll be back in the studio recording his next album with a new label. “I’ve finished my deal with Sony, which was brilliant, and re-signed with Island records, which has such a pedigree of people, so when I do start the next album, it will be good to start from that place, 12 years on.”

It was in one of the first of a new breed of talent shows, 2001’s Pop Idol, that Young first came to the public’s notice, singing The Jacksons’ Blame It On The Boogie in front of judges Simon Cowell, Nicki Chapman, Pete Waterman and Neil Fox. He didn’t impress – wearing baggy jeans, scuffed shoes and an egg-stained old jumper – but he somehow scraped through week after week.

Politely standing up to Cowell’s criticism on screen has been cited as the moment his pop career truly began, and he eventually beat both Gareth Gates and Darius Danesh to win the public’s admiration and the ultimate prize of a recording contract (the promised Pepsi sponsorship and hair wax deal went to Gates, after Young’s manager, the powerful Simon Fuller, wisely decided they weren’t quite right for him).

So, in a week his former verbal sparring partner came under fire again for the “cruel” tactics in the X Factor, I have to wonder if he’s been watching. For old times’ sake?

“No, I haven’t,” he says. But he adds: “I came from a talent show and I’ve never felt snobbery towards that or a sense of shame because of it. It was amazing for me and still is amazing. I’m really proud of that show and what I did on it and what the other contestants did on it. We had a real laugh, me and the guys. I don’t think, ‘God, I’m so much better than that.’ It’s just that interests change, I think.”

And while he has maintained commercial success while others (Matt Cardle, Leon Jackson, Steve Brookstein anyone?) have disappeared without trace, he doesn’t see things in quite such black and white terms. “I spend the time doing things I like and I guess I’m in the public eye but if you’re not in the public eye, I think sometimes people think, ‘Oh, they’ve failed’. But they’re probably quite happy doing other things.

“For me, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had brilliant people around me – people like Steve Lipson, who produced two of my records, to the team I work with, and I have great friends who keep me very grounded. I guess also I’m quite stubborn. I was given such an opportunity from that show. Really, I was very fortunate. The odds were quite stacked against all of us – one in 10,000 – so I just think I’ve got to make the most of what I’ve been given.”

It’s all very upbeat, positive stuff, yet much of his music can be a little heavy on the melancholy. Is he? “I have been in the past,” he says, reasoning: “I’ve got to have both, really. It’s part of life. I can’t be happy, happy, happy all the time; it’s just not reality. Often melancholy and sadness can drive songwriting more than happiness, but I certainly don’t strive to be melancholy to get another song.

“Then again, I think that’s why I like performing, because it’s all there, it’s written for me. I have a song in Cabaret, Willkommen, which is really chirpy and happy and inviting. Then the next one, Two Ladies, is about naughtiness and ‘look, everyone sleeps together’. Then I have a very political song, then a song about money, then there’s a song called I Don’t Care Much, which is really sad. I like that. Also, I don’t go through that process of heartache, sadness, frustration to write the song – I let someone else write it.”

So many things make him happy, he adds. His car, his friends, his job, clothes, theatre, nature, running, watching films, watching sport, playing sport, sex. And his twin brother Rupert – he makes him incredibly happy. “We’re very close,” he says. “It’s just like a great friendship. Now I don’t feel like twins so much as two adults – we have our own lives. He’s the funniest person I know, he’s hysterical, so I just love spending time with him because he makes me laugh.

“But I’m not into the whole ‘let’s go to twin conventions’ thing,” he adds.

And while he’s currently single, a family of his own is on the Will Young wish list. “I’m doing a lot with kids at the moment – teaching and mentoring – and I’m really enjoying that. And I’m hugely into nature – there’s a great combination of helping kids and allowing them to learn from nature – that would be something I’d like to be involved in.

“I’d love my own family,” he says, “and I’d love to do more with kids.”

Stars of the show

Think of Cabaret, and the strongest image that comes, unbidden, to mind is that of Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, the bowler-hatted, suspendered singer at the Kit-Kat club. But the character that holds the all action together is the Emcee, the ever-present Master of Ceremonies.

The part was originally played by Joel Grey in the 1966 Broadway production. The actor – father of Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey – won the Tony Award for his performance then went on to play the role in the 1973 film, for which he won a Best Supporting Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe award. His is still the performance against which all others are compared. (Minnelli also won Best Actress Oscar for the film that year and Bob Fosse, Best Director, though the Best Picture gong went, not to Cabaret, but to The Godfather).

The first West End production opened two years later, in February 1968, with Dame Judi Dench as Sally Bowles and Barry Dennen – whose main claim to fame seems to be that he was Barbra Streisand’s lover – as the Emcee.

It took another nearly 20 years for the West End to revive the politically sensitive show, this time with dancer Wayne Sleep taking on the role of Emcee. The next year Broadway followed suit, with Joel Grey reviving his most celebrated role.

Sam Mendes directed a new production of the show at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1993, starring Jane Horrocks as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the Emcee, for which the Scot received an Olivier nomination.

Cumming reprised the role five years later on Broadway, opposite Natasha Richardson, with later replacements in the run including Michael C Hall of Six Feet Under, Neil Patrick Harris of How I Met Your Mother, the singer Jon Secada, and John Stamos, from ER and Glee, all slapping on the painted smile and the celebrated braces.

A radio production for the BBC in 1996 saw Steven Berkoff in the role, this time, presumably, without the slap.

Then in 2006 another new production opened at London’s Lyric Theatre, with comic actor James Dreyfus as the Emcee – he played Kathy Burke’s gay flatmate in the series Gimme Gimme Gimme – while later both Julian Clary and impressionist Alistair McGowan both picked up the role for a time.

Earlier this year it was announced that Sam Mendes would be reviving his Cabaret on Broadway, again with Cumming playing the Emcee opposite Michelle Williams, in her Broadway debut, as Sally Bowles. The production is due to open in March next year.

• Cabaret is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Monday to 26 October (www.edtheatres.com), 7:30pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday, 2:30pm, tickets from £22.50-£44.