David Cook changed his name to David Essex in 1964 on finding another identically monikered actor already in Equity. From then until now his name has become equated with a hugely successful pop-rock career, iconic 70s rock ‘n’ roll films, multiple rock tours, and some of the West End’s most legendary musicals. After many years away from the West End, Essex is back, donning a dog collar to play the part of Rev Shaw Moore in Footloose – The Musical. It’s a busy life, he tells Caroline Bishop…
My abiding childhood memory of David Essex is of one of his music videos. He’s sitting outside, by a canal I think, strumming a guitar and singing a ballad to the camera; the sun is behind him, haloing his tousled mullet, while his charismatically crinkled eyes capture your own from the telly, no doubt making 80s housewives throughout the country quiver.
It seems a very different David Essex that appears on stage in Footloose – The Musical, at the Novello. His once unruly curls have been replaced by a short crop peppered with grey, and rather than a sex symbol and rock star, he looks like your dad. Fair enough, he is 59. But one thing is still unmistakable – those charismatic eyes, and they seem to be working just as they always did, given the screams and cheers from the audience when he first comes on stage as the Reverend Shaw Moore. Essex finds it amusing that he still gets screams, even though he’s dressed in full-on vicar garb. “It appeals to a lot of people, I’ve been quite surprised by that!” he chuckles. “It’s Carry On Up The Vicarage!”
However, the screams have calmed down significantly since his chart-topping heyday. “Life moves on, it’s quite interesting,” he says in his laid-back, soft cockney accent. “People’s reactions are a bit more real now. Rather than getting shouts and screams just because you managed to turn up, you have a relationship and a journey, which I think is more valid.”
In Footloose – The Musical, the stage show based on Dean Pitchford’s 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon, Essex plays the vicar of a small backwater town in America called Bomont. In a well-meaning but ill-judged attempt to keep Bomont’s residents out of trouble, the Rev Moore has imposed a ban on dancing, which he views as the root of all evil after his son died in a car crash on his way home from a party five years ago. Unfortunately this means Bomont is a very dull place indeed, that is, until young dance-crazy Ren (Derek Hough) moves to town with his mother. Over the course of the musical, which involves much ludicrously (in recent temperatures) fast-paced dancing from the young cast, Ren challenges Moore’s authority and makes him face up to the problems within his own family, including his relationship with wayward daughter Ariel (Amy Pemberton) and wife Vi (Cheryl Baker).
"Rather than getting shouts and screams just because you managed to turn up, you have a relationship and a journey, which I think is more valid"
“I’m enjoying it. It’s a nice journey that the character I play takes,” says Essex, who took over from Stephen McGann in June. “It’s a terrific, intriguing part to play and I’m still finding bits in it.” With four kids of his own (two, Verity and Danny with first wife Maureen, and twin boys Kit and Billy with second wife Carlotta), Essex identifies with the troubles that can arise with family relationships. “My girl is perfect, but there have been some bumpy rides with the boys,” he says.
Though it’s a dance musical, directed by Laurence Olivier Award-winning choreographer Karen Bruce (Saturday Night Fever, Fame, South Pacific), Essex’s character doesn’t dance, bar some reluctant joining in during the encore, and it’s a good job too, as he’s none too keen. “Musicians very rarely dance, music is played for people to dance to. I’ve never really wanted to dance.”
The last few months it’s all been “a bit bonkers” for Essex, who is writing and recording a new album, Beautiful Day, at the same time as doing the show, has an autumn music tour scheduled to kick off 20 days after his run in Footloose finishes in September, and is penning his own new musical to premiere next year. Understandably, a three-month run in a West End musical was not exactly the plan when he got the call. “I didn’t know what Footloose was, I’d never seen the film – still haven’t seen it – but I thought well it can’t hurt to go and have a look, even though I really can’t do it because I’ve got an album to write and my own show that I’m working on for next year. But I was just so struck by the talent of the cast, and the show itself, and I thought I’d better do this.”
Despite the hectic nature of his schedule in the show, he’s managed to find the time to complete the album, though at the expense of his beauty sleep. “It’s been tough, especially during the rehearsal period because that’s when I was writing most of the songs. I was getting three hours sleep a night, trying to rehearse and all the rest of it. I had a very short rehearsal period, they tried to throw me on quick. We rehearsed in two and a half weeks, and it’s quite a wordy piece.”
It’s been a while since Essex was on stage in London. Though he starred in Boogie Nights 2, which toured the UK, his last West End appearance was in Sir Peter Hall’s She Stoops To Conquer at the Queen’s in 1993. It’s a lot longer still since the two iconic roles that made him a theatrical star – Jesus in Godspell, in 1972, and Che in the original production of Evita in 1978. “I’ve been very lucky, I’ve been part of landmark theatre along the way,” he says.
"I was just so struck by the talent of the cast, and the show itself, and I thought I’d better do this"
That he uses the phrase “along the way” is telling, as starring in such ‘landmark theatre’ productions is only one aspect of Essex’s all-encompassing career, given that he is best known for his chart-topping music. After growing up in East London, David Cook – as he was then – spent his late teens trying to get into the music industry, playing drums in a band called the Everons. It was theatre writer Derek Bowman who spotted his talent, became his manager, suggested the name Essex (“Lucky it wasn’t Middlesex,” laughs Essex) and helped him develop his singing and acting skills. After Godspell shot him to fame, aged 24, Essex was courted by the film industry and starred in rock films That’ll Be The Day (along with Ringo Starr and Keith Moon) and its sequel Stardust, with Adam Faith. During the same period his solo singing career took off with the Grammy-nominated single Rock On, and the subsequent album, which made him the subject of fan hysteria both sides of the Atlantic.
Essex won’t be drawn on what aspect of his varied career he loves doing best, rather he says he’s happy “as long as there’s music around. I enjoy having a backdrop of music; music is where I come from and where I’m most comfortable.”
“I have a preference for live work anyway, whether it’s the theatre or a concert,” he continues. “Obviously there’s a framework and a structure but it’s much looser when you’re [performing in] a rock concert. There’s more responsibility in the theatre; if you don’t say the right line, the person that’s supposed to say the right line after you can’t. There’s a freedom about being in a rock concert.”
He is overlapping the two with his new project, a musical he’s writing with Jon Conway (Boogie Nights) called All The Fun Of The Fair, after his hit 1975 single and album. Unlike the musical Mutiny!, which he co-wrote and starred in at the Piccadilly in 1985, about which he says “it was like a dream come true”, this new show sets the story to music which already exists – Essex’s own back catalogue. Though he says it’s not autobiographical, the story to which his music is set follows a touring fun fair – Essex once worked in one and comes from a family with a travellers’ background. “It has a good strong story,” he says. “I think a lot of the songs I write have a certain amount of theatricality about them, they’re not tagged on for no reason.” He is aiming for the show to be ready to tour the UK next September.
"I think a lot of the songs I write have a certain amount of theatricality about them"
So Essex’s schedule shows no signs of letting up, but he’s quite happy with that, as long as there’s variety. “I enjoy the change, change is why I’m still working,” he says. “It’s wonderful to be in the theatre for three months and then do a rock tour.” And he’s not short of offers either. “I’m always not looking. [I get offered] many things and I’m very selective about what I do. I keep saying no to things but they keep coming back at me!” he laughs. “I had no intention of doing Footloose at all… and here I am.”
He was recently asked to squeeze in a part in the soap Eastenders, appropriate given he was born in the East End, but he didn’t have the time. However, he doesn’t seem too fussed about this. “A lot of these things I say yes to because my Mum wants me to,” he says wryly.
Anyway, he’s done enough in his career to not feel the need to add further strings to his bow. When preparing All The Fun Of The Fair, he and Conway did a tally of all the music Essex has written and if you listened to it all back-to-back it would take three days and three nights. “I’ve done a lot,” he says, in something of an understatement. “I don’t have any burning ambition to climb Everest.” Now there’s an idea for his next video – Essex strumming his guitar from the top of Everest, those eyes captivating his legion of devoted fans as he sings his latest ballad. I can see it now.
David Essex appears in Footloose – The Musical until 9 September.