Pop star turned musical theatre performer Gareth Gates, who recently replaced Lee Mead in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, shares his new passion with Matthew Amer.
Gareth Gates’s journey to musical theatre is by no means unique. He is not the first performer to have left the revolving door of pop stardom to take to the stage. You don’t even have to look further than the role he is currently playing, the title character of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to find possibly the most famous example of them all, Jason Donovan.
The blonde-locked, white-teethed Aussie performer made the role his own for a generation of theatregoers; his was the performance that brought the kaleidoscopically coloured jacket out of the closet of school performances and into the wider world.
For Donovan, who has since gone on to star in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and will soon open in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical, Joseph was the start of his musical theatre career. The same could prove to be true of Gates, who sounds earnest when he says he intends to focus on this new string to his bow for the foreseeable future.
Whether it is the youthful looks or unsullied face, there is a sense about Gates that he speaks only the truth. He probably got away with murder at school. I don’t know, but I imagine the angelic visage of a choirboy gazing up at a teacher could get him out of most scrapes. It may have even helped with his introduction to music, which, coincidentally, came with the help of the musical in which he currently stars.
“As soon as my voice was heard, I was given the part of Joseph”
His school was staging the musical, originally written as a school’s production, and the young Gates went along to audition. “As soon as my voice was heard, I was given the part of Joseph,” he tells me. “From then on I started to sing and my love for music started to grow. I owe a lot to the musical.”
It is wonderfully apt, then, that he makes his professional musical debut in the show that marked his first step on the road to stardom. But following in the footsteps of Lee Mead, the man who brought Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show back to the West End after winning the BBC’s search for a star Any Dream Will Do?, was no easy task. Such was the hype around Mead that anyone following him risked being seen as a pale imitation. Luckily for Gates – or, more generously, because of his performances – this hasn’t been the case. “It’s really good to see the response from people,” Gates says, “which has been fantastic.”
It was not just following Mead that made Gates nervous about taking the role, yet he is not the first performer to be chilled to the heart with fear at the thought of wearing Joseph’s second most famous item of clothing, the barely there loin cloth, in front of a packed theatre. It is a thought which has the most toned of stars wondering if their stomach is washboard enough and if their pecks have enough perk. “I have been in the gym every single day from the launch onwards,” he admits. “I’m a lot more ripped than I was.” A hint of amused pride slips into his speech as he recalls one of London’s free papers describing him as “buff”.
He doesn’t often read the papers. On this occasion, the headline caught his eye, but generally he steers clear. “I just find it a lot easier to detach myself from it if I don’t read anything about it,” he explains. It is a subject on which he has much experience.
Before Gates was a pop star, as most followers of the UK’s music scene or Saturday night reality shows will know, he was a contestant on Pop Idol, finishing runner up to Will Young. From an anonymous young lad about to study at the Royal Northern School of Music, he was thrust into the full glare of the media limelight; his life became public property.
“I’m a lot more ripped than I was”
“It’s a massive change when all of a sudden you’re on the front of every newspaper, you’re the biggest selling artist of the year. It’s a lot to take in, certainly when you’re so young. However, being young, I think, was the thing that kept me sane. I was just enjoying everything so much, so when you have that outlook and that approach to the situation you learn to deal with and live with all the pressures that that has with it.”
He seems to take everything in his stride, does Gates. A normal, grounded, down-to-earth kind of guy who recognises the opportunities he has had and makes the most of them. But it would be remiss not to suggest that behind the dimples and the neatly coiffured hair there is a strong solid core.
Not only was Gates thrown into the limelight as a teenager, but the millions of people who watched Pop Idol week in, week out, saw him suffering with a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to get a sentence out on a weekly basis. The wonder of it all was that when he sang, the stammer disappeared; it was as though music freed him. With greater media attention came greater need for vocal control, which led to his well documented work with the Maguire programme.
As we chat on the phone, Gates at the Sky television studios having just finished an early morning interview, there is still the hint of a struggle with some phrases. His answers are short, controlled and to the point, but whether that is due to media training or a nervousness about speaking for too long I couldn’t say. Either way, the man speaking to me has come on leaps and bounds from the boy who could barely get a word out in front of Simon Cowell.
As if to prove this point, before he took to the stage in the mostly sung-through Joseph he played Prince Charming in the New Wimbledon theatre’s panto Cinderella. “Being on stage speaking with my speech impediment was a real challenge and an interesting experience for me,” he admits, though it was one he rose to using the techniques taught by the Maguire Programme, for which Gates is a vocal advocate.
“Being young, I think, was the thing that kept me sane”
“When you apply that method to anything, if you put the work in it will work. The more that I ran the lines, speaking very disciplined using the technique, the more confident and comfortable I got with them, which then allowed me to speak them with a little bit more fluency and add my own slant to it.”
It all harks back to this inner determination and strength that lies hidden behind Gates’s boyish good looks; knuckle down, put the graft in and you will reap the rewards, whatever they may be. The same attitude can be seen through his appearance on another reality TV show, ITV’s Dancing On Ice. A novice skater when he started out – “I was one of those that had to literally hold on to the sides all the way round” – Gates put in hours of training each day to improve his abilities enough to make it to the show’s semi-final. Though he didn’t win, he now refers to ice dance royalty Torvill and Dean as Jane and Chris, which is reward enough for anyone.
It is also, I am sure, what will see him through any added stress that comes with the arrival of his first child, which is due in the middle of his Joseph run. Though he jokes about using his performance schedule as an excuse for dodging the nappy changes and midnight crying, you can sense the pride and emotion in his voice when he talks about family and his wish to be a young father. No doubt he will work twice as hard at that than he has done on every other project he has undertaken.
His steely determination could well be put to good use in the theatre industry. He is contracted to stay with Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat until the end of May, but has already been swotting up on other shows and teases the nosey journalist in me by admitting that there are “a few interesting new musicals that we’re having meetings about”. What these may be remains a secret for now, but Gates is less secretive about exploring this uncovered passion and the next chapter in his high-profile career: “[Musical theatre] is so much deeper and more emotionally involved than just turning up to a studio and recording songs until they sound nice. It’s a really fantastic experience and the acting side of things is really incredible. For the next few years I’d like to just focus on that. Maybe I’ll return to the music industry and make another album later on in life, but certainly for the next few years I’d love to just focus on what I’m doing now.”