Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has, over the years, become a veritable breeding ground for performers from the world of pop music aching to break into musical theatre. First came Jason Donovan, then a wide eyed pop prince fresh from duetting with the world’s most famous bottom-owner Kylie Minogue. Then came perma-grinned Donny Osmond, whose smile alone lit up the theatre. The new kid on the block is Ian ‘H’ Watkins, formerly one fifth of nineties super group Steps. Matthew Amer caught up with the notoriously hyperactive performer at the end of a gruelling rehearsal at the New London theatre…
It is not very often that a theatrical interview is delayed by filming for Top Of The Pops. Television’s favourite music show does not generally venture into the world grease paint and limelight. Not that this is a bad thing, just unusual. So it is with some surprise that I find myself waiting in a desolate green room wondering what the cast of Joseph do for fun, before spotting some preposterously worn out juggling balls claiming pride of place next to the kettle.
"I don’t want to do karaoke, which is what a lot of… ‘people’ tend to do"
Ian Watkins, better known as H, is still fondly remembered by the pop world – the arrival of TOTP on the set of Joseph proves that. It seems odd to speak of his pop career in a past tense as he still has a record deal as part of duo H and Claire, but in a notoriously fickle world, a week out of the spotlight seems like an eon.
Back in the nineties H was as close to a household name as you can get without being a type of detergent. Steps topped the pop charts with their own special brand of spectacularly catchy dance tunes complete with smooth moves to wow the most discerning student on dance floors all over the country. The group’s incredible success has been matched by few. In their years at the top Steps sold 12 million records worldwide and notched up 12 consecutive UK top five singles. But the dream came to an end in 2001 when the fab five parted company. H began recording with fellow Stepper Claire, but is now, having taken time out to weigh up his priorities, in the process of reinventing himself as a stage star: “I just want to be a good jobbing actor.”
The danger with casting stars from different spheres in stage roles is that, although the star credential may come with them, the quality may not. Singing a role in a stage musical is a very different beast to performing in front of hoards of adoring prepubescent fans. The rocky road from pop perfection to stage success is strewn with wrecked reputations and forgotten stars. It is the rare few, the exceptions, who actually make the grade. H is confident that he will not falter at the roadside, stumbling as just another pretender. “I don’t want to do karaoke, which is what a lot of… ‘people’ tend to do.”
The ex-popster is taking this new role so seriously that he has even been researching his character by brushing up on his Bible stories. “I wanted to get a feel for where he was from, what kind of person he was and the journey that he actually went on. The production is based around a school play [Lloyd Webber and Rice originally wrote it as a 15 minute school production]. It’s very cartoony and there are lots of caricatures in the show. I wanted to stay real around all the mayhem.”
"I don’t care whatsoever. I’m having a ball"
Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is famed for its brightly coloured costumes and family friendly feel. In a production such as this, the transition from the kiddie-pop of Steps to the West End stage could not really have been made any easier for H; “The medley at the end is like Steps anyway – everybody’s up and dancing.” Even so critics and knockers will be waiting for him to falter. Yet the pressure does not seem to sit too heavy on the Welshman’s jiggling shoulders. “I don’t care whatsoever. I’m having a ball and I’m doing the best job that I can at this point in time. I actually don’t give a s**t.”
Aside from the uncanny ability to read dreams, which he rarely interprets wrong, it is for his choice of clothing that the character of Joseph is most famous. No toned down pastel colours for him. He turns his nose up at camouflage chic and ‘brown is the new black’, instead preferring to make his mark with a coat of many colours. However, this flair for fashion does not stop Joseph spending much of the show wearing nothing more than a loin cloth so tiny it would embarrass a gnat. When H was in Steps he may have danced around in front of packed arenas, but it is unlikely that he was ever doing it in as little as this. When H found out that he would be performing to a packed auditorium with little more than a flannel to spare his modesty, he rightly rushed to the gym faster than you could say ‘Ab-crunches’. “I have been working out. I’m not saying that I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but then again I don’t think he would have agreed to wear a loincloth.”
It is not just his buff body that H has been working on since disappearing from public view. His stamina is now akin to that of a marathon runner and he has also been receiving vocal coaching and singing lessons for the last year. At the end of his run in Joseph he is also taking the brave step of going back to school; he has enrolled in a one year acting course at the RADA.
A concept dreaded by most – the school dinners, ritual humiliation and poor levels of personal hygiene – H views the return to study as the realisation of a dream. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and for me to be offered a West End show before I actually train in that profession is unbelievable.” Not having the money to go to drama school at a young age, H – then known simply as Ian Watkins – found himself among the cool and the crazy of art college, painting his way to a fortune. But when canvas just didn’t do it for him any more he left to become a Butlins Redcoat. “That was my training essentially. I was thrown in at the deep end and I had to compere, run competitions, learn songs in the day and sing them in the evening.”
"I don’t like being photographed outside the Met Bar; they’re all w****rs there."
It was from the theatrical training ground of Butlins – which also produced Shane Ritchie and Duncan James from the boyband Blue – that H made the jump to superstardom in Steps. During his time in the band he achieved some truly amazing things, but, in retrospect, speaks quite matter-of-factly about them. “I’m not even 30 yet, I’m 27. I’ve sold millions of records and been to every country in the world. I’ve done things that people only dream of. But for me, this is the ultimate. With pop music I was just playing. It was like going clubbing everyday; I was like a kid in a sweet shop. But this is where I’ve always wanted to be and right now I couldn’t be happier.”
When Steps split back in 2001 the official line given to distraught fans was that everything was amicable and no one person was responsible for the end of a particularly cheesy era. But beneath the surface there seemed to be a little unresolved tension simmering like an angry volcano. A few years down the line and H tells a slightly different story to the one spoon-fed to the media. “At the time it was so intense. We were sick of each other. We needed time apart, we really did.” But that time apart seems to have done everyone the world of good: Lisa Scott Lee has emerged as a solo artist, Claire Richards is also pursuing a solo career, Faye Tozer is touring in Lloyd Webber one-woman show Tell Me On A Sunday and Lee Latchford Evans hand-jived his way onto the West End stage playing Teen Angel in Grease. Each has moved on since the crazy days of Tragedy and One For Sorrow, and the other four are expected to lend their support to H’s new escapade.
The world of pop may still grieve the loss of Steps, but H himself is much happier away from celebrity parties and fame-based shenanigans. Although there will always be a place for him in pop’s elite, fame never really worked its magic on the hometown boy from Swansea. “I think unless you are happy with yourself, you’ll never be happy with fame really. I don’t hang around in celebrity bars. I don’t like being photographed outside the Met Bar. The Met Bar is cack, they’re all w****rs there. I like normal people. I have normal friends. I like real people, and the real world is a much nicer place.”