Simon Webbe never even dreamed he would one day be performing in a West End musical. But being prepared and seizing the day are mottos that have helped Webbe come a long way, finds Caroline Bishop.
If there was ever an example of the transforming power of theatre it is Simon Webbe. The self-proclaimed ‘cool guy’ from four-piece pop band Blue used to think the passion of his bandmate Duncan James was distinctly uncool. “When we met each other, it was all about theatre [for James]. I was like, ‘that’s not cool, man; musical theatre, why d’you want to do that?’ And that’s because I was closed-minded to it.”
Roll forward a few years and Webbe is on stage at the London Palladium playing gangster Curtis Shank in the stage adaptation of the 1992 film Sister Act and is a fully-converted musical theatre groupie. When we meet, in the swish lobby of the Mayfair hotel where he is staying, he has just recovered from an illness that meant he had to miss a show the week before. “I tell you this, when I didn’t do the second show on the Saturday I couldn’t wait to get back on the Monday. It’s like it’s done something to me, it’s like I need the theatre. I’m thinking this is going to wear off after a month and it didn’t, it hasn’t.”
Webbe should quickly be recruited by schools to talk to kids who think theatre isn’t for them. A once-promising footballer from Moss Side who was “good at sports and one of the cool guys” but who struggled to read in class, theatre wasn’t remotely on Webbe’s radar. Prior to joining Sister Act the only West End shows he had ever seen were the ones his bandmates James (Legally Blonde) and Antony Costa (Blood Brothers) had been in, and his knowledge of musical theatre only extended to the songs Esther Rantzen and George Takei sang him when he was in reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here in 2008. Now, he is a passionate flag-waver for the West End stage. “I think it should be in our educational system. I don’t think we do enough for the kids in our schools nowadays.”
“I just love the fact I’ve been given the opportunity to do something I never thought I could do”
His conversion is remarkable, and what’s more, unlike some ‘celebrity’ castings in musicals, by all accounts Webbe is doing rather well. I wonder how he was received by the cast of professionals who have been in the business for longer than Webbe knew it existed, such as Sheila Hancock (who next week will be replaced by Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Mother Superior). “Oh man, her blue eyes are so chilling,” he says, shaking his head. “When she comes out and looks at me and says those lines, I’m like, that’s Sheila Hancock. I see her on telly and I was like, yeah yeah… But then meeting her and watching her do it first hand you’re like, no wonder she’s on the panel for Dorothy.”
He had to do a spot of research to know that Hancock’s judging role on the BBC’s search for a Dorothy, Over The Rainbow, came after 50 years as a stage actress. But, without wanting to patronise him, this callowness is endearing in Webbe. He knows he is new to being a stage actor – and sitting drinking his coffee in the Mayfair hotel he still looks every bit the ‘cool’ pop star – but he is genuine in his enthusiasm for his new job and has taken it as seriously as he sometimes seems to takes himself.
For starters, he has done his best to fit in. “I walk into rehearsals and I’m crapping myself because these guys are actors and I don’t want to look stupid,” he says. “I think people may have expected me to be different than I am. But you know, I see them as family. I don’t stay in my changing room, the only time I’m in my changing room is to get changed. I chill with the rest of the cast.”
He also proved adept at picking up the ropes. Webbe had just four weeks for a crash course in musical theatre before making his debut at the London Palladium. But, although he was entering a completely alien world, the pressure was not new to him. As one quarter of pop/r ‘n’ b band Blue, he experienced a similar pressure when the manufactured band was first put together in 2001. The quartet, he says, had just four weeks of gym training and singing lessons before their record company pronounced them a band. “Then all of a sudden we were making an album, and then all of a sudden here’s your single, you’re on telly next week. We are?”
“It felt like we were part of a record company that was cracking the whip”
He speaks of those early days in Blue as hectic, unhappy times, a constant whirl of flying and interviews and touring to places they were never in long enough to appreciate. “We were like rabbits in headlights, we didn’t have one second to enjoy it,” he says. “Our schedule was 16 January to 23 December, no days off. Different time zones. It’s going to have wear and tear on your spirit. It felt like we were part of a record company that was cracking the whip.”
Again, the world was a new one to Webbe. After his intended career as a professional footballer was curtailed by injury, Webbe took to modelling, and got into the music industry “because my face fit. I wasn’t really a strong singer.” But he applied a work ethic first to modelling and then to singing that seems to have stayed with him through every new endeavour. His success, he says in true boy scout fashion, is down to preparation, and perhaps a little pressure from his mum. “A lot of people have said I’m lucky. I’d rather say I’m prepared. When I was younger and I started modelling… even though I wasn’t working every day, I’d get ready, carry my modelling book and go out. My theory was, I don’t know who I’m going to bump into today. I don’t want to go home and say ‘guess who I bumped into today?’ and my mum says ‘well did you give him your CD, did you show him your pictures?’ and you go ‘nah’…”
It is an attitude which helped him leave behind an upbringing which had its darker elements. He says he found it difficult to start with, playing a gangster – even a comic one – in Sister Act because of the violence he witnessed growing up. “I think being this type of bad boy I found it hard at first, especially coming from a violent area of Manchester – Moss Side – and growing up in Birmingham, coming to London and there’s Brixton. You see how people act, and why people act that way and that’s their survival mechanism. You instil fear in people so people leave you alone, which seems logical to the people in those areas. So for me I took those past experiences that I’ve seen, may have experienced myself, and put it into this character.” He may be taking the role of Shank a little too seriously but then again, perhaps he is bringing a certain authenticity to it.
These days he says he owes his focused attitude to his daughter, born when he was 19. “She’s in school, she reads the newspapers, she’s 13, I’ve got to be a good dad, I’ve got to set an example,” he says. His conversation is peppered with references to kids: wanting to be an example, having a responsibility to show them what is possible. At times it seems a little sentimental, but I don’t doubt his sincerity.
He would like to have more children – “I’m with the right woman now” he says of his 24-year-old model/singer girlfriend Layla Manoochehri – but not just yet. “I want to be a full time father. Me and my girl we never had that relationship of me being there all the time, 24/7. And I want to make sure we’re at a certain age before I start all over again.”
“It’s like it’s done something to me, it’s like I need the theatre”
He seems too busy to be a full-time father at the moment. Not only is he in Sister Act, but he is back recording with Blue, has a solo album ready to be released and a film in the pipeline. It cannot be said that Webbe does not seize his chances. “I think bottom line with me is I just love the fact I’ve been given the opportunity to do something I never thought I could do,” he says of Sister Act. “You know when you look at people on TV and go, they’re lucky that they’ve got the confidence, the talent or you’re lucky that you know someone who put you there: instead of luck, what I’d like to say to people is it’s about getting yourself out there. We live once.”
The next new world he wants to master is film. He already has a couple of big screen credits to his name and is currently working with Menhaj Huda, the director of Kidulthood, on his next celluloid outing, Everywhere And Nowhere. Theatre, he feels, is helping him on his way to movie stardom. “I’ve been doing all my takes in one take, because of theatre, because you only get one chance in theatre, you say your line and it’s gone. I just feel natural.”
Unfortunately his grand plans cannot include his original ambition to play professional football. “I’m not being big headed – well I am being big headed,” he grins, “but when it came to football, I was hard to stop. I was the man and I knew it.” Would he have beaten Germany in the World Cup? “Damn I would have done it all by myself! The England squad needed me.” Despite this thwarted dream, Webbe’s talent for seizing chances – along with his boy scout motto and a sprinkling of luck – have meant that things haven’t turned out too badly at all; better, even, than they might have done. “I don’t think I’d be a nice person if I was a footballer,” he says. “I honestly believe that I wasn’t meant to be a footballer. This was my calling, music and entertainment.”