From the onset, the unique – and very public – process of selecting a lead man for Joseph ensured this production would never be a run of the mill show!
Lee Mead as Joseph
Time constraints meant that the rest of the cast began rehearsals without knowing who their lead man would be. Pip Jordan, Joseph’s Dance Captain, told us, “By the time we started rehearsals there were three finalists (in Any Dream Will Do, the BBC TV search for a Joseph). There was Lewis, Lee and Keith. So everyday in rehearsal we would use the names in rotation. One day we would say “So Keith enters from stage left”, or “Lewis stands upstage here”, or “Lee will do this…” so yes it was quite strange. It must have been particularly difficult for people like the narrator, and Jacob and the Pharaoh because they interact with him more. And of course, hard for Lee to come in when we all knew the show so well”. Nicky Barton, Production Assistant, was there that day and remembers, “I think Lee was a little apprehensive that Monday morning when he came into our rehearsal studios in Covent Garden to meet the rest of the cast but luckily they were so excited to meet him and welcomed him with open arms.” This welcome has been extended to the man who stepped into Lee’s golden boots, Gareth Gates (himself no stranger to TV talent shows, as runner up on ITV’s Pop Idol in 2002) “Gareth became such a brother, definitely!” she smiles, “He is a cheeky Joseph and they played a lot of practical jokes on each other!”
Sam Burgess, Production Supervisor, who was also in the rehearsal rooms when Lee was introduced to the cast confirmed: “When a show goes into rehearsal it is always an incredibly exciting and creative time, but with Joseph there was an exceptional atmosphere in the rehearsal room from the rest of the cast who would be going home from rehearsals on a Saturday evening to find out who their Joseph was going to be!”
This high profile approach to casting a major production might have caused some resentment with those cast members who were used to a more traditional method. Was this so on Joseph? Sam doesn’t believe this was the case. “Because we had already used the TV route for The Sound of Music and it had been such a huge success, despite some opposition, I think that the attitude towards Any Dream Will Do and the casting of Joseph in the industry was a lot more open and supportive. Also from a performers’ point of view Stephen Pimlott’s production of Joseph was very much a show that a lot of performers saw in their younger years – similar to Cats and Starlight Express – it’s a show that a lot of people, including both Lee and Gareth, say made them want to get into theatre. So our casting director had a huge and positive response from the acting and musical theatre world from people who wanted to be in the show.”
But casting the lead for Joseph specifically via a TV talent show also meant the resulting production differed from a more traditional show in other ways too. Sam explains further. “Obviously, we had done it before with The Sound of Music with enormous success but this time we were casting a boy. Which made a HUGE difference. More difference than any of us could have anticipated! And also we were casting a character in a production that a lot of people had either seen quite recently or performed in themselves (Joseph is widely performed by schools, church groups and amateur dramatic societies all over the world) so it is an incredibly well known piece in itself. So I think the public had a very, very clear idea from day one of what they expected their Joseph to be, which encouraged a huge amount of interest in the TV show as it developed week on week.”
This enormous public interest meant that when Lee was finally chosen he had already established a large, and very vocal, following! No-one could have anticipated quite how the audience would react to the appearance of Lee on stage for the first time. Sam remembers that first preview, “I was sitting in the dress circle when Lee appeared for the first time through the gauze. We had watched the audience coming into the theatre that night and they appeared to be the usual West End theatre audience, who cheered maybe a little louder than normal as the overture began. But the moment when Lee appears through the gauze floating down, the entire Adelphi Theatre erupted like a Madonna or Michael Jackson concert. It was the most astonishing ovation I have ever seen! Although we knew that Lee was obviously popular we had no idea what kind of audience reaction there would be.”
Nicky agrees and adds, “It must have been a shock for Lee too….I think the strength of feeling took him by surprise. We thought maybe it was just that first audience, the real hard core fans who had booked the first opportunity to see him. But the second was every bit as crazy as the first and that response continued right through to Lee’s last show, and it continued recently for Gareth”.
Being on stage that night was memorable too. Pip reminisces, “Everyone took it in their stride, but we were stunned that it continued on and on for each performance as it did. It was an incredible feeling, experiencing that kind of adoration…. “
Gareth Gates in Joseph's coat
Gareth has obviously experienced a similar route to fame as Lee and the role of TV in the choice of a lead man for Joseph is now established. Sam explains “I think because Stephen Pimlott’s production was originally geared around Jason Donovan and then Philip Schofield there is a real tradition of having a well known TV personality playing the role of Joseph.” He adds, “Because Joseph is such a fun show – I always think this production has a huge twinkle in its eye – it’s a great evening out and although the leading actors are playing the role of Joseph there is an opportunity for them to bring a little bit of themselves to the role and each of them has brought different qualities to the part.”
Read the second instalment of the Production memories here