Monday, 5 November 2007

Desperately seeking success

The Times, Scotland, 4 November 2007

If you are going to announce yourself as the next singing sensation with your very first song on the West End stage, you might as well think big. Alec Newman, the Glaswegian who has landed a plum part in one of London’s most hyped shows of the new season, is definitely thinking big.

In a fortnight’s time, Newman will mark his arrival as a vocalist when he is cast as Dez, the main love interest, in the world premiere of Desperately Seeking Susan, a new musical which features the songs of Blondie. He opens his account with that classic of love and desire, Picture This, immortalised in 1979 by its original singer Debbie Harry. And Harry will be in the audience watching as Newman performs. From a bed.

“The mind boggles,” Newman acknowledges with a smile as he takes time out from rehearsals at the Novello Theatre.
“But there is only one place to be singing that song isn’t there? You’d have to be between the sheets. And it’s worked into the show very well, there’s no sense of announcing ‘And now I am going to sing...”

At first sight, the show is an unlikely proposition, a remake of an inviolable piece of celluloid Americana. It was conceived four years ago by Peter Marino, a New York dancer who found himself idly wondering about pop acts who might benefit from a stage treatment. He landed on Blondie, connecting their songbook with Desperately Seeking Susan, the film which had made a movie star of Madonna.

It took a year to work up a script but after Harry enthusiastically endorsed the project, the show was on the road. It is premiering in Britain because the band’s music was first embraced here.

For Newman, 33, the role has brought a new set of challenges. It’s true that a training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art included singing lessons but nothing to compare with the intense regime deployed by Desperately Seeking Susan’s musical director, Matt Brind.

“It’s unbelievable. I have been getting what I can only assume are opera classes from him,” says Newman. “The school of thought is ‘the better the singer, the better it will be on the night’. It is a challenge, but it’s the classic thing – it’s good to stretch yourself and this is a stretch.”

Steeped in the music of the 1970s and 1980s Newman was a prime candidate for his role. His father, Sandy Newman, has been lead and singer with The Marmalade since 1973, and Alec grew up to a soundtrack of Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Wings. “It went in subconsciously. It dictated my musical tastes.”

If those tastes are profoundly MOR and Mid Atlantic, Newman has no doubt about his roots, even though the family quit Scotland for Berkshire when he was only four. His Scottishness was “positively bullied” into him by his father, and the end result is good, he says.

“I know where I come from, and I think that is important. Especially when you move around and live in different places,” says Newman. “I remember going into school as a teenager with this weird estuary English accent. And then one day I began insisting I was Scottish. That was me trying to asset my identity, but it ended in tears in a corner of the history class. For the other kids it was weird. Here was a guy coming in all of a sudden speaking in a Scottish accent.”

Newman has spent much of his working life in Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend. He has he starred in two long-running US TV series, Dune and Children of Dune, but more recently earned a West End run in The Soldier’s Fortune at the Young Vic.

The Scottish connections are coming good now. Earlier this year he starred in the BBC production of Reichenbach Falls, an Edinburgh thriller about a crime writer and his creations. And next year Newman is slated to play opposite James McAvoy, in Three Way Split, a comedy drama directed Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter.

For now, the music of the 1970s and 1980s are his head, and Newman’s mind is turning to new possibilities.

“I found myself on the bus the other day with the Ipod listening to old Marmalade, the last big album, Heartbreaker. I thought ‘these are great songs’.

“It was like the musical, I was listening to a bit of the 80s, but I just hadn’t thought of my old man as an 80s thing before. Then I began thinking, ‘I wonder how you could cobble these songs into a musical?’ Because he owns them all and it would be cheap. It made me appreciate my dad’s work. I was quite something, sitting there on the bus, staring out of the window, listening to Heartbreaker.”

Marmalade: The Musical. We have been warned.

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