Gary Wilmot: making a name in musical theatre
Gary Wilmot was destined for show business. What else would you expect from the son of a man who sang the immortal words I Am a Mole And I Live in a Hole with the group The Southlanders?
But the writer, comedian, impressionist and singer had a slow start, becoming a manual labourer before realising he was not cut out for work on building sites and in factories.
His big break came on the television talent show New Faces in the 1970s. He was half of a comedy act with Judy McPhee; the pair got to the finals.
Top names in the entertainments industry realised that Gary had more chance of success on his own and for a long time Gary was hardly off the small screen. But then he appeared to drop off the radar. That was because he was making a name for himself in musical theatre, picking up a best actor nomination for his role in Me And My Girl and taking major parts in top productions including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chicago and The Wizard of Oz.
In fact he has been so busy he has hardly had any time off in the past 12 months. It looks as though his next break will not come until August after he has finished a tour of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma! which will stop off in Nottingham.
He says, “I came straight out of The Pajama Game in the West End into Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (alongside Derbyshire actor Robert Lindsay) at the Savoy, which overlapped into panto rehearsals.
“I finished panto (playing Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk at Birmingham Hippodrome) and then came into rehearsals for Oklahoma! I’ve been working six or seven days a week for the past year. It’s an exhausting business,” he says. But “it’s a vocation so I don’t see it as work.”
In Oklahoma! Gary plays a peddler. Ali Hakim is “a character that comes in and goes out, so I knew I’d have my work cut out – I’d have to make an impact. Mind you, you’d have to go some to steal the show away from the talent we’ve got in this cast.”
The other name in Oklahoma! is Belinda Lang, best known for appearing in the BBC sitcom 2point4 Children.
Gary continues: “Ali goes from town to town plying his wares, mostly for ladies, selling kitchen equipment, perfumes and frillies from Paris. He’s a charmer; he can charm the birds from the trees and it’s not until a few days after he’s gone that people realise they’ve been conned.”
The show, he says, is “brilliant! Incredible! Creative! I run out of superlatives for it. And the casting is just fantastic. Vocalists, dancers, understudies – they’re all so talented. I think the industry has never been better. Dance programmes (on television) may have had something to do with it. Shows like Strictly Come Dancing have made dance cool and it’s releasing a creative flair, particularly in blokes.”
Gary Owen Wilmot was born in 1954 in Lambeth, London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, Harry. His father died of a brain tumour when Gary was seven.
His career in entertainment began when a friend told an agent about his talent and Gary joined the variety circuit. After New Faces he was in huge demand, appearing on shows with Bob Monkhouse, Keith Harris and Michael Aspel as well as hosting his own series.
He made a tremendous impact, especially with his impersonations. To this day I can’t listen to Randy Crawford singing Almaz without thinking about Gary Wilmot.
He moved into musical theatre in 1989, making his West End debut in the role of Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl and staying in the production for two years.
Since then he has appeared in the world premiere of the Barry Manilow musical Copacabana; played Fagin in the Cameron Mackintosh touring production of Oliver; shown us his Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; taken the role of Billy Flynn in the tour of Chicago; and moved into panto as the dame.
Now Gary is relishing his role in arguably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous musical which features songs including Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’; I Cain’t Say No; The Surrey With the Fringe on Top; and People Will Say We’re in Love.
He admits he had reservations about joining the cast of Oklahoma! But when he discovered that former Birmingham Repertory Theatre artistic director Rachel Kavanaugh was directing, he knew he had to do it.
“It’s a show that’s been done so many times but I knew Rachel would find something special in it. I love working with her,” he says.
“I had no direct encouragement from anyone, except from my best friends who used to say that I was better than the rubbish on the telly!
So why are the British public so keen on musicals? “They’re an area of theatre that, when they’re done well, they take an audience from everyday life and put them in a fantasy world. Nowhere else in life does someone go to the shops to buy a suit and break into song! It’s pure escapism.”
Gary has been in such great demand that he has already played most of the theatres on the Oklahoma! tour.
“It’s always nice to go back to places and to be aware of the venue and the identity of the audience,” he says. “Luckily we get Mondays off and open on Tuesdays, so wherever we are I can usually get home by 1am on Sunday mornings.”
For a man who has had so much success in show business, it is somewhat surprising to learn that initially he had no ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I didn’t start treading the boards until I was 21. Nobody else in the family was in the industry and I had no direct encouragement from anyone, except from my best friends who used to say that I was better than the rubbish on the telly!
“I used to write jokes and songs, and if anyone was going to put a lampshade on their head at a party it was me.”
He is still writing now, despite his busy schedule. “I wrote a couple of songs for last year’s panto and I’ve just finished writing a Christmas show.”
He admits that playing Ali Hakim is enjoyable although it is not too taxing: “Physically it’s not the most tiring role I’ve ever done so I’m actually enjoying sitting in the dressing room and watching everyone else working,” he jokes.
But is he still inclined to put a lampshade on his head? “No, I’m older and wiser now. But I like to fool around.”
* This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Country Images magazine