Interview

theatrenow
Ray Shell

Ray Shell

by Phil Willmott
13/10/2005

I'm still quite new to interviewing and some interviewees are a lot harder work then others. Sometimes they're guarded with their information or often they're not very talkative because they actually don't have anything interesting to say and pulling together enough material can be difficult. That's not a problem with American, Ray Shell, currently playing the narrator figure in the Motown compilation musical Dancing In The Streets at the Cambridge Theatre.

He's had an eclectic career of hits, and plenty of near misses, which started with a training in Boston, bypassing the chance to join the likes of Meryl Streep at Yale and mixing West End success with forays into TV on both sides of the Atlantic. He once auditioned against the unknown Eddie Murphy for Saturday Night Live. He says the best guy got the job. Anyway, as a result Murphy's career took off.

He has ideas and opinions on practically any subject you want to throw at him and it's invigorating to listen to someone who's so passionate about his craft and the business he's in.

He doesn't hold back either. When I met him in his dressing room he began by explaining that he's never really liked compilation musicals.

Q: But you're in a hit compilation show.

A: I know but I just never liked them. I really miss the emotional engagement you get form a story. In fact when I studied acting in Boston we used to look down on musical theatre. We used to think those actors were probably too stupid to do anything else.

Q: But you don't think that now.

A: No, and I am enjoying this particular compilation show too.

Q: What's the difference?

A: Well, getting this version to the stage has been an unusual process. When I met with the director he explained that there'd be a chance to build up my role as the narrator because for copyright reasons they couldn't do a straight forward history of Motown so we had to create this figure who'd share his appreciation of the music with the audience.

Q: Copyright problems?

A: Well the owner of Motown wanted to make his own show so he tried to stop ours.

Q:But how can you "own" Motown? Isn't it a generic term like, say, Country and Western?

A; No, no it's a record label and they stopped us doing a history of Motown because they own the rights to present all that information and they want to launch their own piece. So what we couldn't do is pretend we were imitating any of the artists or telling their stories. We have to do a "concert" presentation. Notice that we never say "Here's Stevie Wonder". We have to say and do you remember this song made famous by Stevie Wonder. And all this is linked by the memories of my character which is his own personal journey rather then Motown's.

Q: I see, so it was very important to build an on stage persona that would carry the audience through?

A: Exactly, and all that material was developed by me.

Q: The passion for Motown music. Is that yours or the characters?

A: Oh it's mine. All the feelings are mine but his isn't my life story - for instance I haven't had four wives.

Q: It looks like you're having a good time on stage.

A: I love singing this stuff. It's a chance for me to sing as I was brought up to sing, performing the material I grew up with instead of fitting in with what's required for a Cameron Macintosh show, for instance.

Q: You have done a lot of the big West End shows of the past twenty years, very successfully.

A: Yes, I'm proud to have been a part of that. But I think we could have been marketed a little better, the performers I mean. In a traditional Broadway set up the producers would have made stars of people like Frances Rufelle and myself. Instead it was the shows themselves which were the stars. And I think that may have been a mistake because there's now a shortage of stars who can headline a show. There's celebrities, often shoe horned into parts that they can't manage to play and what happens is people leave the show disappointed, thinking that theatre isn't as good as TV. It might be years before we get those people back.

Q: Well, there's no celebrities in Dancing In The Streets, why do you think it's so popular?

A: This music is so special. I was brought up a church kid so I wasn't actually allowed to listen to this music. We'd pretend we had homework to get out of church on Sunday night and instead we'd secretly watch the Ed Sullivan show on TV. So many of the great groups got their breaks on that show: The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, people like that. And the industry was set up to make the best of it. You'd see the act on TV on a Sunday night and the next day the record shops would be stocked up with copies of that particular record. That's the power of TV. People don't like theatre. They like pop concerts. This show is kind of a mixture of the two. I think if people have a good time with us they're more likely to try theatre again.

Q: How do you think things have changed for black recording stars since those golden days of Motown?

A: Well, it's great that they're now getting paid. In fact artists who made very little money the first time their records were released are now finally getting the big money cheques because contemporary artists are sampling and re-releasing those original tracks to use as part of their music.

Q: You always seem to have a hundred and one projects up your sleeve. What else are you working on a the moment?

A: The character I play in the show is based on one I've created for my own TV show which I'm developing on satellite TV and which MTV are very interested in. I think with easy access to computers and satellite more and more people are going to have the chance to make their own TV shows. That's very exciting. It's what I'm focusing my energies into at the moment.

Q: Anything for the stage?

A: My musical White Folks is still in development and I devised a project with the Tricycle Theatre's youth theatre based around Othello which we're hoping to turn into a full scale show. If theatre's going to move forward though we really need to build up an equivalent of Off Broadway where shows, if they're successful, can have open ended runs, earn a bit of money and build up the impetus to move to the bigger West End theatres. That's how we'll find the new Ricky Horror show.

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