The news of a concert at Dublin’s National Concert Hall was exciting enough, but when we learned that it was to be different from those that had gone before – Lee singing musical theatre favourites, backed by the wonderful RTÉ Concert Orchestra – that excitement heightened. And when a provisional set list was released, including numbers from Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, I thought all my Christmases had come at once!
I usually limit myself to just a few comments here on the Timeline, but this concert warrants more and as I have no pictures on this occasion, I will try to paint a picture with words. Not every song is mentioned, but omission in no way indicates lack of appreciation, I have simply recorded the impressions that have stayed with me most strongly in the days following the concert.
The venue was huge and very imposing, its foyer thronging with people, the many fans who had travelled from the UK greeting each other excitedly, before filing through to the auditorium. I gasped out loud when I first caught a glimpse of the set up through the half open door – the stage, still empty of people, but full of chairs and music stands, the conductor's stand in the centre, the soaring organ pipes behind, and a little to the left (stage right), a lone microphone standing on the narrow strip of stage between orchestra and front row.
Slowly the audience took their seats, a real buzz of anticipation building, then the orchestra began to filter in, coming to order when their leader stood before them. That glorious maelstrom of tuning swelled, then calmed, and to resounding applause, on strode the conductor ... and so it began!
The programme (click thumbnail) was broken down into four Meady sets, interspersed with the most beautiful series of pieces from the orchestra, three collections of excerpts - from The Producers to open and Fiddler on the Roof to close the first half, and from Les Misérables at the mid-point of the second half - as well as Send in the Clowns at the mid-point of the first half and the wonderful West Side Story Overture to open the second. These pieces were as much a part of the magic of the evening as anything Lee himself did, and in my eyes simply underscored the honour (which Lee clearly felt) of being invited to perform with such a fantastic orchestra.
I must pause to give special mention to the conductor, David Brophy, who was as entertaining as he was passionate, and was so generous in his treatment of Lee, and to leader, Mia Cooper, who played so beautifully that it was she, rather than Lee, who first brought tears to my eyes. Sat in the front row, I wasn't expecting the sound balance between orchestra and voice to be that good from so close, but it was wonderful ... such a full sound, Lee's rich voice pouring like melted chocolate over the multi-layered dessert of sound served up by the orchestra behind him (sorry, getting a tad fanciful there!). The concert was recorded by RTÉ Radio and I eagerly await news of a broadcast date!
We are so used to Lee exploding on to the stage in a burst of raw energy, that the introduction from David Brophy followed by Lee walking quietly (if not entirely calmly, I suspect) on to the stage, dressed all in black, his hair tamed into a slightly more respectful mop of tumbling curls than usual, was a powerful indication that we were to be treated to a very different evening's entertainment.
His voice was glorious ... smoother than his usual opening, but lacking none of the passion that is his trademark. With that first number under his belt, and hearing the rapturous response, he seemed to relax and really begin to savour the experience. The way his eyes roved to all corners of the auditorium, drinking it all in, the brief smiles that escaped seemingly without volition before he sang a line, the way he half-turned to watch the orchestra during instrumentals, the winks to the conductor ... all spoke of his utter joy in performing in such a place with such an orchestra. He said more than once how privileged he was to have such an opportunity ... we were certainly privileged to be there to witness it.
Collide with full orchestra was simply beautiful and somehow especially poignant as this was not Paint It Black for which he is known from the Any Dream Will Do TV show, nor the musical theatre numbers that were the billed heart of the concert, but rather a song he had chosen for his album which they were happy to allow him to sing anyway. The NCH had his albums on sale in the venue's shop and sold out during the interval ... I think that says it all really.
As the orchestra struck up the opening strains of Beyond the Sea, Lee sauntered on, swing-style, and we started to see a little of the characteristic cheekiness that he gives much fuller rein to in his own concerts ... just enough to delight the regulars and utterly charm his new audience. I wasn't sure at the outset whether Lee would be able to indulge his fondness for chatting to the audience ... this format of concert would not normally allow for it ... but although a little 'tidier' than usual, he spun some of the familiar stories and a few new ones along the way.
Anthem ... I have long loved this song and I loved it all over again, although for me, it is perhaps a more powerful delivery when backed by a simpler arrangement. That is not to take anything from this performance, and the ovation and prolonged cheers and applause that followed it clearly showed that this version worked superbly! The orchestra (and some of the audience) were a little bemused, in a benign way, by the ovation but if there were people there for Lee who had never before heard a full orchestra play live ... I feel sure they will go back for more without him now they have!
That was the end of Lee's half, but the violin solo from leader, Mia Cooper, in the Fiddler in the Roof excerpts that closed the first half was exquisite.
West Side Story drew us in to the second half and then Lee returned and blew me away, completely, utterly, leaving me physically shaking at the end of Why God Why. I've never seen Miss Saigon and only vaguely know the story, so the emotions that coursed through me came entirely from Lee's performance on the night, not from any memories of my own. It was acted as intensely as Jesus Christ Superstar has been at his concerts, but standing still at a microphone stand ... how on earth does he do that? He said his heart was racing at the end ... he wasn't alone.
He paused to speak of his time in Miss Saigon and the first time he ever went on stage as a leading man. As second cover for Chris, it was unlikely he’d ever get to go on, but every night for four months, he would do his ensemble track, change for his next scene than run round to the wing to watch Ramin Karimloo as Chris. Ramin, and his ensemble colleagues thought he was mad, but it paid off when the MD put him forward to replace the first cover when he was taken ill. The first time he went on as Chris was his audition for first cover, with casting people up from London to watch, and the call came the next morning to say he'd got the role, going on to cover Chris 80 odd times. I so wish I'd seen him in that role.
The familiar strains of Dancing Through Life came next (minus the dancing, the jodphurs and the knee-high boots!) - I always love hearing Lee sing this in concert, able to give full rein to the vocal without being constrained by the need to dance – followed by the unfamiliar (to me) but very beautiful Immortality from Saturday Night Fever to close the set.
Then the orchestra took over once more for their Les Mis section, throughout which my anticipation built for Bring Him Home. I really thought Lee would sing Empty Chairs, not only because it had been included on the provisional set list but because it seemed the more obvious choice. I should have known better, when has Lee ever stuck to the obvious?! I wasn't nervous for him as such, but I did think Bring Him Home was a far riskier choice for him, not least because Alfie Boe has been all over the airwaves with his version in recent months, to such great acclaim.
It was stunning ... he didn't put a foot wrong, wringing every last drop of emotion from the song but without compromising the vocal. It earned him his second ovation of the night, deservedly so. It was powerful stuff, I'm in awe of the man.
Story-time again as Lee told how Les Mis was the first West End show he ever auditioned for ... he was 16, and arrived at the Shaftesbury at 6.30am to find he was the only one there. His immediate thought was "I've got the job!" but within half an hour there were 400 guys from all over the world queuing round the block for the open audition. He was the second guy to be seen and after hearing 'Next!' from the wings, he walked on stage, handed his music to the pianist and was asked his name. He said "Lee Mead" and counted the pianist in before bursting forth (as he did live in Dublin to demonstrate) with 'Love ... is a many splendored thing...' only to hear immediately 'Next!' ... and that was the end of his first audition!
On to the home stretch and from here on in, it was all Lee. Although Any Dream Will Do is clearly musical theatre, I doubt many concert versions have previously included full audience 'choir' participation and swaying with arms aloft! All perfectly normal at a Meady concert, but a definite novelty for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and its regular patrons! For the first time, Lee freed himself from the mic stand and wondered across the stage ... you can take away his five-piece band of bruisers (his words, not mine!) and give him a 52-piece orchestra, but ultimately you can’t change the relaxed, easy way in which he relates to (and charms) his audience.
He paused before his 'finale number' to pay tribute again to the incredible orchestra, before delivering If I can Dream, steadily at first but building to an energy that could barely be contained ... his legs moving constantly, his left heel stamping clearly on the wooden stage, his fist clasping and unclasping the mic stand ... as the audience rose again to their feet, he bowed once then ran off stage, returning a short time later to sing the final bars. Leading the orchestra into Daydream Believer, and urging the audience to stay standing (which from a brief glance behind, to a man and woman they did!)
To end such a concert in his own way was just perfect. He again paced the stage, waving to the side balconies and to the choir stalls behind him and owning the moment totally. To say he did himself proud is true, but is too small a measure of what he actually achieved. He won over a whole new audience ... I reckon (with no scientific basis for the assumption obviously) that about 50% of the audience were there because they support the orchestra and/or are musical theatre fans, the soloist largely an irrelevance, but 100% left knowing they'd witnessed a very special concert and those who didn't know him before will long remember the first time they saw that lovely Lee Mead live!
My last vivid visual memory from the evening was of the huge hug between Lee and the conductor as they disappeared into the wings. It spoke of 'job well done' reassurance from David and an outpouring of emotion from Lee that I can only begin to imagine. What a wonderful, wonderful evening. I am sure there will be more such events in future .... if you couldn't get to this one, don't miss the next!
Unfortunately the promised radio broadcast of the concert never materialised, but there are a few things HERE I think you'll enjoy.
Lee's full concert schedule (including past appearances) can be found at - CONCERT DATES
Last updated: 31 March 2015