An Interview with Norman Pace
The veteran comedian and one half of much-loved duo Hale and Pace has been treading the boards in musical Hairspray. Here, Norman Pace talks about playing the role of Wilbur, finding inspiration from his sketch show past and taking on his dream roles…
You have been on the road with Hairspray for four months now, how have you found it?
It’s been fascinating and tiring but more than anything it has been invigorating. Coming to the end of the show, every night, and seeing the audiences on their feet cheering and smiling makes everything worth it.
What attracted you to the role of Wilbur?
Wilbur is a fascinating character; he is quirky, wise, strange. I was attracted to the role because I found different ways of delivering all his lines to get the maximum effect from them and it’s one of those things that even 125 performances in, I continue to do. Now I just seem to turn into him as soon as the costume is on. I thought this role, the role of Wilbur, was right for me. I looked at it on paper and it immediately reflected what I’m good at, what I think I do best. I just knew I really wanted to do this.
Did you find any inspiration from any of your characters in your sketches in Hale and Pace?
No, I have never done that with any part I have outside of Hale and Pace really because it would be wrong to think that you can just simply slip on an old pair of slippers when it’s a different character. I know I have been cast in various things where they have wanted a part from one of the characters and an element is ok, but they are never the same character, they have to be different in order for it to be genuine. I can’t think of any of the characters in Hale and Pace which were at all similar to how I play Wilbur, actually.
What have you enjoyed about being back on the stage?
I think it is the party-like atmosphere, especially with something like Hairspray. So often I can walk into the theatre feeling low or miserable, even tired especially on a Wednesday matinee where we have to be at the theatre for 12 which sometimes feels like it’s too early to be jumping around, dancing and singing but by the time the show has finished I can’t help but, with the adrenaline running through my body, feeling like I have had the best time and it’s a joy to do it.
Why do you think Hairspray has such an enduring appeal? Why do you think Hairspray keeps coming back?
I think a show like Hairspray had such an enduring appeal because it’s the best night out in theatre that you can have. Certainly that’s what I have found the audiences have said. It is beautifully structured, incredibly well written, very energetic, great songs and it’s funny to boot!
If anyone is not familiar with the show, how would you describe it in three words?
Effervescent, educational and extraordinary!
Do you have a favourite moment or song in the show and why?
Yes, there is and it is nothing to do with me although I do love doing ‘Timeless to Me’ with Matt (Rixon) and it seems to work every night but my favourite moment has to be watching Layton Williams do ‘Run and Tell’. That it is a huge highlight for me. For him to be so brilliant and so young, that man has got a great future ahead of him and it’s been a great pleasure to watch him in action.
Do you have a preference with performing live on stage compared to recording for television and film?
I prefer stage. It is the party atmosphere and if you get a mistake then you have another seven chances that week to make it right. There is a lot more pressure with television, the pressure is enormous when the camera is right there in front of you, in your face. You have very little rehearsal and there is a shorter time to give a convincing character performance, every time. There isn’t the freedom to learn, discover the character and the different ways you can do it, like on stage. I find filming boring followed by a great deal of stress in short periods.
“Grabs your heart”
Has musical theatre always been a genre you have enjoyed? What was it that inspired you go into musical theatre?
It’s that feeling when you see musical theatre. When musical theatre is at its best it bypasses your brain and just grabs your heart and shakes you around a bit, it’s as good a night in the theatre as you will get! It was a natural thing for me to go into musical theatre really, I have a background in singing and acting. I used to sing in choirs and Gilbert and Sullivan operas when I was an amateur. I learnt that if you want to survive in this business you have to use everything you know and since I can sing, I had to use that in my career.
Do you have an all-time favourite musical or character?
My all-time favourite musical growing up was The Jungle Book! The film of The Jungle Book came out when I was a teenager and I remember I would sneak into the back way of my local cinema and watch free showings of films one after another because I loved it so much! I can still sing every word.
Would you like to play any of these roles?
I would love to play Alfred Dootlittle in My Fair Lady. That is the one that got away from me really. Gareth played that role on the Cameron Mackintosh tour in 2006 and it is the only time I have been jealous of him! Hopefully one day – I am the right age to do it and I can certainly sing the two songs in the show. Hairspray has proven to me that I am physically able to get up there and do it every night, eight times a week.
“We had to learn how to do television”
What do you consider your greatest achievement or highlight of our career away from the stage?
Gareth and I, Hale and Pace, won the Rose d’Or Light Entertainment Festival Award in 1990 which meant that it gave us another 10-15 years on the television. As an international entertainment award, our show ended up being sold all around the world which meant we were able to go to Australia, New Zealand, Canada to perform. It kept us going for a long time. We have been back to Australia quite a few times to do our cabaret show which we have refined over the years. We began as cabaret comedy sketch performers then we had to learn how to do television. What was in our blood was standing there and performing live in front of people.
2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the original film starring Ricki Lake, Debbie Harry and Jerry Stiller on which the musical is based, if you could adapt any film into a musical which one would it be?
Tough question! Once Upon A Time in America, with Robert De Niro singing and dancing in it.