Gary peddles his musical wares

Gary Wilmot in Oklahoma!
Gary Wilmot in Oklahoma!

Celebrating the vigour of America’s pioneering spirit with classic tunes and foot stomping dances, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great feel-good musical Oklahoma! opens at the Lyceum next week.

Oklahoma! tells the story of two sets of star-crossed lovers. Cowboy Curly loves Laurey but so does mysterious and dangerous hired hand Jud Fry.  Meanwhile, Ado Annie is torn between cowboy Will and pedlar Ali Hakim.

I’ve never stood on a soapbox speaking about black issues

That’s the part that Gary Wilmot is playing. “He’s a very forgettable character actually,” laughs the musical star. “There’s so many wonderful things in this show and that’s my task really, to try and put Ali Hakim on the map.

“He goes from town to town peddling his wares with his trolley and we’ve come to the conclusion that he is probably not Persian, he just uses it as a way of being more exotic to these simple people who live on these farms and charming the ladies.”

Though it’s an ideal comic part for Wilmot, there might have been a time when he could have played Curly since he seems to have been a pioneer of ‘blind casting.‘

“Well, of course, I’m far too old for all of that but it is funny the career I’ve had,“ he agrees. “Maybe it’s bad for me but I’ve never stood on a soapbox and spoken about black issues. I was talking to Paul Grunert who plays my potential father-in-law in this. He was saying it is amazing the roles you’ve played.

“It’s true. I didn’t think I was the archetypal cockney character from 1937 (Me and My Girl) and then there was Fagin, of course. He said, it’s funny you know, I never look at you as black. And I don’t feel that. I was raised by a white mother in a white community and feel very British and proud to be and like many people I don’t hanker for roots.

“I’m very lucky, people seem to have said, ‘oh Gary Wilmot, he can do that’. Like playing a Frenchman in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The Pajama Game. I can’t imagine there were too many time and motion study men in the period that was set who were black.

“I consider myself very lucky to have had a career as a leading man in musical theatre and even plays. Lord Arthur Savile’s Crimes, my god, playing Septimus Podgers, the seventh son of a seventh.”

Gary Wilmot first made his name on TV on New Faces. “I wasn’t trained at all, I came from doing cabaret in the clubs.

“Then when variety was beginning to ebb away on television along came Me and My Girl and although it was a very modern production it still retained a lot of its variety origins from Drury Lane.

“I was born in Lambeth and my school was actually within the Lambeth Walk so if I wasn’t Bill Snibsons I knew a lot of Bill Snibsons so it was easy for me on that score.”

“It was a great stepping stone for me, moving from variety into musical theatre,“ he says. “That was in 1989 and from then on this is what I have been doing.”