Rebecca Storm: ‘I don’t know if I’d be able to start a career as a singer now’
The singer reveals how she got the ‘Blood Brothers’ gig 30 years ago, and why she’s no fan of TV talent shows
Rebecca Storm: ‘TV shows weren’t cruel back then, but watching X Factor today can make you uncomfortable.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
In 1984, on a wet February morning, Rebecca Storm took a bus from Leeds to Manchester’s Palace Theatre. A huge queue snaked around the block. Like the 500 other women who had shown up, Storm (born Elizabeth Hewlett) was there to audition for a role in Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers.
“It my first audition and I had never head of the musical, nor Willy Russell, and if I’d known what I was auditioning for, I’d never have gone,” says Storm. The role was that of Mrs Johnstone, and although Storm was in her early 20s, the character was a Catholic mother of seven. Storm recalls her legs were shaking, but Russell was transfixed, and cast her immediately.
Her voice obviously marked her out, but Storm jokes that he might have had another motive. “I sang The Second Time, which Tim Rice had written for Elaine Paige. Willy has been quoted since as saying the reason I got the part was because I was the only girl that didn’t sing Memory.”
Storm laughs in between trying not to fidget as her PA tongs her hair for the photographer’s arrival.
She was born into a family of girls in Yorkshire. Her mother loved to sing, but was forbidden from doing so it by her strict grandfather. Two of her sisters are musical, one dances and writes, but they were “never the Von Trapps”, she says.
“I realised I really loved singing when I was about 11, but I’m told I sang when I was aged two and still in my high chair. There were a lot of factors in me becoming a singer. I went to Baptist church, and joined the choir and a had a music teacher in school who encouraged me.”
Blood Brothers anniversary
This year marks the 30th anniversary of that Blood Brothers audition, but Storm’s singing career began in the 1970s on the talent show Search for a Star. With a small band, she began to play regularly in Yorkshire’s social clubs. “I got paid £20 a night for singing, and for a girl in college, that was a lot. I tried working in Asda on a till, but I broke all my nails and only got paid £15 for the entire week.”
TV talent shows were a different beast to the behemoths they are now. Storm says there was an innocence then, and the show’s motivation was about finding someone with a gift rather than a backstory to pull at an audience’s heartstrings.
“TV shows weren’t cruel back then, but watching X Factor today can make you uncomfortable. Someone like Leona Lewis is fantastic, but if I was trying to break into it now, I think I’d focus more on my songwriting.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to start a career as a singer now. I might have got a small part in a musical, but I wouldn’t go for stardom. There are too many people chasing it, and they’re all so assured, and convinced they’re already great, but you don’t see all the people who don’t make it.”
Storm has had her own career ups and downs, but has worked consistently, playing some of musical theatre’s great roles, from Fantine in Les Misérables to Miss Hannigan in Annie and Florence in Chess.
Storm has returned to Mrs Johnstone 13 times. She has played the role when she was both “too young and too old”.
Like the film industry, do interesting roles for women dry up as they get older?
“It narrows, of course, but I wouldn’t want to be someone who moans about it, although it definitely exists. You have to choose suitable characters, so I’d opt for a role in Sunset Boulevard or Gypsy.”
Next month Storm plays a one-night-only show that combines her classic repertoire with newer material by young artists, and she gets very animated at the idea of tackling Snow Patrol’s Run and songs by Paloma Faith and Lily Allen.
The show takes place at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, where we sit looking out over the city. Storm lives in Ireland with her musician husband, Kenny Shearer. “What I love about Dublin [she gestures out the window] is that it has a big-city feel with a small warmth about it. I love Cork for the same reason. I feel at home in Ireland, and couldn’t go back to Yorkshire. What would I do there?”
Rebecca Storm plays the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin on February 16