The sporty one speaks out about her acclaimed performance in Jesus Christ Superstar
Seventeen years after she famously backflipped across a banquet table in the music video for the Spice Girls’ debut single ‘Wannabe’, Melanie Chisholm can still get it done. Witness the YouTube video released by the cast of British arena musical Jesus Christ Superstar this March: as actors and dancers convulse and kick to the wobbly beat of the ‘Harlem Shake’, Chisholm – her head covered in a mop of dreadlocks that marks her as a very modern Mary Magdalene – flips effortlessly across the front of the stage. It was the first flip she’d done since the final show of the Spice Girls reunion tour at Madison Square Garden in 2008, just before the group disbanded once more in an explosion of rumours and cancelled dates. “I hadn’t done it in five years,” Chisholm says of her signature move. “It wasn’t the best backflip ever. But I really wanted to do it. And I did.”
It’s not surprising that Chisholm is still capable of flipping at the age of 39. Not only is she as fit as you’d expect someone nicknamed ‘Sporty’ to be – she’s firm and sharp in the flesh – but there’s a steel there that neither gravity nor age looks likely to conquer. She’s the only Spice still doggedly pursuing a solo career some 13 years after the group’s last studio album. She’s the Spice who publicly battled depression and bulimia and rumours about her sexuality for more than a decade and came out the other side. And in 2012 she became the Spice with the audacity to take on one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre, playing the New Testament’s most controversial figure in a mega-budget arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
She got raves, the musical made a motza and now it’s on its way to Australia.
“I always had aspirations to do musical theatre,” says Chisholm, who played Grace in Annie and a crow in The Wiz as a kid (she was a great crow, she assures us). “I was always drawn to strong female roles. And ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ [Magdalene’s big moment] is such an incredible song; to be able to play her is an absolute honour.”
The third musical collaboration between a then 21-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyricist Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a concept album based on the last week of Jesus’ life, all told from the perspective of an angsty Judas. And it was a smash – Superstar was the highest-selling album in the US in 1971. “It was such a huge part of my generation growing up,” says Chisholm, who remembers first hearing Lloyd Webber’s songs on her mum’s vinyl as a kid (mum Joan is a pub singer). She later caught Norman Jewison’s 1973 film on TV, and the songs seeped in. “When we came into rehearsals I thought I didn’t know the show that well. Then you hear all the songs and you’re like, ‘Of course I know all this!’”
While the film and early stage versions were set back in biblical times, director Laurence Connor transplanted the story of the rockstar Christ to modern-day London for the 2012 arena tour. And so Tim Minchin is a dreadlocked Judas in a story pulsing with visual references to the Occupy movement and the 2011 London riots – anti-capitalist graffiti, riot cops, leather jackets aplenty. “When we first met the director and he was telling us his ideas we were thinking, ‘Is he nuts?”’ says Chisholm. “But it really helps the characters and the things they’re going through resonate with the audience. It’s relevant to them, it’s not set thousands of years ago… or in the ’70s.”
Chisholm was in Germany when the riots took place and watched it unfold on her hotel-room TV. “It was really scary being out of the country and seeing those scenes, and when we returned I don’t think there was any part of London that wasn’t affected. Half a mile from where I live there were windows boarded up – it was a really scary time for the UK. It wasn’t really until last summer, when we had such a good year in the UK with the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games, that people started to feel really positive about the country again.”
Last year was a big one too for the former Sporty Spice: she famously reunited with the rest of the Spice rack for the closing ceremony of the Games; Viva Forever, the Jennifer Saunders-penned jukebox musical based on the Spice Girls back catalogue, opened on the West End; and Chisholm landed a plum role alongside Dawn French, Jason Donovan and Lloyd Webber as a talent show judge on the ITV series Superstar. There she was tasked with finding her eventual co-star – the man who would be Christ.
The sandals would go to Ben Forster, also coming to Australia for the tour, and Chisholm was delighted with the outcome. “I tried my best to influence the public to pick Ben but it could have gone any way. His vocal ability is astounding and he’s a wonderful actor and a really nice guy – all important things, you know, when you’re working with somebody.” Were there any contestants she was praying wouldn’t win? “Oh my god, more than one!” she says, laughing. “Someone would say, ‘Imagine if it’s him!’ And we’d be like, ‘Please no! Nooooo!’”
The shift to reality TV was an interesting move for Chisholm, who'd taken a swipe at the genre in the Daily Express in 2010 for overexposing newcomers who had a lot of talent but whose music was not as “great as it could and should be”. “I was always so scathing of [reality shows] and in the early days it used to rile me that they really exploited the people that were on them. But I think now they’ve been going for so long and the public is so savvy that contestants know what they’re in for. And if they don’t, they should. I don’t have any sympathy anymore.”
Speaking of overexposed newcomers… the huge success of the Spice Girls took its toll on Chisholm (for details, see your supermarket magazine stand circa 2000 to now). After the group split, she spoke openly to the press about battling depression and bulimia, a decision she seems to struggle with today. “Sometimes I think, ‘God, people must be sick to death of hearing me talking about it – but I don’t offer up the information, I get asked. At the time [of the Spice Girls], our lives didn’t feel like they were our own, and because of the nature of the problems I was having, I felt like I wanted people to know the reasons I was looking or behaving a certain way. I wanted to get it off my chest. The silver lining of that is that I remember, before I really confronted my problems, that if I read a story about someone who has an eating disorder, it would make me feel like I wasn’t alone. And now it’s incredible because I still get letters or Tweets or Facebook messages from people saying it helped them that somebody else spoke about it. If it’s helped someone go and get help and get better, then it’s only a good thing.”
The Spice Girls' success has also cast a shadow on her solo career. While Melanie C’s first album out the gate, Northern Star, soared on the back of singles like ‘Never Be the Same Again’ (#1 in the UK, #2 in Australia), her second effort, Reason, sold relatively poorly. She split with her label, Virgin, shortly after and established Red Girl Records through which has released four more records as an independent. “It’s really hard,” she says, “because when you’re part of something as successful as the Spice Girls, you have this warped sense of what ‘success’ is. I went from selling millions of records to selling hundreds of thousands of records. I’m really ambitious and I believe in my work – I think I’ve made some really good records. But that doesn’t always mean they’re going to be successful, so it’s really frustrating.”
It’s tempting to see Jesus Christ Superstar, for which the former Spice Girl has received glowing reviews – “Melanie C… proves again that she was too good for the Spice Girls” said The Telegraph – as a bit of a resurrection. (Sorry...) But Chisholm had already established herself on the West End in 2009. Playing Mrs Johnstone in the musical Blood Brothers in her first ever acting role (if we don’t count the underrated Spice World), Chisholm had critics on their feet during curtain call and was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical at the Olivier Awards. She won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Magdalene at this year's whatsonstage.com awards.
“I never expected the nomination for Blood Brothers and it wasn’t the reason I did it,” she says. “But it was so lovely because it feels like an acceptance into the theatre world, which in London can be very snobby, especially coming from a pop-rock background. I did it as a personal challenge, and I still feel like a beginner when it comes to acting. I'm still cutting my teeth."
Jesus Christ Superstar, Sydney Entertainment Centre, 7-9 Jun 2013.