Above: Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, co-writers of new musical – The Girls
In the New Year Sardines was invited to attend an exclusive rehearsal of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical, The Girls, which happens to be previewing at London’s Phoenix Theatre right now.
With both writers in attendance, producer David Pugh, the West End cast, as well as the ‘real’ W.I. calendar girls, Paul Johnson got the lowdown on the new show and how the story about a group of Yorkshire women has come to be so intrinsically linked to amateur theatre.
In 1999 eleven members of Rylstone & District Women’s Institute in Yorkshire had the idea of posing nude for a 2000 calendar in order to raise some extra funds for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, following the death of W.I. member Angela Baker’s husband, John, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the previous year.
The story of this ‘alternative’ W.I. calendar soon became national, international and then world news, resulting in sales of over 200,000 which, in turn, led to a multi-award-winning film in 2003 called Calendar Girls with a screenplay by Tim Firth. Featuring a star-studded British cast including Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Geraldine James, the film grossed almost $100m worldwide. But of course the story doesn’t end there…
The next incarnation of this unlikely tale came about when the Calendar Girls stage play, also adapted by Tim Firth, opened in the West End in 2009 on the back of a preview at Chichester and national tour. Following its London run, the play once more toured theatres around the UK for the next three years. During its professional life the play has featured a conveyor-belt of famous faces all willing to strip for the stage, including Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Anita Dobson, June Brown, Jerry Hall, Jill Halfpenny, Arabella Weir, Janie Dee, Kelly Brook, Julie Goodyear, Letitia Dean, Gwen Taylor, Jennifer Ellison, Ruth Madoc, Lisa Riley, Gemma Craven, Sue Holderness, Charlie Dimmock, Lesley Joseph, Michelle Collins, Kacey Ainsworth… and far too many more to mention.
Then, in 2012, something very special happened. An initiative was launched where amateur societies could apply for licenses to perform Calendar Girls for a strictly limited 12-month window. However, this was quickly revised and expanded to 18 months after Samuel French’s licensing records were immediately smashed when the performing rights holders received over 500 applications even before the 1st September start date had arrived. Over the next 18 months almost 700 amateur productions were staged, with a share of each respective licensing fee going to Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (now called Bloodwise). Societies up and down the country took the play to their hearts with the majority organising extra charity ‘bucket’ collections during their respective runs.
Producer, David Pugh, who was behind 2012’s performing rights release, is a big amateur theatre fan: “It goes back to when I was nine and was a member of Endon Dramatic Society in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire,” he enthuses. “We did When We Are Married and I was on props, and we won the Noda award I think it was. So for me I’ve always supported amateur dramatics, and their support is enormous. This story, this musical, lends itself to everything those societies stand for. Also, how many times do your readers say to themselves, ‘I wish there were more parts for ladies.’ Well there are now, but there’s also parts for husbands and sons and daughters as well, so we hope we’re giving it to you all. When the play was released to amateur societies over that 18-month period we were entered into the Guinness Book of Records, and I hope that all the groups who are coming to see the new musical from all over the country are going to love it.”
Tim Firth, writer of the screenplay, stage adaptation and now co-writer of the new musical, The Girls, also has nothing but admiration for what amateur societies achieved during that magical 18-month period. I ask him for his thoughts on amateur theatre’s relationship with Calendar Girls. “First of all – one of thanks,” responds the playwright. “Massive thanks. I’m personally very indebted to the amateurs. When the 18-month window closed to amateur performances various members of the groups met and I went and sat in that room. There were hundreds of actors who had played the same part all talking to each another, and you realised that the play is a metaphor for something stronger. Just the way the actors need to look after each other on stage and bond, not only because unusually there are seven women driving the show who spend a huge amount of time together, but when they come to do the nudity scenes, they will only work if everyone is working for everybody else as a team.”
This brings us nicely to this latest ‘musical’ chapter of the story… The Girls, which is previewing now, officially opens at London’s Phoenix Theatre on 21st February and comes at the end of a long and carefully planned road. Co-writers Gary Barlow and Tim Firth grew up in the same village in the north of England and have been friends for over 25 years, before BBC1’s new Saturday night star was setting out on the path to world domination with Take That. The idea for a musical came to Tim Firth while he was at that amateur theatre ‘after-show’ party: “Somewhere in that I kind of thought, ‘There’s something I still want to revisit in this,’ because if you could make this work as a musical it would give you time to spend with the characters one-to-one; the songs will allow it.”
Gary Barlow agrees. “I could hear the music straight away and I thought it should be a massive part of this story. I think the music takes the whole thing to another level.” Tim goes on to explain how the plot of the new musical is also very different to the play so familiar with amateurs everywhere. “The idea of injecting music into the story suddenly changed everything, so people who know the play will appreciate the fact that the photo shoot that used to end act one is now right at the end of the show, and it gave us all the space to spend more time on the stories of husbands and the kids, and paint a village green musical for a worldwide audience.”
Tim and Gary penned scores of songs to enable them to select a dozen or so for the finished production. “We started off literally writing songs for two years before we ever set foot in the direction of the story,” explains Tim. “There’s a part of our laptop now which has got 76 songs at the last count of which the show only uses 12 or 13.” Gary adds, “It’s funny, it never felt like we were working, which is I guess how it should be.” David Pugh also gives an insight into how the show was developed way before it ever got near the West End: “We’ve been work-shopping this show for five years now since Gary and Tim started writing it. Then, two years ago we went up to Burnsall Village Hall [North Yorkshire] and we sold out – all 75 seats! We went there because we wanted an audience to hear it, and what can be better than to take it to Yorkshire where the folk certainly tell you what they think. Our original calendar girls were all there and their husbands, who all told us what they thought… and since then it’s actually change quite a bit. We took on board a lot of what was said to us. Then we went to do a tryout in Leeds and the Lowry and even since then – thanks to digital technology – we know that 26% has changed. And we will continue to try and improve it, to listen to our audiences. It’s only by listening that we can achieve what we set out to do.”
Gary and Tim talk to me more about why they were determined to try their show out in a village hall. And would you believe, the pair have had amateur theatre at the back of their minds since day one. What’s more we can reveal that it’s definitely coming our way! We’ll let them open in the West End first, but prepare for another licensing frenzy somewhere down the line… “The truth is… What we can confidently say is that… you WILL absolutely be able to do it,” announces Tim, who is also directing the show. “We started this whole process in an amateur dramatic hall with just a piano because we needed to know that the story would work in the simplest format. If it works in that most rudimentary form, knowing that some amateur groups can only produce musicals on a small scale, then it would still work. So we did it in this village hall where John Baker used to do amateur dramatics himself – it’s perfect. And we found that it stood up didn’t it?” Gary immediately confirms, “Yeah, I think from the day we started looking at this together as a musical, the keyword was simplicity, especially musically because it’s a very humble, gorgeous village story. The idea of putting a big bombastic, sweeping musical together just seemed wrong and so we always said if we can do this whole show with just an acoustic guitarist or just a pianist then that’s how it should live. I know okay, we’re going to have twelve in our [West End] pit, but we could actually just have one and it would still translate perfectly.” Tim comes straight back, “When we did it in the village hall we had a piano, a double bass and the little drum kit; it was the simplest format. We didn’t write any parts apart from the piano, so they found their own notes and that was it. A big beacon for us was Blood Brothers, which you could do with a guitar – that’s what it was written on. You don’t need anything else and, my God, if the story’s strong enough, the characters are strong enough, the comedy and the heart of it, then that’s all you need.”
Heading up the cast of The Girls, in the roles of Annie and Chris are two of the country’s most talented theatre stars, Joanna Riding (who won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical twice for her roles as Julie in Carousel at the NT and as Eliza Doolitle in My Fair Lady) and Claire Moore (who originated the role of Ellen in Miss Saigon and also Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Fantine and Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables and the NT’s award-winning London Road). Other familiar names making up the rest of the girls include Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, The Ladykillers, Nell Gwynn), Debbie Chazen (Topsy-Turvy, Smoking Room, Psychoville), Sophie-Louise Dann (Bend It Like Beckham, Made in Dagenham, Lend me a Tenor), and Claire Machin (My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Betty Blue Eyes).
The cast are quick to heap praise on the West End’s newest writing partnership. “It’s the way Tim writes,” Joanna Riding tells me. “While I love the songs from My Fair Lady, there’s a sort of alchemy that happened between Gary and Tim. And Tim’s lyrics are so honest. Often when you’re singing a song with great sadness or great joy it’s full of platitudes and sweeping statements… ‘My heart breaks…’ and, ‘How can I go on…’ Here, he talks honestly about the little things, really truthful honest things that ordinary people would say. And being a northern lass, Tim writes in a way how people really do respond. Cups of tea. It’s the little things. He’s an extraordinary writer in that way. There’s a song I sing called Kilimanjaro when John is gone, and Chris, for the first time ever has let me down. It’s time for Annie, who has always been in Annie’s shadow, to step up for John. And the lyrics; I have never enjoyed singing a song so much because every single word means so much. I never get tired of singing it, never, because every time it rings so true, it’s such a brutally honest song, so beautifully written – and the tune. Everything has come together to be the most beautiful song I think I’ve ever been able to sing in my life, what a privilege.
“Gary’s music is gorgeous as well,” Joanna continues. “People have a signature don’t they, like when you listen to a John Williams piece, there is something about it that you recognise instantly. Every so often I hear a little bit of Take That which is great because it’s modern and contemporary, and with that coming through it’s what these ladies have listened to for the last twenty years. I think the fact that he and Tim go back such a long way, and that they’re mates, and on the same page, and both Northern lads, and that Gary writes lyrics as well as music and Tim is very musical on top of being a writer, all makes it work so well. It wasn’t a case of there are some lyrics, put some music to that. They’d get an idea, throw it one way, then Gary would mess with it and throw it back and so on.”
Claire Moore also doesn’t take much arm-twisting to chat about pop music’s golden boy and his chum: “Tim never allows it to get sentimental; every time there’s a moment for tears he’ll put a laugh in which undercuts it, it’s just glorious writing. He is such a collaborator and even now you can go to him with a fresh idea; he’s so open. Gary might not be from a theatre background but his songs are quite theatrical. Gary’s songs tell a story, they have a real narrative and I think that’s perfect. I think it’s lovely that you’ve a bunch of older women basically going home singing Gary Barlow songs, but that’s what we do! We are really doing it and people are going to be coming to see us, I can’t wait!” Neither can Michelle Dotrice who adds, “Gary’s music is so rooted in Yorkshire, so rooted, and it’s not remotely ‘poppy’ in any way. With Tim’s beautiful words which are so real and so conversational… I just think it’s so damn clever; he’s so good at capturing real people and bringing that through in his lyrics. He so ‘matter of fact’ and not actorish or poncy in any way. It’s just so incredibly written; you get the pathos, you get the heartbreak, but you have the wonderful solidarity of these women.” Michelle then manages to sum up the magic in a single sentence, “You needed a friendship like Gary and Tim’s to put this musical together; you couldn’t have done it in a purely commercial way. It’s a very special relationship, that one.”
With such a distinguished and experienced cast at my disposal I can’t resist asking them how they feel about the hundreds of amateur societies planning trips to the West End as we speak – to watch the very roles many of them will already have played and will now have an eye on reprising. “How terrifying! Thanks a bunch,” is the hilarious response from the woman once married to Frank Spencer. “We are scuppered aren’t we; I could have done without this information. But isn’t that interesting, it’s a total merry-go-round isn’t it. They’re all going to be waiting to perform the show themselves, but that’s wonderful really. It’s bad enough for me not being a singer – that’s probably my biggest fear. Probably more than the stripping, I mean with this body it doesn’t matter, ha ha! I feel sorry for the audience. It’s definitely the singing I’m worried about – terrified.”
Meanwhile, Claire Moore appears to be more excited than nervous. “They’re all so going to want to do this show,” she beams. “It’s quite an honour to provide the template for the role which so many people are going to have their eye on performing in the future. I really hope the groups of people who come down love it. We had quite a few who came along to see us when we were at Leeds and then Manchester. I wonder how long it will be before amateurs get the chance to do the musical. Probably not for a while, we haven’t even opened in the West End yet …unless we close, God forbid, you never know in this business.”
Joanna Riding has a slightly more philosophic view while recognising the huge relevance to amateur theatre: “Of course the play’s been very popular hasn’t it with amateur societies. And I bet there are loads of copycat calendars floating around out there! It’s going to be amazing having so many groups who have already performed the play coming down to see us. They’ve been up there, done it themselves and they know how it feels. It’s funny, I hadn’t actually thought of it like that because what Tim and Gary have written is so far removed from the play – and I think that’s why they called it The Girls – they really wanted a fresh retelling of it. Our characters, apart from Chris and Annie, and one or two of the others, have been redrawn slightly. So in a way they’ll be coming to see something really fresh. If you ask me this in five years’ time when we’ve all done the show, we’ve all been at it, then it’ll be a different story; we’d have all played those songs and made them our own. I guess that being the first to play the part and sing the songs means, I guess, I’m quite free of feeling that responsibility but, having said that, the responsibility to the real girls is massive.”
Those of you who read our previous issue will be only too aware that just seven days after The Girls officially opens, less than a mile away at The Vaudeville Theatre, Amanda Holden and friends will be opening in Stepping Out – bizarrely also set in a village hall and featuring a group of everyday women. When I spoke with her, Amanda Holden even referred to Stepping Out as “Calendar Girls in Tap Shoes!” I wonder if our sunflower-wearing gang up the road are as aware. Joanna Riding plays it very innocently, “It hadn’t occurred to me, but yes, how extraordinary! The audience are going to be spoilt for choice aren’t they? Once I get into rehearsals I’m very blinkered so I haven’t really been aware, but that’s quite hilarious actually; you’ve got Amanda’s star power versus Gary’s star power, the battle of the reality judges!”
While Claire Moore is aware of the coincidence she can only see the positives: “Isn’t it great! It’s like London buses just with ladies of a certain age, all shapes and sizes. But it’s fantastic, and there’s room for both because they’re two very different shows; of course if they were opening with Calendar Girls then it would be different. But it’s fantastic, and these wonderful roles for women, older women as well. Alleluia!”
The last word, however, can really only go to Tim Firth and Gary Barlow, who probably also get to ‘drop the mic’.
Tim: “In truth it’s probably to do with the fact that there are so few musicals or plays where women completely drive the show. We were going to do a tap dancing nude finale but we just couldn’t fit it in…”
Gary: “…and I’m the only one who knows how to tap dance! We didn’t have the time, I can’t teach everyone…”
Tim: “Yep, then the council moved in as well and wouldn’t allow it…”
Gary: “…Ha ha ha!”
For dates, tickets and more info visit: www.thegirlsmusical.com
…A Few Final Thoughts…
“I can tell you that the original ladies continue to raise money for Bloodwise, and with our cast and their buckets, in the five weeks when we tried it out in Leeds and at the Lowry they raised £75,000 which is an incredible achievement. That will continue as the musical gives to Bloodwise a share of the profits through weekly royalties as well as the bucket collections, which is very exciting as the ladies are very very nearly up to £5m. So I would like to thank them for letting us tell their story.”
David Pugh (Producer – Calendar Girls & The Girls)
“I think the thing to get right, the really important thing, is the relationship between Annie and Chris, to have what Trish and Angela have. Claire and I go back a long way and we are really good mates and that seems to come across. We are both Northern lasses, and we met quite early on in our careers and we adore each other. That doesn’t always carry on stage but in the previous
incarnation where we did the show in Manchester and Leeds, it seemed that that was working. That was really important to us; that’s the core of it. That friendship is the core of the piece.”
Joanna Riding (Annie)
“We’ve been really lucky on every level. But I think the most important thing about it, the most wonderful thing, is that we are doing a bit of good in the name of some amazing people. John Baker’s memory is alive and well, and for his family, that is an amazing thing. We never knew him but we feel as if we did, and to contribute to something that they did is a really great feeling.”
Claire Moore (Chris)
“When I was asked to do it I must confess thinking, ‘Do we need another Calendar Girls when we’ve already had the film and the play? Do we really need a musical?’ Yes, we do! It has such an element to it now that they’ve broadened it out to the husbands and the children. You get the real scope of this village, this community. So you understand these women’s back stories; some of them can’t do what they’ve been asked to do because of how their home life is, or whatever. You get to understand. It’s not just the six women, there’s a back story to them all which is wonderful.”
Michele Dotrice (Jessie)