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OUR DAY OUT - THE MUSICAL
Our Day Out - The Musical 2010
Peter Grant Interview
Peter Grant is a freelance journalist who resides in the North West and writes for local newpapers and often comments on Liverpool Life. Peter interviewed Willy Russell prior to the opening of Our Day Out - The Musical at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre. We reproduce it with his kind permission.
Willy Russell sits in a rehearsal studio in London (Road, that is) Liverpool.
His round glasses perched on top of his silver-haired head.
I’m just about to talk to him when he stops and says, “excuse me” and strides off to the adjoining room where beautiful choral harmonies are flowing out.
I am thinking how great this all sounds.
He comes back in and says: “they were singing the wrong lyrics. “
I didn’t notice.
He wrote them.
But he has sorted it.
A bit of the teacher coming out in Mr Russell.
Willy is ‘hands on’ – through and through.
So why is the poet, painter, playwright and singer-songwriter bringing back Our Day Out – The Musical?
Granted, it has a new life now – already a Royal Court box office record-breaking musical.
But he could be on holiday in Portugal.
This show, like all his other productions, is very close to him.
“I wanted to differentiate it from the version that’s been knocking around for about thirty years, which is a play with some songs. That’s why it’s now called, It’s called Our Day Out - The Musical. I wanted to set myself the challenge of having the words ‘The Musical’ in the title, so that we couldn’t duck it – we couldn’t get by being a play with songs. The audience had to feel as though they’d been AT a musical, and I think even when you saw it last year you would agree that you’d actually been at a musical.”
Willy, who updated Stags and Hens with a Royal Court Re-Mix, is aware that he needs to update and theatrically ‘tweak’ some of his classics.
“Well, in this Our Day Out (The Musical) they go to Alton Towers – they don’t go as a matter or course to Conway. I didn’t sit down and say ‘how can I update it?’ What I did think was . . . . ‘what would be happening TODAY?’
“Basically, what the kids do, how they interact, is exactly the same as it was in the television film – back the way it was when I was a kid on those trips, fifty or more years ago. . . back even when they probably used a horse and cart, before the invention of the coach. Human beings are human beings. Kids are kids. The veneer is different, contemporary detail and that’s why we acknowledge the mobile, the digital camera – the camera’s a particularly big element in the production, given what Briggs ultimately does to the pictures.“
Unlike some theatre types, Willy is more than happy to work with children and animals?
“The stage management were talking very early on about why couldn’t we use soft toys instead of real animals. But that doesn’t work, Bob Eaton ( co-composer and the show’s director ) had seen a production down in the Midlands that used fake animals and it was risible. It was a previous director, Glen Walford, who set the bench mark at the Playhouse when she did a production in the early nineties. I went to a dress rehearsal and there was this menagerie on stage.”
“I said to Glen, “Don’t you think that’s a bit over-the-top?”
She said: “You haven’t seen the pig yet.”
“And then this pig walks on to the stage, and, all credit to Glen, and to other directors because the audiences were just absolutely swept away by it. It’s the audacity of it. I was with Bob one night after we’d been rehearsing. We were working late going over some stuff in the Eureka restaurant – about half past eight – and I’m sitting facing the window – Bob’s got his back to it, and I said to him: “You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen – an eleven-year-old walking past the window with an eight foot python around him, as though it were of no consequence whatsoever!”
Willy has gone on record as saying that Our Day Out – The Musical has been one of his most enjoyable working experiences.
“It’s partly that old cliché - the joy of working with young people. They’ve not been working long enough to have acquired the kind of baggage that seems to often weigh older people down. And at the same time they’re fantastically disciplined; they’re young professionals, and in the year we’ve been working with them they’ve become very dedicated, highly-skilled, professional, so you get all that plus in the rehearsal room, the kids go into the first number and it’s like opening night at the London Palladium. There’s no holding back. . . it’s irresistible.”
Willy says that he never had any doubts, when invited, to bring this work back.
“Bob and I have talked about doing it for about thirty years, and over the years we tried different versions. The one we did at the Everyman was terrific and it played really well but it wasn’t the full musical that we really wanted to see.”
“And then when Bob was artistic director at Coventry, we tried it down there in the mid nineties – Glen directed it – and we did some good work on it then although didn’t fully get to where we wanted to be. We were simply defeated by time and the enormity ( or plain madness! ) of trying to stage a new full scale musical within the constraints of regional rep. After Coventry we all intended getting back together within a couple of years and get it all sorted, but as happens, we all went off to work on different things. It was only when Bob got back to Liverpool, working at the Royal Court, that we started to talk again about the possibility of Our Day Out – The Musical; it was still a long journey though because when I decided we were going to do it at the Royal Court, I virtually wrote a paper saying this is THE way WE have to approach it - I’d seen too many regional musicals flounder because they’d been forced into the straight-jacket of the three to four week rehearsal period.”
“And you can’t do a new musical in that time.”
“It’s a big beast – a musical, you can’t even begin to do it in that time.
We had to build a company, and we had to thrash out the vocabulary of the show – not just the dialogue, but the whole visual vocabulary of it.
And, to that end, we started the auditions-come-workshops in the January of last year, and at the end of February we had our core company, and we were work- shopping every single week from then on. As we were writing songs, we were taking them to the workshops so that the kids, the cast became familiar with them before we even got to rehearsals. At the same time, Bev (Edmunds, the show’s choreographer and co-director ) was beginning to explore routines and through that I was learning more and more about dance and what dance could achieve in a musical. Until last January, I never thought I’d be a great champion of dance in a musical, but now I can get it danced – rather than spoken – and I just love to see it because kids dance so naturally now. When I was a kid you didn’t - it was an embarrassment to dance. You did the slowy at the end of the night in order to cop off, that was about all, “Now TV’s full of dance shows – kids today understand dance.”
So you could say that with this show you learned a new form of expression.
“Absolutely. The first workshop was at the Royal Court, on the completely bare stage which is massive. When I walked in, Bev had about eighty auditionees on stage, and she cranked this stereo system to about two thousand decibels of drum and bass track and had these eighty kids moving in sequence and rhythm and it was just so visceral and, for me, so unexpected. I’d never imagined that we’d be employing the language of street dance or even the drum and bass feel that was thundering around the building. But, immediately I knew that if we were really going to make Our Day Out – The Musical and if we really were going to make it of now then this was the way we had to go – using dance and writing this kind of music. At the same time I also knew that it could be very dangerous – Bob and I composing this kind of music – because if we got it wrong it could be plain embarrassing, the equivalent of Dad, dancing at the disco! We just didn’t want to get it wrong because if you write that kind of music and you’re not on top of it, you’re not inside it.”
And so was this in some way, you going beyond your comfort zone?
“Very much so. I’d walked into that first audition day with some kind of notion of the musical that I was going to write but it didn’t include the big, long opening numbers, like the rap track, because before that January I’d not imagined I’d be doing that. It’s wonderful to be pushed hard out of that comfort zone; it’s truly wonderful to be challenged like that. Terrifying as well, though because at the same time I was cacking it! I didn’t start work until about four weeks after that because I was just depressed, I thought ‘I just can’t do it, this is too big a reach for me – it’s a younger man’s job.”
“Eventually, though, through false starts, what I did was I realised I was coming at the music the wrong way. I was trying to write it, as I usually do, on keyboards, or guitar; but the kind of music I knew we had to have ( if the show was truly going to be set now ) is the kind of music that begins primarily with rhythm, with a drum track. So I got Howard, who was going to be our musical director, to record me some drum loops, in various tempos that I wanted, and I just sat by a computer with these different drum tracks, and then started to put melody on top of that, then tentatively started to put spoken rap in over that. Once I had the beginning of something I’d send it to Bob who’d then take a pass at what I’d done and add ideas of his own and then send it back to me and out of that back and forth process the style started to emerge and the songs began to happen and I finally thought ‘yes you CAN do this.’ “
Can we expect an album of the show’s songs?
“We were in the middle of recording the album, but by the time we’d cast it, all our energies were on getting the show ready for rehearsals, getting the set sorted out, story-boarding a lot of the stuff before we got into rehearsals, and so I’m sorry to say the album’s been left hanging. We’ve got a six track promotional CD - available at the theatre - but the full album depends on what happens to the show in the future, whether it plays again at the Royal Court, or moves somewhere else and has a longer life - I’m sure there’ll be an album if that happens.”
And a UK tour?
“Well, it’s certainly something that everybody wants to do. I wouldn’t countenance it last year because I didn’t want that kind of pressure and I think it would have been too much to bear. I mean everybody was saying - how did we do it last year? Nobody knew what the show was – we were carving it out of this big block of marble. This year feels like luxury because everybody in the rehearsal room, even those actors who weren’t in it last year have seen it, so they know what they’re heading towards – they know what they are trying to build. Last year it was kind of crazy.
Hands on Willy always takes feedback on board – the good and bad.
“There were some people that said they couldn’t hear enough of the lyrics, and so we put a brand new desk into the Royal Court. We put relay speakers in, under the canopy going up to the dress circle and the gods. We’ve looked at the musical arrangements in the light of that and stripped down one or two songs that were just TOO dense vocally. But given all that effort, and the fact that we’ve got a much longer technical get-in at the theatre to mix the music, I still think there might be a slight problem because quite a number of the songs are choral, for massed voices and I’d defy anyone, in any form of music, to listen to a great number of voices and hear, first off, every single lyric. It’s a constant negotiation between the exuberance and vivacity of those numbers, especially when they’re danced, and if we make it polite in order for you to hear every single lyric . . . we’ll lose that vibrancy.
So Our Day Out – The Musical, Willy, where does it go from here?
“I’d love the show to have a longer life - I’d love THIS production to have a longer life And I’d love this version of the show to replace all existing versions of it. The only way that can be done, though, is for the show to have a major London run. If you play it in London, even if it only plays for three weeks, it gets reviewed by 250 reviewers and everybody across the world who’s interested then calls my agent and says they want the new version of Our Day Out.’ Even though we’re publishing this new version, people won’t ask for it until it wipes out the version that’s gone before it. I know it might sound ridiculous, but it can be the biggest monster hit in Liverpool, yet that won’t make a fiddler’s fart of a difference to people down in Bexhill-on Sea or in Poland or wherever. The only way it will come to their attention is if, first, it’s had that London production. I’m acutely aware, though, that this is not an easy show to mount in London – it’s big, expensive, involves kids, animals – even musicians! I think the natural place for it is the big stage at the National – the Olivier – but we can’t get them sufficiently interested in it. Alternatively we might consider somewhere site-specific, finding some kind of not-yet-thought - of venue which would just be great because what you don’t want to lose is it’s specificity, you don’t want to lose its Liverpoolness and its brashness and all those things. I guess we’ve just got to find the right producer.
With that Willy Russell walked back into the rehearsal staff room where adult stars Pauline Daniels and Mark Moraghan were chatting to Bob Eaton.
The other stars – the kids – were busy singing their hearts out
Our Day Out – The Musical was flowing well – they were singing the right lyrics; in all the right places.