Willy Russell was born in Whiston, near Liverpool in 1947. On leaving school, aged 15, he became a ladies hairdresser eventually running his own salon until at the age of twenty- one he decided to try and reclaim the education he’d missed at school and went back to college, eventually qualifying as a teacher. During these years Russell also worked as a semi-professional singer, writing and performing his own songs on the then flourishing and vibrant folk scene. Whilst at St Katharine’s College, Willy began writing drama and, in 1972, took a programme of three one-act plays to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where they were seen by writer John McGrath. Suitable impressed, McGrath recommended Russell to the Liverpool Everyman who commissioned the adaptation, When The Reds… - Willy Russell’s first professional work for theatre.
In 1974, Russell wrote and made his name with “John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert,” a musical about the Beatles. Commissioned by the Liverpool Everyman, it ran for a (then) unprecedented eight weeks before transferring to the West End where it ran for over a year, winning the Evening Standard and London Theatre Critics awards for the best musical of 1974.
Alongside further stage works, One For The Road( 1976 ), Stags and Hens( 1978 ) Russell proved himself a gifted and accomplished screenwriter with television films, Death of A Young Young Man, Daughters of Albion, Our Day Out and One Summer all consolidating his reputation as a writer whose work could reach a wide audience without ever compromising the seriousness that lies at the heart of all his work.
Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Educating Rita is now a modern classic. Since its 1980 premier and long West End run, the play has been translated and produced in almost every part the globe garnering awards both for its author and for many of the actors who have played the roles of Rita and Frank.
Returning to the Liverpool Everyman in 1986, Willy Russell created the iconic Shirley Valentine which went on to an acclaimed West End run, earning Olivier awards for both its author and star, Pauline Collins, before transferring to New York for a highly successful Broadway run and a Tony Best Actress award for its star, Pauline Collins. Like the earlier Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine became an international hit with successful productions being mounted throughout the world.
Both Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita became highly successful feature films with Michael Cain, Julie Walters, Pauline Collins all winning Oscar Nominations for their respective roles, as did Russell for his Educating Rita screenplay.
Willy Russell's other worldwide theatrical success has been Blood Brothers, 'a Liverpudlian folk opera' about a pair of twins separated at birth and brought up in completely different environments. Blood Brothers won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1983 and its 1987 revival saw over 10,000 consecutive performances during it’s 24 year West End run. Simultaneously, UK touring and international productions ( including a 2 year run on Broadway ) brought further critical and public acclaim.
Originally a celebrated TV film, Willy Russell’s Our Day Out was first adapted for the stage in 1983 and rapidly went on to become one of the most widely produced plays of all time, its popularity still as strong as ever amongst professionals, amateurs, schools and youth theatres across the UK.
In 2010, Willy Russell (with musical collaborator Bob Eaton ) realised a long held ambition to develop Our Day Out further and after extensive rewriting, and recomposing created, Our Day Out – The Musical. This modern musical retelling retains all the characters and plot of the original but with the action brought forward to today with a new score and lyrics to reflect this twenty first century setting. Productions in 2010 and 21011 at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre drew huge audiences and rave reviews.
The Wrong Boy, Willy Russell's first novel, was published in 2000. The book received ecstatic reviews and attracted a wide and appreciative readership in the UK and the many countries where it was published in translation. There are plans to film The Wrong Boy as a major TV series.
In 2004 Willy Russell returned to his original singer/songwriter roots, releasing his album, Hoovering The Moon on Pure Records. Willy also co-produced the Tim Firth album, Harmless Flirting before both writers traded in their pens and word processors for keyboards and guitars and with their band went on the road, touring the UK and Ireland before playing a season at the Edinburgh Fringe with a unique mix of music and spoken word that became known as The Singing Playwrights.
In 2013, the Archive and Special Collections department of Liverpool John Moores University established the Willy Russell Archive containing manuscripts, programmes, publicity and media material including newspaper cuttings and press releases, correspondence, legal, financial and administrative documents, records relating to the casting and audition process, audio and film material, and promotional ephemera. The material was produced throughout the course of Willy Russell’s career and is a comprehensive representation of his work to date. It also illustrates Willy Russell’s collaborative works, both written and musical. The material can be viewed by arrangement with the JMU Archivist.
Willy Russell continues to be one of the most celebrated and widely produced writers of his generation with works regularly being produced throughout the world as well as in the UK.
2015 marks the 35th anniversary of “Educating Rita” with major productions scheduled in Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Mexico and South Korea. In the UK, Rita is returning to The Liverpool Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre and The Mercury Theatre, Colchester. Shirley Valentine will see new productions being mounted in Brazil, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Turkey, Czech Republic and Israel.
As well as continuing to tour the UK, Blood Brothers will be seen once again in Japan where the latest production will play Tokyo and Osaka. 2015 will also see new productions of the musical in Australia.