As Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s award-winning musical gets a new revival, Nick Smurthwaite charts its journey in the 35 years since its West End premiere and examines why this tale of Cumbrian working life is still relevant to our times
Now regarded as a classic English musical, The Hired Man lasted just five months, and 164 performances, on its original West End run in 1984. Its prospects weren’t helped by the long-running miners’ strike and high levels of unemployment at the time. West End audiences preferred the frivolous escapism of Cats , 42nd Street  and Starlight Express  to its gritty working-class realism.
Unlike many ‘failed’ musicals, The Hired Man refused to lay down and die. It has been revived many times since, with varying degrees of success, but the recurring verdict of the critics has always been one of exultation.
The 35 years since its premiere have seen the growth of narrative-led musicals with a social conscience, making its story of a beleaguered rural Cumbrian community in the early years of the 20th century – based on Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 novel of the same name – all the more pertinent.
In his review of the 2014 revival by the National Youth Music Theatre, Mark Shenton said: “I’ve long felt that this show is easily the best British-created musical of the last 30 years, and yes, I include Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. It never fails to resonate.”
Now there is another chance to reappraise The Hired Man in a revival by two of its greatest admirers – director Douglas Rintoul  and music director Ben Goddard – at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch .
Goddard says: “I saw the original production in 1984, aged 11, and it made a big impression on me. I’ve always found Howard Goodall’s score incredibly evocative and emotional. I’ve come back to it again and again, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to work on it as musical director.”
For Rintoul, who took over the running of Hornchurch three years ago, the show has particular resonance since his family were seasonal farm labourers. “It is a world I can relate to,” he says. “The concerns and preoccupations of its characters are not wildly different from ours. I fell in love with the show in 2003 when I was working at Salisbury Playhouse [where it was revived in an acclaimed production by Jo Read] and it has been top of my to-do list ever since.”
Lyn Gardner wrote of that production: “Goodall’s rich and gorgeously melodic score provides as sweeping an emotional landscape as the geographical features of the Lake District. Joanna Read’s beautifully acted and sung production is one of her very best. The West End would be foolish to ignore it.”
As far back as 1993, the classical music critic Edward Seckerson was hailing the work as a masterpiece. He wrote in the Independent: “Here was a score that owed nothing to transatlantic models, a score that wholeheartedly tapped into the rich vein of English folk music, yet somehow managed to avoid pastiche. Goodall’s tunes were entirely his own: lusty, sinewy, deceptively simple anthems, work songs, pastoral ballads full of unexpected catches and turns and intervals that soared and stirred. A new and distinctive melodic voice.”
Though he was 26 when it opened in the West End, Goodall’s first stage musical was conceived when he was 21 and fresh out of Oxford, where he was an organ scholar. It was there he met and befriended future collaborators Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis – he went on to write the theme music for Mr Bean, Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley.
The young graduate wrote to Bragg, by this time an eminent writer and broadcaster, and asked permission to turn his novel The Hired Man into a musical. Bragg recalls: “My first thought was that he’d chosen the wrong novel. The Hired Man is a cavalcade of working-class history, so unfashionable it’s out of sight.”
The narrative was inspired by the story of Bragg’s grandfather. Ranging across the first two decades of the 20th century, it touches on life among Cumbrian farm workers and miners, including the First World War, the beginnings of trade unionism and a mining disaster.
Though there are several ensemble numbers, highlighting Goodall’s choral flair, it is essentially the story of a young married couple, the hardships they endure, their loneliness and isolation, made bearable only by their love for each other.
Before taking it into the West End, they fine-tuned it at the Nuffield, Southampton – under the direction of David Gilmore – which had a reputation for new writing, pre-London tryouts and open-minded audiences.
Goodall later wrote: “I wanted to write a musical that had no connections with Broadway or rock opera, something in the English tradition, something choral, about ordinary people. Melvyn has since told me he thought I was mad but he was interested to see what I would make out of his novel. Some time later, I nervously played him the songs in a vast empty ballroom at the Edinburgh Festival and he agreed to co-write it with me.”
Despite that initial commercial disappointment, The Hired Man was produced in the West End by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a big fan of Goodall’s, and went on to win the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for best musical in 1985.
The Hired Man is at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch , from April 27 to May 18 and then tours to Hull Truck Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre
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