‘I did a show about cancer and boobs while I had breast cancer’ – The Girls: opening night

Firth and Gary Barlow with The Girls cast members, left to right: Sophie-Louise Dann, Debbie Chazen, Michele Dotrice, Marian McLoughlin, Claire Machin (seated), Claire Moore and Joanna Riding

As Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls opens in the West End, Matthew Hemley met with its cast and creators to find out more about the process of bringing the show to life.

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth

Tim Firth and Gary Barlow at rehearsals for The Girls. Photo: Matt Crockett
Tim Firth and Gary Barlow at rehearsals for The Girls. Photo: Matt Crockett

How did this come about?

GB: Tim asked me to come to see the play of Calendar Girls in Milton Keynes. Halfway through I realised what he wanted to do. I was so blown away with the story – it’s gorgeous. I was so inspired and said: "When do we start?"

Why did you decide to turn Calendar Girls into a musical?

TF: There was an element of the story you couldn’t get into with a conventional narrative. There was something in this story, and characters we could spend more time with, that we could not do before, so it opened it up.

What has changed since the show originally ran in Leeds and Salford?

TF: Nothing you would notice, except I hope the story is clearer and shines a little bit brighter. It's sort of an internal 'corset' that has taken place; I got rid of a few things that had started to bug me.

GB: At this point shows usually rewrite their opening song. But there was none of that. We have been extremely blessed in that we have had producers who have let us run this thing out of the West End for a long time now. I knew nothing about theatre before this, but the idea of opening in the West End seemed ridiculous. We have learned so much from this show from putting it in the region it was born in, and the fact we were left alone from the critics, so we could watch it, change it and make it better.

Why did you call it The Girls, rather than Calendar Girls - the Musical?

TF: The show is so different from either incarnation, so it seemed wrong to give it the same title. People might come expecting simply to see the play or film with songs... and what they will be getting is something altogether more unexpected.

Tim, what advice did you give Gary about writing musicals?

TF: When we first sat down I said to Gary: "Don’t listen to any other musicals in the West End. Just respond now, as you would as a writer." What came back was a different, multilayered gallery of musical songs. But they were honest. We are trying to keep the show honest. It’s a very English musical – it’s not complex musically or in terms of the story. If London likes that then great.

Gary, did you approach the writing of a musical in a different way to writing pop songs?

GB: I didn’t do anything differently. The first thing Tim said to me was: "Don't see anything. Go back to your studio – do what you do, not what someone else does."

And is it right that you ended up with more than 100 songs?

TF: Yes. But just because they weren’t used doesn’t mean you don't like them. It just means the show didn’t call them down off the shelf.

What has the experience of writing the show been like?

GB: We have put a lot of work into this show and it’s been bloody great fun. Even the bad stuff has been great. The fact we have been picking up actors and actresses along the way means this family has grown and I am so thrilled for everyone that we are hitting the West End.

So do you think you will write more musicals now, Gary?

GB: One of the great things for me is there was never a point where I said: "Right, I am going to get into musicals." It all happened a bit by accident. That is the thrill and I do love it – it’s been great fun.

How does it feel to hear your songs brought to life by the cast?

GB: It’s one thing writing songs, but you can do all this work and if you don't find the right people to portray and act them then you have nothing. They are gorgeous. Every one of them is outstanding.

TF: They are all great actors as well as singers. We are looking for interpreters of the songs. We always say you have to be funny first and sing second in this show. Fortunately, we found people who can do both.

Debbie Chazen, performer (Ruth)

Debbie Chazen as Ruth. Photo: John Swannell

What does this show mean to you?

It’s so close to my heart. I was in the second cast in the West End play version and on the first day of rehearsals I found a lump in my boob and it turned out I had breast cancer. I had to leave after six weeks of being in the show then came back after treatment and did the show again, on tour. I still can’t believe I managed to do a show about cancer and boobs while I had breast cancer - it was emotional for me on all levels. It was completely weird, I had to literally switch off. Producer David Pugh said every person has some story about cancer, everyone has some kind of relation to it. The point of this story is there is hope.

What do you think music adds to the story?

To be honest, we always thought it would be a musical. We joked that it would be a musical first and then a musical on ice. I am fully expecting it to be on ice one day. It was a great film, a great play and now it's a great musical. It’s a true story about real people. There are things you can sing that when you speak sound trite, but when you sing them, suddenly it's a whole new level and the emotion takes you away. It’s a stunning piece of work.

What has it been like performing it for the real-life people whose story the show is based on?

We first performed it in a village hall where the real-life John gave his speech originally. Seeing the ladies in the audience, and all the families and friends, was incredible. You do feel a responsibility and you want to be sensitive. But the fact they love it and are so proud of it speaks volumes. The reaction from our northern audiences meant we knew we were on the right track.

And this is your musical theatre debut, isn’t it?

I have done some plays with music but never a musical. I can sing but am nervous about it, though this is more about being able to tell a story through song. Thank God we have Joanna [Riding] and Claire [Moore] in it, who are the singers.

Sophie-Louise Dann, performer (Celia)

Sophie-Louise Dann as Celia. Photo: John Swannell

In recent years you’ve appeared in Made in Dagenham, Bend It Like Beckham and now The Girls. All of them are new British musicals…

I am a great ambassador for new work because if we don't move on and don't find these fantastic stories to bring to the stage, we will live in a museum society. Don't get me wrong, I love all the old shows and love to sing those scores but we need to move on and inject new life.

Is it harder to sell a new musical?

I am not going to lie to you: it’s a harder sell. Artistically it’s brilliant as you are the first and can put your stamp on it. But getting across to a new audience that these are the next hits they are going to be humming along to is a hard sell. But what I firmly believe is that this is such a personal, warm story from the north and I am hoping everyone will embrace that.

You’re new to the cast, following its run in the north of England. How does that feel?

I am careful with choices and when I met with Tim Firth and producer David Pugh, I asked about the group dynamic that was in place. They were honest and said, "Not all the elements worked, so when you come to it, you come with fresh ideas and we slot that in." But I have known many of the cast for years. I did Lend Me a Tenor with Jo Riding, and I have known Claire Moore for a hundred years. It’s like coming to a club of all your best mates, really.

What does the music add?

It takes it to another level. The music is there to further the narrative, nothing is spare. That is the trick really. I still go mushy when Gary walks into the room, because I was a huge Take That fan. I had to get over that as I would have just been this bag of mush in the corner.

And you’re returning to the Phoenix, where Bend It Like Beckham was staged…

It’s the same dressing room, the curtains are still there. And the theatre is a great size for this show. There is a nice intimacy, so you don't feel detached.

Joanna Riding, performer (Annie)

Joanna Riding as Annie. Photo: John Swannell

Tell us why The Girls is so special to you…

I have never sung songs this honest. Normally when you sing about great sadness or joy there are sweeping statements in them, but The Girls is how real people talk. I am a northern lass and I know. You have a cup of tea and talk about the details. It’s honest and done in such a beautiful way that it’s not cod. It’s beautifully realised. It’s a musical. There is no point apologising for that. But that is no reason not to get somewhere in an honest fashion. If you do that, people will go with you. If they care, you can take them anywhere you want to.

How long are you in the show for?

We are contracted for 12 months, but they can give you two weeks at any time. I have been involved in a few now that have had short lives. I do think, though, that with the love there is for Gary and the Women's Institute, people will enjoy it, even if the critics are not delighted.

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