Tim Firth: ‘Musicals are the best and worst of what theatre can be’
The people we meet early on in our lives often remain close to us, both personally and professionally. It says a lot about the writer Tim Firth that he’s stayed true to his roots and friendships in every way. He still lives in Frodsham, the small Cheshire town where he grew up, despite a career as an Olivier, BAFTA and Writers’ Guild award-winning writer.
Frodsham is also, coincidentally, the same place where singer-songwriter Gary Barlow also grew up. The pair first worked together when they both still teenagers. They are now collaborating on a new musical version of Firth’s 2003 film Calendar Girls, previewing in the West End ahead of an official opening on February 21.
“Gary was 15 when I first met him at a national song-writing competition. I was in my second year at Cambridge,” Firth tells me, as we sit in a bar at London’s Phoenix Theatre as the get-in for The Girls (the name of the new musical) is happening around us. “It was a big shock for us that we came from the same town, yet we met because of the competition and were brought together entirely by that platform.”
Serendipity or fate? Regardless, it led to an enduring friendship, one begun long before Barlow’s emergence as a major pop star in the early 1990s as a founder member and songwriter for Take That.
Firth regrets he was never asked to write songs for the group: “I wish I had! I wish I still had a demo of four songs that he’d recorded on to a cassette in his bedroom for me. I can still remember one of the hooks from one of those first songs. By that stage, though, I wanted to write Blood Brothers, but Gary’s early stuff was down-the-line early 1990s pop. It was a different musical world to mine, which was folk and the Methodist Church.
“I’ve kept the folk, but lost the Methodism since. What I kept was my love of song. I used to go to a tiny church in Cheshire, and I remember thinking how great the tunes to the hymns were.”
That planted an early musical seed that Firth would ignite when he came to know Blood Brothers writer Willy Russell personally. They formed a musical duo that toured regularly.
“Willy told me those hymns were folk songs – that’s where they all come from. It’s very human, and the hand-made feel of that is consonant with the songs and the world we’re trying to write for in The Girls.”
It was Russell who first introduced Firth to David Pugh, the West End producer bringing The Girls to the stage. “Willy and I were playing at the Hay Festival, and Willy invited him to see us. [Pugh] then helped us when we took the show to Edinburgh and we started to talk to him about other things.”
That included, first of all, the play version of Calendar Girls, which premiered in Chichester in 2008, transferred to the West End in 2009 and has had two hugely successful national tours. It provided an important staging post on the way to making it into a musical.
“When I originally thought about making a stage version of the film, the thought of a musical came into my head, but I couldn’t work out where the music would be,” says Firth. “The play taught me where the music would go. The play found it for me.”
The original story for the film had an even longer gestation. “I remember that I first sat down to write it on September 11, 2001. That’s forever marked in my memory now.”
So here we are, more than 15 years later, and it’s clearly a gift that keeps on giving. “There’s obviously something unique in the story that made me go back to it,” Firth acknowledges. “I can understand people going back to something once, to turn a movie into a play; but then to turn that play into a musical it needs to unfold again. It’s like taking origami apart – there’s something in it that wasn’t in the other iterations of it.
“With the play version of Calendar Girls, I found myself starting to write soliloquies in the text. The playwright in me thought that wasn’t quite right,” he admits, with disarming honesty. “But when we got them on stage, they really worked. I continuously hope I write better things, but the truth is I may not write a piece as successful at connecting with an audience as Calendar Girls, even though it is not necessarily as finessed as other things I’m slightly more proud of in terms of craft.”
He also made an important realisation: “When I went back to it, I could feel it stirring to be told through song. That is when the lead started to tighten. In a musical, those moments when you have something expressed in song bring a real sense of privacy between you and the character. In a play, that is quite odd – the rest of the room is live. Yet with a song, even though this is very much treated as super-realistic, there is nevertheless a sense that when a character starts to sing their thoughts, even though they may be telling other people in the room, you feel they are telling themselves. They are giving vent to what has not yet been expressed. And that’s what happens in these songs.”
In 2013, Firth wrote book, music and lyrics for This Is My Family, a musical play that premiered at Sheffield’s Crucible and subsequently won the UK Theatre award for best musical.
So why didn’t he do it all himself again this time? “Actually, Gary and I had already started to talk about this before This Is My Family was staged. The truth is that I’ve been so involved in the writing of the score, in a very different and unique way.”
It has become a real joint effort, he explains. He gave Barlow some important pointers: “When we first started this endeavour, I said to him, ‘Don’t try to be a musical theatre writer, don’t try to go around and watch everything, because there’s a danger of trying to write in the style of what you think musical theatre is as a result.’ Willy didn’t do that with Blood Brothers. It’s not what that was about, he just sat there and musical theatre came to him, not the other way around. I really wanted that to happen here.
“We ended up with primary colours on the palette. We started to write and I sent him lyrics, and he would send songs to me. I’d sit at the piano, change it, mix bits of song A with song B and send them back to him, so we ended up with a gallery of different things on the shelf. We ended up with about 70 or 80 songs, and the ones that started to be in play were very much like an artist’s easel. There were 12 or 13 dominant musical themes, which I then took and started to mix.
“The great thing is that I would send lyrics to Gary, and they’d often not be complete and he would have to write something to sing. Some of what he gave back to me gave me ideas. So in a very odd way, the lyrics and music are now by the pair of us, and the boundaries are not quite as defined as they would normally be.”
Firth has also taken the lead liaising with the music department. “Gary is off doing other things, so I’ve been liaising with [musical supervisor] Richard Beadle on musical directing and working out where the orchestrations are. I have to do that from a playwright’s point of view, especially with comedy, because the music is so vital in positioning and not affecting or damaging but heightening the comedy, and that has to be done on a note-by-note basis.”
Key to implementing this collaboration, he says, is “surrounding yourself with people who are much better than you”. He explains: “I will say: ‘This is what I mean, but I don’t know how to achieve it musically,’ and I can talk to Rich and Gary about it. If you’ve been around people and part of each other’s lives for a long time, there are no egos in the room.”
Q&A: Tim Firth
What was your first non-writing job? I’ve only ever had one job apart from working as a writer, and that was writing jingles for Radio Piccadilly in Manchester.
What was your first professional theatre job? My first professionally produced play was A Man of Letters for Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1991.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t think there is such a thing as a playwright and a set format. You should always listen to your own voice.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Willy Russell and Alan Ayckbourn, without a shadow of a doubt. Stylistically they are very separate, and not like me either, but the thing they have in common is a real drive to entertain. Populism is something that is very hard to pull off.
What’s your best advice for auditions? The hardest thing for a writer is to be simple, and the hardest thing for an actor is to be still. So my advice is don’t try to put too much on it – find your line and stick to it and be still.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been? I would have loved to have been an architect, if I could do the maths – which I can’t! Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m good enough to be a musician. I’m very happy talking to 5,000 people, which I did when we did a charity thing for The Girls at the Royal Albert Hall, but then I had to play the piano for [actor and The Girls cast member] Jo Riding and my fingers turned to bananas.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I work with a producer [David Pugh] who is completely bound by superstitions and I grew up with Willy Russell, who is transfixed by them, so I abandoned superstition at a very early age. I’m very wary of it – I think it can almost be an anaesthetic.
The show has taken a long time to gestate, and is better for it, he feels. “We built a catalogue of songs to make sure we’ve lived with them and they’ve had a chance to resonate. The great problem you sometimes have as a writer, though, is to mistake newness for better-ness. You may come back and think you’ve improved a line, but it takes a long time to realise that the original was better.”
The results were first tried out in an unusual way: in a series of workshop performances for an invited audience in a 75-seat village hall in Burnsall in North Yorkshire in March 2015, not far from the Rylstone Women’s Institute, whose members first hit on the idea for the nude charity calendar to raise funds for the cancer treatment of the husband of one of their members.
At the time, Firth told Baz Bamigboye in the Daily Mail: “It’s a village-green musical that encompasses the world.” So, appropriately, it was returned to that village green for its first incarnation, before taking on the world.
Firth tells me about some of the discoveries they made in that first outing: “I would always do that again. That’s where we realised we didn’t have a reopening number. If it wasn’t so stomach-churningly frightening, the idea of writing a new song in previews and putting it into a show must be so exciting. But Burnsall bought us that opportunity.”
Later that year, it was restaged in Leeds and Manchester on a much larger stage. “We found a lot of what worked about the show and what needed improvement.”
It has now taken another year to finally reach the West End. “You are not in control,” he says, speaking of the time and, more specifically, the timing of bringing it in. “No matter how lovely your aeroplane is, if the airport ain’t gonna let you land, you can’t. The West End is controlled by four or five people in terms of where you can land your plane, so you have to be fairly phlegmatic about it, and use the time to take apart all the elements of the show. We didn’t put any new songs in, but we unfolded more elements of the songs that were already there.
“With comedy, the lyrics need to be funny, but you realise that the positioning not only of the music but also the orchestrations is pivotal. The orchestra will completely destroy the comedy if you’re not careful, so you can’t score it in a conventional way.”
Another change was expanding the band, which now features 10 players. “We had just one lonely brass player before,” he says.
Firth is a self-confessed musical fan, who loves its challenges as much as its rewards. “I find myself so drawn to the excitement of the risk of musical theatre. I’ve written a lot for film and television, but I’m never as excited by the potential of what I’m writing as when it’s something for the theatre.”
Musicals, I say to him, fail hardest but if they work, they succeed like nothing else. He agrees: “Musicals are the best and worst of what theatre can be.” But it’s not as hard as it looks, he says: “The chemistry is fairly simple. As long as you can answer the question of why are you are singing, you stand a chance.”
That deeply pragmatic approach to theatre has stood him in good stead, from his earliest days writing plays as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where he formed a theatre company called the Works with fellow student Sam Mendes, for which he wrote his first play, Burning Down the Wings. “It was based on me having played table football in a bar with Sam and seeing how ridiculously competitive someone could be over a table football game.”
After university, Mendes went to Chichester as an associate, where he ran a temporary tent theatre for which Firth was commissioned to write a play called Heartlands.
“It was about child abuse. I thought I had to write it in order to be serious. But if my older self ever came back to speak to my younger self, I’d say: ‘Just remember the table football.’ It was much closer to my natural voice.”
That table football play also led indirectly to Alan Ayckbourn at Scarborough. “Connal Orton, who now works in television, was in that play and he became an assistant director at Scarborough. He introduced me to Alan and gave him a play I’d written in an afternoon at Cambridge, for an actress and two yucca plants. He said it was a bit daft and whimsical, but he liked it. Had he read the play I wrote for Sam at Chichester, he wouldn’t have been interested. It’s amazing that I was so hell-bent on being a playwright, yet it was something I wrote in an afternoon that led to a real break.”
It was Ayckbourn who commissioned Neville’s Island and premiered it at Scarborough in 1992. Two years later, it became Firth’s first play to transfer to the West End (and was revived there in 2014 after transferring from Chichester).
Tim Firth's top tips for an aspiring writer
• Find some way to get the thing on its feet. You can’t learn anything from an unproduced play. And getting plays produced is in your gift – don’t sit around waiting for a theatre to want it. Just get some friends together and do it yourself.
• Don’t presume that anything you feel is mundane will not be of interest. What is ordinary to you may be potentially thrilling to others, and those are the stories to seek out.
• Find about three people who are very different in background and likes, and give each of them your scripts to comment on when you’ve finished writing. Throw it to the three winds. Mine are my wife, my agent Alan Brodie, and the third varies depending on what it is. If I’m feeling very strong, I’ll send it to Willy Russell, who gives a very brutal reading, or sometimes to David Baddiel, who is one of the brightest people I know.
“I was slightly bloodied by the West End,” Firth recalls of that first experience. “I realised what it meant to have a play there in purely coarse commercial terms and how frightening and weird it was. But if you look at my career, I’ve never been offered or courted by the London new-writing venues. My plays have always come in from the provinces. And I don’t deny it would be lovely to think that the people at the National were interested in my stuff, but it’s as important to me that Liverpool and Sheffield are interested – that’s where my stuff sits.”
He is a writer in the tradition of Ayckbourn, Russell, Alan Bleasdale and John Godber, whose work has all followed a similar trajectory of being premiered regionally before subsequently achieving a West End life afterwards.
“I envy Alan hugely the link to a theatre where, this late in his career, he is still able to throw a log on the fire every year. He still wants to write – as I hope I will when I’m his age – but he doesn’t have to sell his plays each time he writes them.”
While there are challenges to his independence from the ‘safe’ houses of London’s new-writing theatres, Firth has managed to forge his own distinctive path. His 2003 musical Our House, based on the back catalogue of pop band Madness, won that year’s Olivier for best musical. It continues to have a huge life regionally (it recently toured again with an actor-musician cast) and among amateur groups.
“It has found its own way of flowering; I didn’t realise how attractive it would be to youth and school groups. I had the joy of going to see my 16-year-old daughter do it at her school in Warrington, and I loved it.”
His most commercially successful musical so far, though, is one he didn’t write himself: the stage version of the 2005 film Kinky Boots that he co-scripted.
He tells me he’s never seen the musical. “We were not offered tickets to the premiere. I was kept out of the frame. I got an email from Harvey Fierstein [who wrote the book of the show] saying that the producers hadn’t brought us together but he was reaching out to me writer to writer. I thanked him and said I hoped they had great fun with it, and they did. When it came to London, there was no phone call asking me to go, so I never have. As a writer of musicals, I know how I’d have approached it, but I’m talking blind as I’ve not seen what they did. I’m just really happy that more people know the title. I loved writing the film. There was something very special about it.”
He hopes to continue writing musicals himself now. “Just because there isn’t as energised a corridor for original musicals in this country as there is in America doesn’t mean you give up.”
CV: Tim Firth
Born: 1964, Chester
Training: Cambridge University
Landmark productions: Theatre: Neville’s Island, Apollo Theatre (1992), revived at Chichester (2013) and transferred to Duke of York’s (2014), Our House, Cambridge Theatre (2003), Calendar Girls, Noel
Coward Theatre (2008), This Is My Family, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (2013), The Girls, Grand Theatre, Leeds (2015), then Lowry, Salford Quays and West End’s Phoenix Theatre (2017). TV: All Quiet on the Preston Front (1994, 1995, 1997), The Flint Street Nativity (1999). Film: Calendar Girls (2003), Kinky Boots (2005)
Awards: Olivier for best musical, 2003 (Our House), UK Theatre award for best new musical, 2013 (This Is My Family)
Agent: Alan Brodie
The Girls is at London’s Phoenix Theatre, London until April 22