Director Josh Seymour’s show Musik is drawing in crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to London. He tells Douglas McPherson about the ‘dream’ of working with Frances Barber, Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys
Frances Barber in her first one-woman show would be a draw in its own right. Then add the stage and TV track record of writer Jonathan Harvey – from the play-turned-movie Beautiful Thing to more than 100 episodes of Coronation Street – and throw in a soundtrack of new songs by 1980s pop icons the Pet Shop Boys, and it’s little wonder that director Josh Seymour describes “a hungry vibe” among the audiences flocking to see Musik in a spiegeltent on the Edinburgh Fringe.
For Seymour, the response of a sold-out first-night audience came as a relief. “When you’re doing a comedy and spending so much time with just you and the team, you lose sight of what’s funny and what isn’t,” he says. “You don’t know how an audience is going to take it. So it was great to have all those people tell us what’s funny and what isn’t.
“It’s an unusual show because it’s a real cocktail of music, cabaret and comedy, and some painful stuff as well. It’s a deliberately weird mix of things, but people really seem to respond to the ups and downs and shifts in it.”
Musik is a belated sequel of sorts to the Pet Shop Boys’ first foray into musical theatre with Closer to Heaven, which had a book by Harvey and opened at the Arts Theatre in 2001. Barber played Billie Trix, a washed-up rock chick working as a hostess in a gay club, in the original production.
Trix was a minor character in the narrative, who became a show-stealer. In Musik, she takes centre stage as a pretentious performance artist talking about a historically unsung life spent rubbing shoulders with luminaries from Andy Warhol to Madonna.
With Barber, Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys reunited after nearly 20 years, Seymour is very much the new boy in the Cahoots Theatre Company production. He was recommended for the job because of his work as associate director on two runs of Follies at the National Theatre, first in 2017 and then when it returned earlier this year.
Before that, he’d won best director in the Off-West End Awards for his first professional outing as director, the ‘lost’ Tennessee Williams play One Arm at the Southwark Playhouse in 2015.
“And so I found myself in quite a scary meeting with Jonathan, Frances and the Pet Shop Boys all sitting around a table together,” Seymour chuckles. “I’m an admirer of all of them, but I’ve especially admired Jonathan’s work since I was a teenager. So to get to be in the room with him when he’s creating something was an absolute dream.
“We did quite a lot of work on the script in rehearsals, tweaking and adding new moments, and to see him doing that was an amazing pleasure because he’s such a master of shifting from comedy to pathos. He can make you laugh one minute and cry the next. He’s also very open to suggestions. We would all chuck in ideas and he would sift them and pick the right ones.”
Seymour also learned a lot by directing Barber. “Working with such experienced people is a gift, because they bring so much with them. Frances has worked on so much new writing that she has a really keen awareness of dramaturgy. With her and Jonathan having known each other for so long, there’s a brilliant sense of them being able to go: ‘Right, there’s a moment where we need them to understand this,’ or ‘Here’s a moment where we learn this.’”
The director was surprised by Barber’s gifts at clowning. “She’s incredibly funny and kind of fearless – she jumps right into things. I can give her a small note to try something and she’ll take it and run a mile with it and transform it into something that I would never have expected. Being relatively early in my directing career, that’s really helped me learn what you can get out of someone.”
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys were closely involved in rehearsals. “Because theatre for them is something they’ve only dipped into, they’re like kids in a toy shop: ‘What can we do? What can we play with?’ They absolutely love it,” says Seymour.
The songs specially written for the show move through different styles to reflect the various periods of Trix’s life, from a protest song about Vietnam to the disco number Ich Bin Musik – “I am music” – from which the show takes its name. Each song is accompanied by music video-style projections while Barber sings over tracks pre-recorded by the Pet Shop Boys.
“Frances’ performance is a real tour de force,” Seymour says. “She’s charismatic, hilarious and sexy. People don’t know she’s such a good singer, so that comes as a lovely surprise.”
By coincidence, rehearsals for Musik were held at Above the Stag, where a revival of Closer to Heaven was being staged at the same time. Seymour stresses, however, that the new show isn’t only for people who saw its predecessor.
“We were keen that, although it exists in the same universe, it wouldn’t feel like a sequel, so that people could come to see it without having heard of Closer to Heaven and still enjoy it. When I first read the script, I knew almost nothing about Closer but I was instantly laughing and transported by the script.”
After Edinburgh, Musik will transfer to London for a week at the Leicester Square Theatre, and Seymour hopes it will have a life beyond that.
“Closer was a little bit ahead of its time,” the director says of the musical’s depiction of gay club culture. “The reception it got from critics at the time was really hostile. But we’re much more used to those kinds of stories now. It feels like audiences are really up for it.”
Musik is at the Assembly Rooms (Bijou venue) Edinburgh until August 24, then the Leicester Square Theatre, London, from September 3-7.