As Robbie Williams’ songwriting partner, Guy Chambers had already enjoyed enormous success, but always wanted to compose a musical. He tells Matthew Hemley how they both got involved with The Boy in the Dress
Six years ago, it looked as though Guy Chambers’ musical theatre career was over before it had even begun. The songwriter behind many of Robbie Williams’ hits had been hired to compose the music on a new show with “an amazing team of people” but found himself no more than a month in when doubt surfaced.
“So I walked out of that one,” he reveals. “I got cold feet as I didn’t really believe in it for various reasons.” That show was never staged and the experience put him off working in musicals, he says. But then the Royal Shakespeare Company came calling and managed to change his mind with the offer to write the score for a major musical adaptation of David Walliams’ bestselling book The Boy in the Dress.
Despite his previous, brief experience working on a musical – “I didn’t tell the RSC I had walked out of one,” he says – Chambers was persuaded to give writing another go.
We meet on a wet September day at the RSC’s rehearsal rooms in south London to talk about the new show, which focuses on a schoolboy who enjoys football and fashion.
Rehearsals are in their early stages, and Chambers is relaxed but serious as he talks about the writing process, with RSC head of music Bruce O’Neil joining him.
It was playwright Mark Ravenhill – the man behind the musical’s script – who called Chambers initially and talked him into doing the show. He was tempted, in part, by the chance to work with Walliams and his material.
But although he accepted, it didn’t feel right to do the writing alone. And there was only one person he could imagine doing it with. “So I decided to ask Rob to do it with me,” Chambers says. “I checked with the RSC and they were happy with that idea.”
He adds: “Rob and I had wanted to do a musical for a long time. We’d talked about doing a musical back in the 1990s.” Together, Chambers and Williams have created a string of pop’s most memorable songs, including No Regrets and the monster hit Angels.
It turns out that both of them “grew up in theatre in different ways”. Williams watched his dad – a comedian and singer – on the working men’s club circuit, while Chambers was a member of London’s Unicorn Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s and went to see shows every week.
Chambers’ dad was a musician with the London Philharmonic and his mother was a “musicals nut”. She was also a member of the National Theatre and they would see every show there, something Chambers continues to do today.
Theatre is in his blood, and it was only a matter of time before he found the right fit for him. But he was cautious about following in the footsteps of other pop writers who had attempted musical theatre. “You see so many musicals fail and so many pop composers trying to write shows, and they’re not very good,” he says almost wearily. “I was very aware of that, so it needed to be the right show. The fact that this production is about a child at school, and about football, felt very Robbie. The core Robbie audience will love this show, and it seemed to me a perfect match between what Rob and I do and theatre. If we had been asked to do Brexit the Musical – something political – we would not do that. And if the subject matter had been depressing, we would not have done it either, as we like entertaining people.”
The pair wrote the show’s songs two years ago in Los Angeles, over a period of just two weeks. “We are quick anyway,” Chambers says. “We wrote his last album in seven days.” He adds that the pair like working to a specific theme, rather than “plucking a song out of thin air”.
What was your first professional music job?
Playing keyboards in a Liverpool function band called Magenta.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Read the small print on the contract.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If you hadn’t been a composer, what would you have been?
A conceptual artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Don’t carry money on stage because you’re meant to be doing it for the love.
O’Neil and Chambers met early on in the process, to talk about the overall structure of the piece.
“Putting together a big new musical is a juggernaut,” O’Neil says. “There are so many people involved and so establishing a framework was crucial.”
He adds that when the songs were written it was “like a produced album” and that they had a “signature sound people will recognise”. The feel of the show’s music, Chambers jumps in, is “very early Britpop” – like Williams’ first album, Life Thru a Lens.
“We have certain pop tricks we use,” Chambers continues. “I am not saying they are uniquely ours, but we have things we do to make Robbie’s songs sound like they do. I want the musical to have elements of that, so people – from the opening song – are comfortable with the genre. They won’t be sitting there thinking Rob has gone all Sound of Music.” He pauses, and adds: “Not that there’s anything wrong with The Sound of Music.”
In creating the music for the show, Chambers and Williams followed Ravenhill’s script very closely, as the playwright had left spaces for where he felt songs should go.
Another collaborator, Chris Heath, helped Chambers and Williams stay “on message” and ensured that they “didn’t wander off and get too indulgent”.
Chambers says: “The songs tell the story, which is obvious but it’s key. There has to be a reason why they are there, other than that they’re catchy songs. A catchy song without telling a story is a waste of time.”
Naturally, as the process evolved, some songs moved. One of the numbers that was originally in the first half is now in the second act.
O’Neil says: “Guy delivered a song that met the brief at the time but over the past two years certain attitudes have changed very quickly and it was felt that what the song was originally putting across did not sit well with what people felt comfortable with in 2019.”
Another song had its title changed, from Funk With Us to You Can’t Expel Us All. It later emerges, amusingly, that RSC artistic director Gregory Doran was concerned that a chorus of kids singing the original words would lead to audiences mishearing. There was another number that was cut completely. “But I am used to pain in this industry,” Chambers quips.
The world of the musical, it seems, has given him a welcome break from the world of pop music. “I was finding it really exhausting, to be honest,” he admits. “Young artists today might work with 30 different producers on a debut album and spend two days with each one. They are really confused, as each producer has a different style.”
He adds: “I don’t like that process and what it does to people. That was another reason I was pleased to do a musical. I like the collaboration and the fact it’s one vision.”
The hope, of course, is that The Boy in the Dress becomes a runaway hit, like the RSC’s Matilda before it. Chambers has seen Matilda six times, and admits to feeling the pressure with the inevitable comparisons that will follow.
“It’s why I have tried to make myself available time-wise,” he says. “And I will be around when crucial decisions are made, as I want to sit there on opening night and feel proud and secure when family and friends see it.” He adds: “I don’t want to have to make excuses for any of it. I want to enjoy it, and say: ‘This is our vision.’”
Born: London, 1963
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
The Boy in the Dress runs at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, from November 19 until March 8, 2020