Mark Shenton: Will Blood Brothers end up outrunning Les Mis?
The 1980s were the decade when the British musical – for so long cowed and overshadowed by Broadway – came vibrantly into its own, and created a string of hits that became global phenomena, some of them still running today.
The British and French created Les Miserables (original French authors, but English co-lyricist and creative team), now the longest-running musical in West End history, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is now the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
There was also Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, which ran for some 18 years at the Apollo Victoria, London, and in Bochum in Germany in a theatre specially created for it some 28 years ago. And Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s Miss Saigon, which became the longest-running musical in the history of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, and is returning to Broadway next year in the revival production that was recently seen at London’s Prince Edward Theatre (a filmed version of which was recently shown in cinema for a single day and took some £2.03m, the biggest ever debut for an event cinema release).
Each of these turned into a global franchise that saw them travelling around the world, endlessly replicated from one continent to another.
But there was another thoroughly English musical that came in under the radar, but which could end up outstripping any of those in terms of its enduring appeal: Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. Despite winning the Olivier award for best new musical in 1983 for its original production, it only ran for six months during its original Shaftesbury Avenue stint at the Lyric Theatre.
Producer Bill Kenwright, who had not been involved in that production, saw it towards the end of its run there, and in an interview for The Stage in 2014 he told me: “I went to see it with the director Alan Parker, and it was not a big house. I was in pain watching it. It was like the first time I saw West Side Story — I was so carried away by the majesty of it, I didn’t say a word.
“In those days, you were either a [Alan] Bleasdale or a Russell man, and I was Bleasdale – I’d done all of Alan’s plays and musicals but I didn’t really know Willy. I said to Alan Parker, I knew what to do with it. He told me to contact Willy, but I didn’t. Then I saw Willy on a train and I asked him to give me a chance to do it. He was very iffy, because he’d been a bit scarred by its failure, so he gave me the rights for [Queen’s Theatre] Hornchurch only, which my mate Bob Tomson ran. We drove out together to see it there, and it wasn’t very good. But I said to him: ‘I can make it much better.’ He asked me who had cast it, and I said I did — and he said it was one of the best casts of the show he’d ever seen.” Russell duly awarded him the rights to redo it and tour it — “we didn’t get big houses at the start, but like Joseph, it got bigger and bigger.”
So was the lesson to play the long game? “I’m not sure it’s a game — I was in it for the love of it, and I’m just not very good at stopping. Willy still wouldn’t give me the West End rights at the end of the year, so I took it out on tour for another year. And then we did a third tour, and when we played at the Liverpool Empire, where 2,300 people were on their feet at the end, he finally said okay to bring it to the West End.”
People were sceptical of its West End chances when it first opened at what was then the Albery Theatre in 1988 (before transferring three years later to the Phoenix Theatre), he recalls. “Everyone said I was barking. We opened with the worst advance in West End history, but I believed in it. We charged £1 for the first preview, £2 for the second preview and so on until we were £10 on the opening night — and I knew that if it failed, it would just be because something had gone wrong, not because it wasn’t one of the greatest musicals of all time. I knew it was beyond great. I still cry at read-throughs now for the 20th tour.”
He even took this very British musical to Broadway in 1993, where it “opened to the worst reviews”, but he was equally determined. “There’s something in the show that always got people to their feet, and I thought: ‘I’m not taking it off.'” It would run for two years there, and 24 in all here, before finally closing at the Phoenix in November 2012 as the longest running revival in West End history, and the fourth-longest-running show of all time with a run of 10,013 performances.
Why did he finally close it? “It was a big, big, big decision – and very difficult for me, for Willy and for Howard Panter [who owned the theatre]. But it’s still the joy of all joys on the road.” As Kenwright says: “My favourite line from any show I ever produced, and am hugely proud of, is in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion — ‘loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am’. Certain things happen in life and there’s no choice.” One of those is his undying commitment to Blood Brothers.
And just last week, I visited its newly spruced-up touring version at Birmingham Hippodrome on a packed Saturday afternoon. I’ve seldom seen it in better shape – or more warmly received. Once again, as on Broadway and ever other place it is ever seen, the audience leapt to their feet as one at the end. It’s a show that touches people deeply. And it is amazing how powerful and pertinent the show remains in its portrait of a divided nation, 33 years after it premiered. It’s a great heartfelt miracle of a show, with its aching story of a single mother who, forced by economic necessity to separate her latest arrivals of a pair of twins and hand over one to the rich woman she works for, shows vividly how the chance of parenting can influence a person’s subsequent opportunities: one of the boys goes to university; the other ends up in prison after a botched robbery that he helps his brother out on.
But the reason the show works, too, is the rigorous commitment of its producer Bill Kenwright to its maintenance, and the devoted loyalty of its leading players. Lyn Paul has been playing Mrs Johnston for nearly 20 years, on and off. She first took over in the West End in 1997, and returned frequently, as well as on the touring road. She now owns the part. The production also currently features Sean Jones and Joel Benedict as the twins Mickey and Eddie respectively, and Dean Chisnall as Narrator, who again are uniformly superb.
The show deserves to return to the West End, which is a poorer place without it.