Pop stars used to shift gear regularly to star in musicals, from Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard to David Cassidy and Jason Donovan. Just occasionally, a theatre star breaks out and reaches a pop audience, like Michael Ball did after Aspects of Love.
But, in either direction, you’re required to show up, night after night, in the West End or on a concert tour.
Far better to write a show – and get others to perform it. Elton John has toured throughout his career, but he’s reached more audiences by scoring The Lion King than will have seen him live. It has also been extremely lucrative: the theatre show is the most successful entertainment property, in any medium, of all time; it has now grossed more than $8 billion worldwide – more than all the Star Wars films combined.
Now in previews, ahead of its March 7 opening at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre, Waitress is the first musical by the pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who has followed in the footsteps of Cyndi Lauper (who composed Kinky Boots) to become one of a small club of female composers to score a Broadway musical. They have each brought their own distinctive pop sounds to the theatre – and a fan base that might also be curious to hear their work there. In the case of Bareilles, she has stepped into the title role herself several times during Waitress’ Broadway run, too, at which point the grosses have risen significantly as a result.
In London, the National Theatre has produced the Tori Amos-scored The Light Princess, and the Royal Shakespeare Company recently announced The Boy in the Dress, which will premiere in November, with a score co-written by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. Meanwhile, another Take That alumnus, Gary Barlow, has scored The Girls with Tim Firth. And, one of the best British musicals of recent years is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – scored by Dan Gillespie Sells, vocalist and songwriter for The Feeling.
All of this is to be welcomed. The musical theatre world needs new voices and hits. But, if pop writers might be encouraged to ‘knock off’ a musical in the hope of making an easy buck, it’s a long and frequently arduous game to get a successful one on its feet. Some very famous names have fallen at the first hurdle, such as Paul Simon with The Capeman, Phil Collins with the Disney-produced stage version of Tarzan or Bono and the Edge with Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark.
I’ve just revisited The Last Ship, scored by Sting, in the Toronto transfer of Northern Stage’s production, which toured the UK last year. It has been substantially overhauled since its Broadway premiere in 2014 (it ran for less than four months, including previews). Its original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey has been rewritten by director Lorne Campbell, who is also artistic director at Northern Stage.
Sting has been intimately involved with this new version – and is starring in it, as he also did on Broadway when he took over the role of shipyard foreman Jackie White from his friend Jimmy Nail when the box office started ebbing.
He has owned this material before – first trying it out in a series of concerts at New York’s Public Theater in September 2013. It marked a return to composing after nearly a decade of writers’ block; he spoke then in an interview with the New York Times of having “lost my huge, burning desire to put things on the page”.
But writing the musical liberated him in ways that surprised him. “It opened up the floodgates because I wasn’t in the way anymore. I was writing songs for other characters, other sensibilities than mine, a different viewpoint. And so all of that pent-up stuff, all of those crafts I’d developed as a songwriter, I was suddenly free to explore without much thinking”.
The road to the show’s latest incarnation in Toronto hasn’t been quite so fast. It may, with hindsight, have been a mistake to launch this quintessentially English story – revolving around the closure of the shipyards in Tyneside, in whose shadow Sting himself grew up – directly on Broadway. There were also structural problems with the original book. A complicated love triangle has been completely ditched, and the central dramatic improbability of the show’s original story of building a final ship has been changed to finishing one that was going to be dismantled and sold off for scrap.
Now a British writer/director has given it a more authentic flavour. And the show’s honest, blistering heart – framed by a sense of community set against a landscape of disintegrating industrial relations – emerges more clearly. Sting’s score provides melodic, folk textures to give it a haunting, hymnal quality. For me, it’s the best British musical of its kind since Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg’s The Hired Man (set in Cumbria) and Elton John and Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot (also set in the North East).
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton