Interview: Take That musical writer Tim Firth talks to Your Move
Starring the winners of BBC One’s ‘Let It Shine’, ‘The Band’ is a new musical featuring the songs of legendary boy band Take That and it’s heading to Liverpool this month.
We caught up with the show’s award-winning writer and creator of smash-hit movie ‘Calendar Girls’, Tim Firth to find out how a famous Liverpool playwright shaped his career and how he put together what’s become the fastest selling musical theatre tour in history.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
The tour kicked off in Manchester last September. How have things been going so far?
It’s a constant maintenance project, just like any new musical. There’s only so much you can learn in a rehearsal room.
You keep going to see different versions because each city that it visits means a different audience and a different relationship between the theatre and its audience.
You get some theatres that have really earned the trust of their audiences and they feel very different. Some don’t and it’s harder work but it’s great for the cast because they are not going out there knowing exactly what terrain they are driving over. But it really gives the show a good road test as well.
It’s also about making sure the cast members don’t settle back in a show that’s working and start to rely on the laughter and the emotion. They have to go out and grasp it and earn it every single night.
We’ve been very lucky in these opening weeks because the audiences have been very responsive to it but there’s a danger that you can sit back then and maybe the show starts to lose the sharpness it had.
Did you get the idea for the musical when you were working with Gary Barlow on ‘The Girls’ – the stage version of ‘Calendar Girls’?
I suppose to a degree, yes. As a writer, you sit there as an outsider to that [showbiz] world – not having been a star. It’s fascinating to watch from the sidelines. I stood at the stage door [during The Girls tour] and watched women in the audience who obviously felt that Gary and the band had been a profound part of their lives.
At the time I didn’t think about it. I didn’t take in the fact that these women were there with their daughters of all different ages. I was thinking ‘I wonder what the husbands are doing?’ and ‘how does this devotion affect the people around them?’.
When the idea for the television series [‘Let It Shine’] came around, that was the catalyst. Gary came to me and told me about it and I said ‘look mate, you’re mad!’.
I told him there was no chance he would be able to find five lads who could sing and be funny enough to pull it off. That’s when I went away and had the idea that the guys could, instead of being the story, almost be like a Greek chorus – never leaving the stage and supporting another story.
That’s also when the memories of the girls who I’d seen at the stage door came in. I suddenly thought, ‘this isn’t your [Take That] story, this is about the songs – it’s not about the light of the stars but the light of the fans’.
And so this story was born about a load of girls who go to see a gig when they’re at school and then we jump forward to see the women that they became in their 40s.
That seemed such an interesting starting point that I then moved through the band’s back catalogue and decided that the songs didn’t need to be lyrically relevant but it did need to be the right song at the right time.
The lads who sing are never referred to as ‘Take That’, just as ‘the boys in the band’ because they’re that much a part of the girls lives that you end up with this almost choral function which I hope supports the story and gives a clear representation of how important and fundamental the music is to the lives of the fans.
“I watched women in the audience who obviously felt that Gary and the band had been a profound part of their lives.”
With so many songs to choose from, how did you go about picking the ones for the show? Were you ever worried you might upset some fans by missing out one of their favourites?
You do, but once you come up with a story and start to plot it out, that story is a very selfish and prescriptive beast. If it doesn’t want a song, even if you really like a song, the show will shake it off.
You’ve got to listen to that because at some point someone will be sitting in a theatre thinking exactly the same thing. The songs can’t outlive their welcome and they can’t necessarily be in the same shape that they were as singles.
Because Gary has been writing songs since the age of 16 until now at the age of 46, the songs have very different colours so it meant there was a variety in the catalogue.
When the girls are 16 they are listening to the songs that came during the first incarnation of the band and when we hear songs from the second incarnation of the band we’re looking at a stage full of 40-year-old women.
How did you get into writing? I understand Willy Russell was influential in your early years as a playwright?
Yes, I started writing on a course that Willy was the tutor on. At that stage he had just written ‘Blood Brothers’ and that, in many ways, is the Holy Grail for me. It’s a musical that plays into everything I love about musical theatre. It loves being on stage, it’s very theatrical, it’s very simple and it’s an original story.
I was 18 when I went on Willy’s writing course and it changed everything. That beacon of the original musical is still out there for me. When I look at what I really want to do I can attribute it all to the pain, but the challenge, of creating a new story and a new musical, which is phenomenally rare in this country.
What can we expect to see from you next? Are you planning to go back into television or film, or stick with the theatre?
I really hope it will be the stage. In a way it’s the most dangerous and most risky of those three to be involved with as a writer.
Obviously with television and film the proceeds are higher and the level of security is far greater whereas with the stage you can spend four years writing a musical before doing one workshop where you realise you’ve got nothing.
I’ve just turned 50 and as you get older you become very acute at diagnosing what quickens the heart. For me it’s standing at the back of a theatre watching an audience react to your musical. There’s nothing like it.
‘The Band’ is at the Liverpool Empire from 23 January until 3 Februray.