Jonathan Harvey talks Pet Store Boys, Frances Barber

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In 2019, 20 years after their first enterprise into musical theatre with Nearer To Heaven, the Pet Store Boys reunited with playwright Jonathan Harvey and actor Frances Barber for a sequel on the Edinburgh Fringe. That yr, we despatched Douglas McPherson backstage to fulfill the staff…

It was a musical wherein the 2 primary guys did a line of coke after which shagged within the gents bathroom of a nightclub,” chortles playwright Jonathan Harvey. “It was by no means going to be The Sound Of Music, or on on the London Palladium!”

Perhaps so, however when Harvey teamed up with Pet Store Boys to jot down Nearer To Heaven, they created a ground-breaking present that efficiently bridged the hole between up to date pop and conventional musical theatre, paving the best way for most of the jukebox musicals that dominated the West Finish within the 2000s. 

It additionally got here with an outstanding soundtrack of specially-written Pet Store Boys songs together with Vampires, In Denial, Optimistic Function Mannequin, Pleasant Hearth and the exhilarating title monitor, lots of which have been launched forward of the present’s West Finish run on their 1999 album Nightlife.

“It was earlier than its time,” says Frances Barber, who performed nightclub hostess Billie Trix within the unique manufacturing, in 2001.

“Consider how prescient these songs have been. Take the monitor Shameless: ’We’ll do something for our quarter-hour of fame.’ All the things now could be a actuality TV present and so they wrote a track about that 20 years in the past.”

Despatched from heaven

Quick ahead to the current and the identical artistic staff is about to stage a sequel of types at this yr’s Edinburgh Fringe Pageant.

Penned by Harvey, MUSIK is a 50-minute one-woman present that includes Barber as Billie Trix, who talks about her life as a rock star between belting out a set of 4 new Pet Store Boys songs and reprising a couple of favourites from Nearer To Heaven.

Because the band’s Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe clarify in regards to the present: “After we wrote Nearer To Heaven virtually 20 years in the past, we cherished the compelling outrageousness of the character Billie Trix as written by Jonathan and carried out by Frances Barber.

“Now we have all mentioned for a few years the concept of making her personal one-woman present which might give us the prospect to jot down extra songs for her as she appears again on her unbelievable profession. We’re thrilled that this present is lastly taking place.”

Pet Shop Boys Frances Barber
Pet Store Boys with the solid of Nearer To Heaven on the Union Theatre in 2015

Jonathan Harvey has been a Pet Store Boys fan since they first scaled the charts within the 80s. “West Finish Ladies, Suburbia… their album Please was a soundtrack to my late teen years,” reminisces the playwright who as soon as wrote a collection of tv performs referred to as West Finish Ladies.

“It wasn’t about Pet Store Boys. It was about two teenage women bunking off college to go and see an East 17 live performance. However as a result of it was set on the tube, West Finish Ladies appeared to be an applicable title.”

Born in Liverpool, Harvey received the Nationwide Girobank Younger Author Of The Yr Award for his first play, The Cherry Blossom Tree, in 1987.

He went on to make his title within the 90s with the play-turned-movie Stunning Factor, and Increase Bang-A-Bang, a play a few group of mates gathered to observe the Eurovision Track Contest. He has since written for radio and tv, penning greater than 130 episodes of Coronation Road.

A gathering of minds

It was the BBC that first instructed a attainable collaboration between Harvey and the Pet Store Boys. “Some hotshot producer wished to do a musical on telly and thought that we’d be a very good match,” he recollects.

“I don’t suppose we truly met at that time. I wasn’t eager on doing a TV musical and I don’t suppose they have been, both.

“However I had fairly a couple of performs on within the early 90s and I used to be conscious that Chris and Neil had been in to see them. Then I believe it will need to have been their administration that made inroads and we went out to dinner.

“They stated that what they’d actually love to do was a stage musical – that appealed to me rather more. That will need to have been 1996 and it was then that we began getting collectively and planning what changed into Nearer To Heaven.”

The concept was born earlier than the success of the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia!, in 1999, and the next fad for jukebox musicals that led to long-running West Finish hits such We Will Rock You that includes the songs of Queen and Our Home, which revolved across the Insanity again catalogue.

This being the case, there was no intention to jot down a jukebox present primarily based on present Pet Store Boys hits, or to ape the long-running West Finish smash Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, with a biography of the band.

“We wished to do one thing unique and up to date, set in a world we knew, with utterly new music,” says Harvey.

“I keep in mind my mum telling me about when she’d gone to see West Facet Story on the cinema as a youngster, and the truth that the album of West Facet Story was No.1 within the charts on the identical time.

“That form of factor didn’t occur in my childhood, so we wished to jot down one thing the place the music within the present was the favored music of its day, which in our case can be membership music.”

Because the duo’s chief instrumentalist Chris Lowe stated on the time: “It received’t sound like a West Finish musical in any respect. We haven’t compromised in any respect in the best way the music is produced.

“We’ve acquired the computer systems taking part in, the digital keyboards and samplers. Jonathan inhabits the form of world we’ve inhabited. He’s been to golf equipment like Commerce and Heaven, so it’s not like he’s an outsider.”

Harvey had by no means written a musical earlier than, so it was a studying expertise for him in addition to the band. They started by analysing movie musicals together with The Sound Of Music, to see how the songs have been used to inform a narrative.

As Neil Tennant put it: “On the finish of every track, folks have modified, or the state of affairs has modified. By the top of My Favorite Issues, for example, the governess is the pal of the youngsters. Earlier than, all of them hate her. They usually do this in 4 minutes. And should you take a look at each track, that’s the case.”

Harvey says that the Pet Store Boys’ writing type was already suited to the stage: “They write form of character songs – about folks expressing their emotions.”

For his personal half, he provides: “Music was fairly distinguished in my performs. Stunning Factor has a soundtrack of Mama Cass’ music, so it wasn’t too nice a leap to having characters truly singing.”

Harvey, Tennant and Lowe labored intently on the plot. “I had an thought set within the membership world – a form of Romeo And Juliet story,” says the playwright.

“I instructed them the naked bones of my thought and so they actually preferred it. However it was very a lot a two-line pitch thought. So collectively we organically developed the story, with me writing it and them giving me concepts. 

“It was a three-way factor. Each time there was a call to be made, we’d all need to agree on it. It definitely felt like what ended up on stage got here from all three of our brains, not simply mine.

“I keep in mind Chris was very towards one of many characters being killed off, however Neil and I overruled him,” the author provides.

Pet Shop Boys Frances Barber
Frances Barber

The script and songs have been composed on the identical time. “They’d a home within the nation the place they recorded,” explains Harvey. “A automotive would decide me up and drive me from my council flat to the countryside and we’d spend a couple of days collectively.

“We’d watched a great deal of musicals and tried to work out how music was used. It appeared to be that musicals opened with a quantity form of saying, ’That is the world of the present’ and what you possibly can count on.

“So we’d go, ’Proper, that’s the opening quantity. Now, what’s going to occur in scene one, what’s going to occur in scene two? The place do we’d like the subsequent track? What does the track should be about?’

“We did that collectively, then they’d go all the way down to the studio and mess around with some track concepts and I’d go to my room and write a scene. We’d reconvene at lunch and so they’d play me some music and I’d present them what I’d written.”

Trix or deal with

The story of Nearer To Heaven follows Straight Dave, an Irishman newly-arrived in London, who will get a job as a bartender in a homosexual membership. He finds himself romantically torn between the membership proprietor’s daughter, Shel, and native drug vendor Mile Finish Lee.

Central to the present is Billie Trix, a washed up, drug-addled rock star who works because the membership’s hostess and who was dropped at life on stage by Frances Barber. 

“I’ve all the time been a Pet Store Boys fan and after I had a possibility to do one thing that concerned them I jumped on the likelihood,” says Barber, who had beforehand appeared in an episode of the Daybreak French comedy Homicide Most Horrid written by Harvey, in addition to in his sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. “I am keen on their music and all of us had a implausible time.”

Nearer To Heaven was the results of a long-term ambition of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to jot down an unique stage musical with up to date music in a recent setting

Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Actually Helpful Group, Nearer To Heaven opened at London’s 350-seater Arts Theatre in Could 2001 and was meant to run till September. When early performances bought out, the run was prolonged to January 2002.

By summer season, nevertheless, ticket gross sales have been dwindling. With the producers jittery about declining audiences within the West Finish usually, within the wake of 9/11, the present was pulled on 13 October, changed by The Vagina Monologues.

The band put the blame on dangerous evaluations, though Barber says the newspaper critics merely weren’t prepared for the present’s depiction of membership tradition.

“It was forward of its time, a bit just like the Boy George musical [Taboo, which followed in 2002]. For individuals who’d by no means been clubbing, it was surprising. For these individuals who have been clubbing, it wasn’t.

“I cherished it, as a result of I used to be no stranger to clubbing in these days,” Barber continues, “however I believe loads of the critics have been bowled over. When Louie Spence was gyrating in a G-string, I believe they discovered it just a little bit scary!”

Regardless of its brief unique run, Nearer To Heaven was fondly remembered by those that noticed it.

“Now that the brand new present is being marketed, essentially the most unlikely individuals are saying they noticed Nearer To Heaven and that they cherished it,” Barber experiences. “Simply final night time I met the editor of Vogue and he stated, ’Oh my god, I noticed that – I adored it.’”

Pet Shop Boys Frances Barber
Picture by Darren Bell

Nearer To Heaven was revived in Brisbane in 2005 and Texas in 2010. In 2015, it returned to London for a sold-out four-week run on the Union Theatre in Southwark, which is the place plans for a sequel have been drawn up. 

“The Union Theatre is tiny. It was like they’d put it on in my lounge as a visit down Reminiscence Lane for me,” says Harvey. “So many reminiscences got here flooding again about when the present was on and what was happening in my life at the moment.

“I went with Neil, Chris and Frances and all of us thought what a hoot it could be to do a present at Edinburgh about Billie Trix and what she’s as much as immediately.”

Selection is the spice

MUSIK takes its title from new track Ich Bin Musik – ’I’m music’ – and takes the type of An Night With Billie Trix. Because the character talks us by means of her life, the brand new songs by Pet Store Boys are carried out in quite a lot of types to mirror the completely different eras that she labored in, says Barber.

Jonathan Harvey

“She begins off singing how she was born in Berlin, she didn’t know her father and her mom hated her… and also you form of suppose, ’Oh my god, what is that this night going to be like?’ Then it instantly goes into jokes from Jonathan, as a result of that’s what he’s finest at.

“Then Billie goes into her Andy Warhol part, so there’s a track about soup.”

Subsequent up is Run Woman Run, a protest track impressed by the enduring {photograph} of a unadorned woman fleeing a napalm assault in Vietnam.

“I recorded that once we did Nearer To Heaven, however we didn’t put it within the present, so lots of people received’t comprehend it,” says Barber. “There’s a disco track referred to as Ich Bin Musik. Then I reprise Pleasant Hearth from Nearer To Heaven. You must have that one in there, as a result of that’s Billie’s huge anthem.

“Then, on the finish, there’s this joyful anthem about trying in direction of the long run, being sort to your self, burying the previous and never being too exhausting on your self. That’s the finale.”

Barber will sing over backing tracks by the band, and has additionally recorded the songs for launch on-line forward of the present.

“I’m not a singer, so I discovered it fairly terrifying to do,” the actress admits. “However Neil and Chris actually held my hand and have been extremely encouraging to me. Each time I tousled, they’d go, ’Don’t fear, Dusty Springfield used to try this!’ And Liza Minnelli and Chrissie Hynde, all these girls they’ve labored with – oh my god!”

Barber was beforehand produced by the Pet Store Boys on the unique solid recording of Nearer To Heaven. She additionally joined them to sing Pleasant Hearth on their first stay album, Concrete, in 2006. The live performance was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 2 and he or she recollects: “I used to be extremely bowled over after I went to rehearsals as a result of it was with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

“In got here Rufus Wainwright along with his folks, and Robbie Williams along with his entourage. Somebody stated to me, ’The place are your folks?’ I stated, ’I don’t have any folks!’ It was fairly nerve-wracking for an actress who’s not often called a singer. However it’s such an excellent track and the lyrics are excellent.”

Pet Shop Boys Frances Barber

Wanting again at his work with the Pet Store Boys, Harvey says: “The factor I keep in mind actually is that I used to be a skint artist within the 90s and their generosity was fairly overwhelming. They actually helped me out and have been very supportive. Let’s not overlook that the critics hated Nearer To Heaven, nevertheless it’s one thing I’m actually pleased with. I’ll all the time be proud to have labored with Chris and Neil.”

Harvey is cagey about whether or not MUSIK may have a future after Edinburgh, saying: “Clearly you hope that what you do may have an extended life, however let’s not run earlier than we are able to stroll.”

Barber reveals, nevertheless, “We’ve been invited to go to the Leicester Sq. Theatre simply after Edinburgh for 4 or 5 nights, which we’re in the course of negotiating. Then hopefully it’d find yourself as a late-night cabaret present in someplace just like the Loopy Cock. It’s extra of a cabaret than a theatre piece.”



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