First reactions to The Boy in the Dress, which opened Friday, have been hugely positive. Here Gill Sutherland talks to Guy Chambers about writing the songs for the musical with long-term collaborator Robbie Williams.
How did The Boy in the Dress come about?
I got a call from Mark Ravenhill [who has adapted David Walliams’ book for the stage show] asking me if I was interested and I said I was. So I came up here and met Bruce O’Neil [RSC’s head of music] and chatted about it. Initially they asked me if I wanted to do it and I thought I probably shouldn’t do this on my own so I called Rob and he took about five minutes to think about it and pretty much said yes straightaway.
And you knew David Walliams before this?
I’ve known David since 1995 when he was starting out. David and I had a chat about The Boy in the Dress socially – in fact he was at my studio trying to sing a duet with Rob for the Royal Variety Show as a sort of joke – he’s a terrible singer. He did mention The Boy in the Dress and that was going ahead and I said something like “that sounds interesting” and then the next minute Mark [Ravenhill] called.
Did the offer come as a bit of a curveball or do you take everything in your stride?
Not everything no. I’ve wanted to do a musical for a long, long time – 20 years. I did actually start another show a few years back which was Nowhere Boy, but I pulled out of that because it was all about a young John Lennon and because I’m such a Beatles nut I got very nervous and uncomfortable. It was a bit of a shame; now looking back on it I’m thinking I should have done it. I didn’t have enough nerve then, but I think I do now – maybe we’ll see how this one goes. It’s a risky business.
What’s the vibe so far?
It looks like it’s going to be a great success, but the critics are very powerful.
Are you a fan of musicals?
I am a fan of classic musicals largely pre-1980. Jesus Christ Superstar comes to mind and Guys and Dolls, Cabaret, West Side Story – they’re the sort of musicals I was brought up with because my mother was hugely into shows and brought me from a very early age to the theatre. I’ve always loved the theatre and theatre people, that whole eco system.
Is it living up to expectations?
Yeah, well I have very high standards of what a musical should be in terms of the songs really earning their right to be there and you should be humming the tune when you leave the theatre, that’s essential for me.
I saw a splendid one in rehearsals – Disco Symphony?
Oh yeah, that’s probably the one they’ll be singing. It’s a humdinger. That was going to be on Robbie’s last album, but for whatever reason he decided not to put on there. So when we started writing the show we realised that the song would work brilliantly at the moment in the show when Dennis first puts on the dress and it turns into a wonderful fantasy sequence. Obviously we changed the lyrics, but it was just great serendipity that we had this song that was ready to go. We had to change the key, the lyric, and the structure, but the chorus was basically the same. There were another two pre-existing songs like that. Then all the other songs were written in chronological order. We just started at the top of the show and read Mark’s script.
Did Mark leave gaps where he thought songs should be?
Yes absolutely he did. Mark’s script was very helpful. We also kept going back to the book to look for inspiration, or clues, or phrases we could use. Like Ordinary is the first song in the show and that’s based on the first paragraph in the book.
You’ve made it sound quite simple!
We tried to keep it simple, and I’m a great believer in simple songs. I like a direct message, a really obvious chorus, and songs that make people dance, laugh, or cry. The second song, If I Don’t Cry, which is when Dennis’ mum leaves, will make you cry.
Were you familiar with the book?
No, I have four kids and my youngest was 11 so she’s read most of David’s books, but for some reason I missed that one. When I was asked to do it I read the book straightaway and loved it. I love David’s books. They’re great and they’ve encouraged boys to read which is a great thing in itself.
I can imagine Robbie belting the songs out in the studio… will we ever get to hear him sing them?
He sang all of the demos so there’s a version of the whole musical with him singing which is actually great. I think if the show’s a great success that could happen – not that I’m his manager. He might think that as a fun thing to do and I know he’s very fond of the songs. What he says about them is that they remind him of our first two albums.
You’re usually the wise learned person at the back and you’re kind of stepping forwards [Guy released solo album Go Gentle Into the Light and played a show at the RSC last month] are we going to more of Guy Chambers at the front from now on?
If my manager has anything to with it then yeah. I think a lot depends on how this show does. I’m also working on another show, but I can’t really talk about it because it’s a bit top secret. If this show does well than I do plan on doing another musical.
Well I think Rob and I, if it all goes well, will be asked to do another one.
Do you both do the lyrics – is it a join effort, or do you have clearly distinct and separate areas?
I would say that he gets more involved with the lyrics than I do and I get more involved with the music than he does, but then again quite a lot of the melodies are his and some of the lyrics are mine. We do share roles, but we do that naturally, we don’t talk about it. We trust one another. If there are things he’s not sure about musically he will tell me and we’ll try something else.
In 1996 Robbie had just left Take That, he was a bit of a wild card and, without wanting to sound too judgey, a bit unformed. What did you think of him when you first met him back then?
He would agree with that! I saw massive potential, but I also saw somebody that was very wounded. When I first met him he was overweight and an alcoholic, doing a lot of drugs. Obviously he had been in a very successful band and then he left and he was struggling a bit – but so was I. I was struggling to pay my mortgage and I was going to lose my house. So the timing for both of us was perfect. I wasn’t doing much – it wasn’t like I was committed to anything else. I had to fully commit to him basically.
Did one of you say “shall we pursue this working relationship”?
We worked together and that went so well that we just carried on from there. It all happened ridiculously quickly. We met on 8th January 1997 and the album was done by May, and then he went to rehab. We were launching the album in September and it was Number One by the end of the year.
What are some of the most songs you are most proud of? Do you get sick of Millennium?
Rob does. I guess Feel and Angels still really have a lot of power.
And music-wise who do you admire and any favourite songs?
Growing up, my dad played the flute in London Philharmonic Orchestra and then moved to the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra so I very much grew up with classical music and going to concerts to hear Tchaikovsky and Mozart. But bands wise there’s obviously Queen. I’m a huge Queen fan, so maybe Brighton Rock. I love ABBA as well. I’m in awe of their catalogue and I can’t wait to hear their new song.
What makes a great song?
A great song is the combination of words and music so that they gel together. When you have problems in pop music it’s when the words are better than the music or when the music is better than the words. If it’s out of balance then it’s a disaster.
When and where: The Boy in the Dress runs at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 8th November to 8th March 2020. For tickets visit www.rsc.org.uk or call 01789 331111.