If you’ve ever wondered how a West End Musical makes the leap from the page to the stage, then you’ll love our interview with Olivier Award winning writer, David Wood. From Goodnight Mister Tom to Fantastic Mr Fox, David’s career writing & adapting for Theatre and Children’s Literature spans six decades. His latest show, The Go-Between opens next week at the Apollo Theatre starring Michael Crawford.
Hello David. Can you tell us how The Go-Between became a West End musical?
My part in the story began at the Manchester Library Theatre with a production of my adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden, directed by Roger Haines. The show had won the Manchester Evening News Award with incidental music written by Richard Taylor. We hadn’t met in person but I knew of Richard because I’d been to see a National Youth Music Theatre production of his version of Whistle Down The Wind.
Out of the blue Richard wrote to me and said that having worked on Tom’s Midnight Garden, he wanted to discuss another project which he had already been working on for about five years called The Go-Between: did I know the novel and would I be interested in working on it with him? The reason he wanted me involved was because of the way I had written Tom’s Midnight Garden from the child’s point of view and he thought it would fit with The Go-Between.
When did you finally get to meet Richard Taylor in person?
That meeting was fourteen years ago. Richard has been working on this for twenty years. We tried to get interest first of all from the Library, Manchester and from Roger Haines. Roger had been on it right from the start and he was with us before we’d written anything at all. Time passed, but we kept talking about the project. Richard’s writing is nearer to Sondheim than to Rogers and Hammerstein – individual and idiosyncratic.
I began to give the book a structure – eventually it was decided that I should write it as a play first. So I wrote a full stage adaptation and Richard took that and found places where there might be dialogue which is sung – it’s a very remarkable combination which I’d never experienced before. We talked to a few theatres – Laurie Sansom got quite interested – I can’t remember where he was then, whether it was Northampton or somewhere else. Ian Brown from West Yorkshire Playhouse was interested too but nothing really concrete happened until Richard became involved with Perfect Pitch. Andy Barnes (from Perfect Pitch) asked Richard if he would like to develop another idea which he had been working on: Richard said no, but that he would like to do something on The Go-Between. Andy agreed, and a showcase of Act One followed at the tiny Trafalgar Studio 2 on Whitehall with just a piano and it was very well received.
The theatres that we had shown it to came to the showcase. Some said it wasn’t commercial but we were encouraged enough to continue working on the show and another two or three years later, Perfect Pitch kindly said they would help us to workshop Act Two at the Urdang Academy. We got some very good people in to sing and we were determined that the three theatres who had shown most interest – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Derby Theatre, and Northampton would all have a representative there. We also resolved that if they liked it, we would press them for a commitment of some kind. It wasn’t about money – we’d never been paid anything up to that point, though we’d paid money for the rights which were with the author, L P Hartley’s, estate. We were just asking for commitment. And so the showcase went ahead and I was given the task of getting across that commitment was the operative word. Gradually they all said they were interested and that three theatres could combine forces to do it. The decision was made that West Yorkshire Playhouse would be the lead producers in the sense that it was going to open there and would be managed from there, and then it would go on to Derby and from there to Northampton.
What were the particular challenges in producing the show?
We needed two boys who would be terrifically good and could sing as well as act, and we had guaranteed to the theatres that we would find them within their own local areas. And of course there had to be two sets alternating in each venue – so a total of twelve boys. They came to a sort of boot camp where they worked together and finally the show went on. We got some lovely reviews from national critics who came to see the production. Then, rather unexpectedly, we won the Best Musical Production award in the UK Theatre Awards, beating Sweeney Todd at Chichester which of course went on to win the Olivier. We were obviously thrilled, thinking “Oh it will happen now!” Well that was five or six years ago.
What did happen was interest from some producers who had come to see the Go-Between it in Northampton – Old Vic Productions which is Joseph Smith and Becky Barber. They’ve changed the name to Greene Light Stage because Sally Greene is still involved as the Chief Executive but they’re no longer based at the Old Vic Theatre. A year or so went by and I suppose we thought that they had taken the rights – I don’t think there was anything really formal about it, but they made all sorts of enquiries and were trying to find investors. Then, about four years ago, Richard was watching a programme on television about Michael Crawford. He and Roger Haines, the director had been to see Michael in The Wizard of Oz and realised that he would be perfect for the role of Colston, but it seemed like a pipe dream. In the year when Goodnight Mr Tom won the Olivier Award, Michael came to present a special award to Gillian Lynne and he flew in from America especially to do it…and because Crawford had been mentioned, I thought maybe I should go and ask him, but then I thought “no, that’s silly”. But he was certainly in our minds so then when Richard saw the documentary, in which Crawford was virtually saying he had stopped but was always interested in something really unusual, an approach was made and finally two or three years ago, he began to get interested and said that he loved the material.
Michael [Crawford] began working in the studio with a musical director but with no formal commitment on his part. Around about that time too, Bill Kenwright became involved because he had worked with Michael on Wizard of Oz and they were very friendly. Michael obviously went to Bill to ask his advice and in the end Bill came on board as a co-producer. Then there was a lot of backwards and forwards until finally last year, Michael was in the right frame of mind to say “let’s go, let’s do it”. It was then that the producers invited him to sing for Nica Burns in the Scottish Church hall behind the Fortune Theatre. I wasn’t there, very few people were in the room, but Nica enjoyed it enough to say yes, you can have a Theatre. We specifically asked for the Apollo because it was the right size and then it was all finally agreed. On February 5th 2016 the information was released – up until then I hadn’t been able to tell anybody. Even my family didn’t know until I said “you’ll probably see the press release go out in the morning and I can tell you now that’s what’s been happening”.
When can we come and see the show?
We’re in previews now and opening night is 7th June! Michael wanted it to be the same production and the same director, Roger Haines, although it’s now a different Musical Director, Nigel Lilley who has just come from Bend It Like Beckham. The thing which people can never quite get their heads around is that it’s only one piano and there are no other musicians on stage. A lot of people have said that’s because of the budget, but it isn’t that at all. When we did it at the Trafalgar Studios all those years ago, we all said “this is the way it should be done”, because you hear every word and follow the story far better. The show isn’t swamped by the lushness of an orchestra, and so, surprisingly you have a West End musical with just a piano. The same lighting designer is coming back, the same designer, and there’s a real feeling that we want to recreate – but better – the production that had been so well received before. We’ve done a little bit of work on the opening which we felt needed a few changes. We’re not wanting to tinker with it too much and it’s about the right length – each half is an hour, or just under.
Will there be a cast recording?
I hope there will be. I think perhaps because of the way it’s been written that you would need a recording of the whole show. For many years I’ve known John Craig at First Night Records – I think Cameron Mackintosh introduced us. John has been very kind to me, there were some projects, like The Old Man of Lochnagar which I wrote songs for and he released. There was also a show called Chish ‘N’ Fips which was a television series based on my play The Ideal Gnome Expedition. We did an album which is now on iTunes and then not long ago I took the recording of my Gingerbread Man from the very first London production, which we put out on iTunes with Bernard Cribbins narrating the story, and The Owl And The Pussycat Went To See… – any money we get from that we give to charity.
Is there a big difference between your work in Children’s Theatre and working on The Go-Between?
Having been in the Children’s Theatre world, you suddenly find that even in the audition process, more money is spent than would ever be possible on a children’s show. I’ve rather enjoyed that! I’m thrilled because the last proper grown-up musical I had was at the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1969 and was called The Stiffkey Scandals of 1932 for which I did the music and lyrics and Carl Davis did the arrangements. Patrick Garland directed and I think it lasted for eight performances! I was only 25. Whether or not that put me off doing grown-up musicals again I don’t know, but by then the children’s work was taking off and that set me off on a different trajectory. But to have this one happening now is really very exciting indeed, after this amount of time and the fact that we’ve been working on it for so long. It was the same with Goodnight Mister Tom – it took me twenty years to get the rights. But that’s proven to be worth the wait – it’s just finished a national tour and received lovely reviews. The story of Goodnight Mister Tom is all about injustice and The Go-Between is the same. A boy’s whole life is affected by the injustice he sees around him, which must have been what attracted me in the first place.
You can buy tickets now for The Go-Between for performances until Wednesday 15 October.
31 Shaftesbury Ave
London W1D 7EZ
Monday – Saturday 7.30pm
Wednesday & Saturday 2.30pm
Duration: 2hrs 20mins Including 1 interval
The Go-Between opens on 7th June, with Michael Crawford as Leo Colston and with a cast including Gemma Sutton (Gypsy) as Marian, Stuart Ward as Ted, Issy Van Randwyck as Mrs Maudsley, Stephen Carlile as Trimingham, Julian Forsyth as Mr Maudsley, John Addison as Henry, Jenni Bowden as Stanton/Leo’s Mother/Eulalie and Silas Wyatt-Barke as Denys. A cast of six boys alternate the roles of Leo and Marcus.