Willy Russell and Bill Kenwright speak to Elaine Peake about Blood Brothers
EP: How did you come up with the idea of writing a full-scale musical?
WR: The kind of theatre I was involved in right from the word go didn’t make a distinction between musical and non-musical. When I started work at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, it was commonplace to have music as part of your show. Blood Brothers was written very much in the Everyman ‘house style’ of the day, and that was the period when the resident company included people like Bernard Hill, Jonathan Pryce, Alison Steadman, Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly, Antony Sher – you were working with that kind of actor. All of them could sing (some better than others!), and some of them played a musical instrument, so it was the way we did it. We’d all been influenced by Bertolt Brecht, but Brecht sort of shot through Joan Littlewood, not sombre black drapes Berliner Ensemble. We had a theatre which really did relate to the people in whose city it was housed, and music was just one way of doing that. To some people John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert was a musical – it certainly won Best Musical Awards. To me it was no different from other shows that I’d done there. When the Reds was the first thing I did, which was an adaptation of an Alan Plater play and had about fifteen songs in it. So it was no great leap to writing Blood Brothers. When I thought of the idea I vaguely knew the form and structure it would take. I suppose the big difference was that with the previous shows they had been plays with songs, whereas with Blood Brothers I wanted it to be composed, not sung-through as such, but I wanted to think about the way all the music related to the story, rather than putting individual songs here, there and everywhere.
EP: How did you get the idea of the story?
WR: I was walking along one day; I lifted my right foot and by the time I put my foot down I had the story. Sometimes that happens, but very very very rarely. Thinking back, when I was at my first secondary school when I was eleven, I do remember somehow being involved in some class that was looking at a play. And I have this dim memory of the idea of a baby being taken in one direction and its nurture being decided by which baby was taken from a pram. Now I don’t know if I’ve imagined that, I haven’t looked for this story that might have influenced me – it was just the kernel of an idea sown all those years ago.
EP: Human beings generally seem to have quite a fascination with twins.
WR: That was actually something I didn’t particularly share. What I was interested in was what happens to them when they go their separate ways. If she picked the other one out of the pram, would it have been any different? I didn’t want a dry academic ‘nature versus nurture’ debate to go on, but that is what’s at the centre of it. The other big influence was seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time ever on television performing ‘Hey Joe’. Just think about the lyrics: ‘Hey Joe where you goin’ with that gun in your hand? I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, I caught her messin’ round with another man…’ It’s not only the lyrics, it’s the fantastic kind of urban violence that’s in that song. It’s terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
EP: When did you take the leap to compose the whole of Blood Brothers yourself?
WR: I was frightened of doing it for years. I had the entire story – I would often be on the point of going to sleep and I would think of another idea, so the story was building over many years. At first I just thought that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I was the composer, so I talked to other people about doing it, but nothing came of any of those discussions. Then one day I just thought, ‘This is crazy, do it yourself.’ Then I had to do a play for Paul Harmison for Merseyside Young People’s Company and I decided to do just that.
EP: When Blood Brothers first went on tour around schools, what kind of feedback did you get from those audiences?
WR: Fantastic! Absolutely fantastic. But they are the most difficult audience on this earth. Kids don’t sit there politely having paid £40 for posh seats, putting up with rubbish. They’ll just tell you straight. If they’re in a school where they’re not allowed to walk out if the discipline’s fairly tight, they’ll still make it known what they think of being made to sit there. I know because I was one of those kids myself once, and I remember how horrendous it is to be patronised or condescended to or made to suffer some crap. I knew it was my job to hook the most disinterested, antipathetic little buggers sitting at the back, the ones like me all those years ago! Most schools are great, but sometimes you’d go to one where the staff don’t give a toss, the show was coming up to 70 minutes so they just had that time off. They’d just point you in the direction of the hall and you’d find two hundred truculent, resentful kids. Five actors would have to walk into the middle of that space and, without any lights or scenery and a minimum of props, just go bang! and grab them. And I have to say I never saw it fail to do that.
EP: How did Blood Brothers then make the leap to become a full-blown musical?
WR: I always intended it to be a full-scale musical, but I kind of ‘borrowed’ it to fulfil the brief for Paul Harmison and MYPT. So the day it opened at a place called Fazakerley Comprehensive, I went back to my office and began to write the full-scale musical version of it. I knew that if I allowed this smaller version to become too fixed in my brain, I’d never move on to the full musical version. I told Chris Bond at Liverpool Playhouse that it would be ready in three months’ time. But it was twelve months and more before I finished it, I just didn’t realise how long it was going to take me to get it how I wanted it.
EP: And even after that you made more changes?
WR: We opened at the Playhouse in Liverpool and I saw that there was a swathe of the second act that really needed to be redone. We were playing to packed houses for three months or so. Our normal practice was to open a show and then start working on it, start to cut down and restructure. That’s the wonderful thing about theatre, it’s an ongoing organic process. However, we couldn’t afford to pay an eleven-piece orchestra lots of extra time to make massive changes, so we had to wait until we got to London for the re-rehearsals and put in all the rewrites at that stage.
EP: How did the show get into the West End?
WR: Bob Swash, who had produced John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert, had come to see the schools version of Blood Brothers on tour in Liverpool, and absolutely loved it. He had been badgering me for years to write another musical and, after he’d seen the show, he said, ‘When are you going to write a musical for me?’ and I said, ‘You’ve just seen it, Bob’. So he asked me who was going to write the music and I gulped and said, ‘Me’. I saw him gulp too for a second and then he put his smile back on. I said I would compose the first act music before he had to commit to it. So I did that and when I went to his office in London and played it to him, he was ecstatic. So there was a London producer involved right from the word go.
EP: How many countries has Blood Brothers been seen in now? Presumably it gets translated into the various languages?
WR: Mostly, but certain things don’t. It’s hilarious in Kyoto hearing them speaking in Japanese and suddenly hearing ‘roast beef’! There are also pirate versions playing in countries that don’t sign up to the Berne Convention. Probably the most bizarre was the Siberian production directed by Glen Walford. She got out there to find an oligarch who was completely besotted with the show, but saw it as a Christian parable – he had hired a 250-piece choir, and she somehow had to incorporate this choir into the production! She said when it got to ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, it was unbelievable. There was a great production in Barcelona and in fact, one of the amazing things about Blood Brothers is that it does do well in places where the culture doesn’t include musicals. It does seem to be the musical that’s loved by people who hate musicals.
EP: What do you think is the secret of the show’s enduring success?
WR: People do see it more than once and one of the reasons is that it is a musical with a strong book, it has got a tale to tell. This might indict it as not being a real musical, but if all the electricity fails in the theatre and you can’t light the show or amplify it, you can still do the show with a piano, and even if the piano blows you can still do the show a capella, and it will work. It simply relies on that primal, ageless, universal thing of ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’ Your ears prick up and you stay with it, and there’s no better experience.
EP: I believe you’ve considered doing a film version of Blood Brothers?
WR: Well, I’ve written a screenplay. I did it with Alan Parker a couple of years ago. I absolutely loved doing it – we both did. I’m very proud of the screenplay, but we didn’t take anybody’s money up front, because we didn’t want a screenplay that was devised to suit the whims of a producer. The idea was that we wrote the screenplay of the film of Blood Brothers that we wanted to be made. It’s not a small, low budget English picture; it’s a big budget musical. So that’s not going to happen overnight. In many ways, though, for me the best part of the job of filming it has now been done – and that’s the screenplay. It’s not the same for Alan Parker, because he’s a filmmaker and he wants to make the picture. But all I can say is, watch this space…
EP: How did you first become involved with Blood Brothers?
BK: In the seventies and the eighties there was a sort of divide in the city; you were Everton or Liverpool, Alan Bleasdale or Willy Russell; I’d worked a lot with Alan and didn’t really know Willy. Of course, I’d heard that Blood Brothers was the new Liverpool sensation when it was at the Playhouse there, and that it had come to London but was not faring too well at the box office. I went to see it with my friend, the director Alan Parker. We sat in a not very full house and saw a musical that was one of the greatest I’d ever seen, and I walked out of the theatre bemoaning the fact that it wasn’t me who had produced it! I felt I knew the way to turn it round and make it into something that wouldn’t have empty seats. After that I suppose it could be said that I plagued Willy for a year or two, trying to persuade him to let me have a stab at it. Eventually, he did let me and here we are, twenty-something years later.
EP: Did the show have a slow start in some ways?
BK: Not really. I think Willy was very wary of the West End. Like most writers of his ilk, he doesn’t write for any particular kind of audience. The West End is such a cut-and-thrust kind of commercial alleyway, maybe he felt that it wasn’t for him and I accepted that. He originally gave me just the touring rights, and it was during the eighteen months of touring when I worked on the show as director, that we became close friends. I know it was a very big moment for him – it was on our third tour – when he said, ‘OK, let’s take this back into London.’ I don’t think it had ever happened before – a show closes because it’s not done particularly well at the box office and a few years later it’s back; it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But I think I’d proved my love for the production. I remember Willy wrote me a wonderful note on the Broadway opening night saying, ‘Everything I ever wanted from Blood Brothers I can now see on that stage.’ I think trust was important to Willy, he needed to know that he had a producer who would look after his show. So it wasn’t a slow start, but it was a slow-ish journey getting it to the West End, and it was quite a different production from the original.
EP: Have you ever felt you needed to update it in any way?
BK: No. People ask me why Blood Brothers is the phenomenon that it is. What is it about a musical that can play 23 years in the West End and at the same time week in, week out, bring audiences to their feet in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin? Everywhere it goes it plays to packed houses and standing ovations. Lots of producers will tell you that about their shows, but with Blood Brothers it’s true, it’s absolutely true. It doesn’t have crashing chandeliers, it doesn’t have a helicopter, it doesn’t have a chorus line, and the only answer I can ever give to the question of why it is such a phenomenal success is – Willy Russell. He’s got in him something that is unique. To write the book, the lyrics and the music of any musical is almost unheard of in this day and age. And to do that with a musical that still, 29 years after he’s written it, plays to standing ovations and packed houses must mean there’s something special going on. I don’t know what Willy has that makes his writing so special, but I do know he has it. I’m not sure Willy knows either. I remember once we were talking specifically about a line in Shirley Valentine, where she says something like, ‘Costa kissed my stretch marks. He told me that he loved my stretch marks, they were a sign of me and of womanhood’, and then she pauses and looks at the audience and says, ‘Aren’t men full of shit?’ I asked Willy, ‘Where did that come from?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, but I do know that when I wrote it I looked at it and gave myself a round of applause.’ Blood Brothers is a very simple story but everything about it is epic. I don’t know where that comes from, all I can tell you is, I know it works and I know it works because of Willy Russell.
EP: There have been some interesting castings through the years, haven’t there?
BK: I originally wanted someone who was as near to Barbara Dickson as I could get, that is, a pop star who could sing wonderfully, and Kiki Dee just fitted the bill. Hearing her voice singing ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ was one of the great moments of my auditioning career. I have to say there was an even greater moment when Petula Clark finished on Broadway and, out of the blue, Carole King rang and asked if I would consider her to take over. I am a huge fan of Carole King, and I dashed over to New York to audition her. I remember getting to the theatre very early in the morning. I went straight to the bathroom to get a quick shower. As I’m in there I can hear Carole warming up on stage, and hearing that wonderful Carole King rasp singing ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, I just got goose bumps. Petula has been a great servant of Blood Brothers, and she and David Cassidy turned it round on Broadway. The show has given me so many leading ladies, I feel privileged to have worked with them. I think Willy always wanted a singer playing Mrs Johnstone and, whenever we talk about the future, we always talk in terms of singers. Lyn Paul has had a love affair with it for nearly a decade now, and she’s one of my favourite Mrs Johnstones. As is Linda Nolan, and the sadly departed Stephanie Lawrence. Recently, Melanie C completed a season in London and received the kind of critical acclaim that no Mrs Johnstone has ever received before. She was incredibly the first ‘scouser’ to play the role and was extraordinarily wonderful on stage and off. A great girl! No matter when they leave or where they go to, they always want to come back. Helen Reddy did it in Australia, in America, in London and on tour – people just fall in love with the piece. When you get the privilege of producing and directing a musical like Blood Brothers, you have to protect, love and nurture that privilege. I think that’s another reason why it’s been around such a long time. Everyone involved with the show loves and respects it, and that comes across in the performances up and down the country, and all around the world. We do actually love and admire what we are working on, and without that it couldn’t have been the long-running show it is.