The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells on creating a new musical for Sheffield

Everybody's Talking About Jamie.
Everybody's Talking About Jamie.
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A new British musical based on a local story is being premiered in Sheffield. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

The concept of a concept album is nothing new. The concept of a concept album becoming a stage musical, also, not unprecedented.

They are both, however, increasingly rare beasts and should be celebrated whenever a new one comes along.

Step forward – indeed, into the limelight– Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a new British musical that is essentially a concept album come to life.

The show, which receives its premiere at Sheffield Crucible on Monday, is already generating a huge amount of buzz.

New British musicals often go through a long and torturous route to the stage, but to hear Dan Gillespie Sells talk about it, it’s a fairly simple, and incredibly showbiz, process.

“I knew Michael Ball from being on his radio show. I had been talking to him about the fact that I’d love to write something for the theatre and he put me in touch with a director he knows,” says Gillespie Sells.

He says this like it’s the most natural thing in the world for Michael Ball to give you a call and see if you fancy working with a director friend of his and for Gillespie Sells it kind of is. He is, after all, the frontman of chart-topping pop band The Feeling.

There was another showbiz meeting which led to Gillespie Sells pairing up with Tom MacRae, the writer of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. “I was at a demonstration against Pope Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and his stance on using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and my friend Russell Tovey introduced me to a mutual friend of his who turned out to be Tom.”

MacRae is a former Doctor Who writer who created the TV comedy Threesome.“We just hit it off straight away and realised we had a lot of common interests and realised very quickly that we would like to work with each other,” says Gillespie Sells.

It may seem on the face of it a pretty showbiz meeting: a pop star, one of the hottest young actors of his generation and a writer of one of TV’s biggest shows. Gillespie Sells insists it’s not quite so rarified. “A human being spoke to another human being and that’s how it happened. We’re just two human beings who have a common interest and wanted to work with each other.”

So the beginnings of a dream team were in place. There was Gillespie Sells, the frontman and songwriter of a band whose first album sold over one million copies and who in 2007 won the Ivor Novello award for Song Writer of the year, and there was MacRae, an accomplished writer of novels and TV shows.

They just needed a director. That’s when Michael Ball came in.

“He called me and asked if I was serious about wanting to do a musical and asked if I wanted to meet a director.”

The director was Jonathan Butterell and the final piece of the creative team slotted into place.

Coincidentally Butterell had had a meeting with Daniel Evans, then the artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. He wanted to turn the story of a Sheffield boy into a piece of theatre.

The Sheffield boy was Jamie Campbell, who became the centre of a media story when the BBC made a documentary about his campaign to be allowed to attend school dressed as a girl.

All three of the creative minds behind the show knew that this was a story they wanted to tell.

It was only a couple of years ago and now they are ready for the world premiere of their show.

When we speak, Gillespie Sells is in confident mood.

“As a songwriter I tend to naturally avoid cliche, which is something I think we all thought was important to do with this project,” he says. “New British musicals are a really hard and expensive thing to make, to get off the ground, but we were determined to make this work and we were also determined that it would be something genuinely fresh and exciting.

“Our attitude has always been that, as it’s so hard to make a musical, why not do something that hasn’t been done before. It was important to us that it was something fresh and new.”

While the show is the story of a boy who has to fight to live his life the way he wants to, which means dressing in drag, it’s also, says Gillespie Sells, a story about the relationship between a mother and a son. Even though it has this coming of age battle at its heart, one has to wonder if having a writer like Gillespie Sells involved means that the cliches of musical theatre are deftly sidestepped.

“It’s like a pop video come to life,” he says. “Coming from the world of music to something like this is in many ways very refreshing. The biggest difference is that in theatre people get paid peanuts, but that means everyone is in for it for the passion.

“Everyone is involved because they really love what they are doing and that passion is hopefully going to show on stage.”

So it all looks set to be another hit. There is great industry buzz about a brand new British musical. There is the impressive and magnificent stage of the Crucible. There is an Ivor Novello winning writer, a well established TV writer and a theatre director with huge experience under his belt. There is just one more element of this new musical that needs to be addressed. The fact that it’s about someone’s real life.

“Jamie has been brilliant,” says Gillespie Sells.

“It feels like we have rewritten parts of his life story, so it was so important that he was happy with what we were doing.”

The verdict?

“He has been brilliant, he’s been into rehearsals a few times and seems really happy.”