With the world premiere of The Girls, the musical inspired by Yorkshire’s own Calendar Girls, just a few weeks away, writers Gary Barlow and Tim Firth talk to Grant Woodward.
GARY Barlow strides into the brick and glass building in the shadow of London’s Shard and quickly finds himself being gobbled up by a sea of sunflowers.
The bright yellow emblems adorn the all-black outfits of the Calendar Girls, trademarks of that band of almost unnaturally effervescent Yorkshire women of a certain age who, having conquered box offices around the world, now have their sights set on Broadway.
The Take That frontman, soon sporting his own sunflower badge on a buttoned-down denim shirt, greets them like old friends and gets several shades of lipstick on his designer stubble for his trouble.
“He’s lovely,” gushes Angela Baker, whose loss of husband John to non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1998 inspired that now infamous calendar and the amazing rollercoaster ride that has followed. “Gary’s the kind of guy you would love to have as a son. He got the heart of our story and why we did it straight away.”
Barlow is here, in this high-end rehearsal space in a corner of south London, to show the ladies, and a hand-picked media pack, two of the songs he has co-written for new musical The Girls, the latest telling of the story of Rylstone and District Women’s Institute’s finest.
It follows in the wake of the hugely successful Calendar Girls film and subsequent record-breaking stage play, which between them have raised £4m for research into blood cancers.
Even at first listen the tunes have Barlow’s trademark pop hooks in spades. The recently written opening number, called simply Yorkshire, is guaranteed to have audiences humming along when the show has its world premiere at The Leeds Grand Theatre next month. At its end, there is barely a dry eye in the house.
“He told me not to go and watch a load of musicals,” says Barlow, motioning to co-writer Tim Firth as we sit upstairs an hour or so later, the girls having been whisked off for well-earned refreshments and a chat with the cast.
“Tim said, I want you to go and do what you do, be moved by whatever point of the story you like. Here’s some lyrics, here’s some titles. I want what you do, not you impersonating someone else who writes musicals.
“He would leave me alone for months at a time and I’d come in with a bunch of starts, melodies, ideas and then from that point Tim would progress them and start work on the lyric and making it work for the show.
“So I feel like I’ve been spoilt slightly because I haven’t had any of the heartache of working to specific scenes. I’ve had real freedom as a songwriter to be able to express how I’m feeling and how I think a scene should be, and then he’s really made it into the gold it is.”
The link-up between one of British pop’s greatest ever songwriters and a man with credits under his belt for both Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots would appear to be a match made in heaven.
No wonder the girls are already talking excitedly about future trips to opening nights on Broadway.
So it’s surprising, given the fact they’ve known each other for 25 years, that this is the first time Barlow and Firth have worked together.
Doncaster-burn Firth says they had been talking of writing an album for English divas, then, with the stage version of Calendar Girls breaking box office records, thoughts turned to setting it to music.
Four years later, they’re weeks away from opening night, which is how Firth explains the tears that welled in his eyes after the run-through of that rousing opening number: “Fatigue and fear.”
“I wouldn’t have just put the play to music, that would have been very dull,” he says, the rings under his eyes lending credence to that half-joked admission of worry.
“There was the sense that maybe there’s a different story to be told here, a story that involves kids and husbands.
“What started to emerge was a kind of comedy Under Milk Wood, the life of a small village for a world audience. A very English village green musical about very English things but which spoke at the heart of the very quiet, unassuming bravery that these women showed.
“We thought that if we can capture that then we may have this other telling, this whole other story.”
Barlow says he’d seen the film version with Dame Helen Mirren but had “sort of forgotten about it”. When Firth took him to see the stage version he was surprised at how quickly the ideas started to come.
“I went and watched the play and I could hear music straight away to it,” he recalls. “I think that initial thing’s very important, that feeling you get. I was ready to go. You know, let’s do it, let’s put some music to this.”
The pair met up with the Calendar Girls in Burnsall back in March and Barlow says it helped him get a better grip on a few things.
Since then they reckon about a third of the show has been changed. So did they feel a renewed responsibility to do the women and their story justice?
“Well, Tim’s had responsibility for two different incarnations with the film and the play,” says Barlow. “But before I met them all in Burnsall I hadn’t really thought about it.
“Once I’d met them... it’s different when you see people in person because then there does become a responsibility to it.
“I was also thinking when I saw them here today, what a beautiful thing for it to continue and for them to sit and watch themselves and their lives being recreated. It’s gorgeous, they must love it.
“When you’ve been doing something for four years and you’ve got it on its feet, how can you not be emotionally involved? It isn’t just because of your work, but then add to it the story...
“Their story is incredibly emotional and the humour is done in such a way that without the emotional side it wouldn’t be what it is. They both depend on one another.”
“It’s a northern humour but it’s also a very English humour,” Firth insists.
“Partly I wanted to bring the girls down here to hear the cast perform, but also I wanted the cast to meet the girls today because part of the rehearsals for this process is understanding that corporate humour, that mentality that they have which is at the heart of this story, that comedy.”
The ladies may already be eyeing up Broadway, but for The Girls’ writers hopes for the show’s future so far extend no further than that opening night in Leeds.
“I want the audience to come out of The Grand humming the songs,” says Firth. “And having laughed so much they didn’t realise they cried.”
The Girls opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on November 14. For tickets call 0844 848 2700 or visit thegirlsmusical.com.
The Calendar Girls story
The members of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute, near Skipton, became unlikely international celebrities after deciding to reveal nearly all in a fundraising calendar.
The 1999 stunt, in memory of one of their husbands, went on to spawn a Hollywood film which took £60m at the box office and an award-winning stage show. In the process they have raised a staggering £4m for the charity Bloodwise.
They will be staging collections at the end of the shows in Leeds and hope that the success of The Girls can add another £1m to that total.
“It’s still a big part of their lives,” said the musical’s co-writer, Tim Firth. “I hope they like the story, but I think they love the fact that every show raises funds for their charity.”