CHRISTOPHER BOND is probably best known to theatregoers as the playwright of the 1970 version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that pumped new blood into George Dibdin Pitt’s bloody melodrama (“It needed a heart transplant, not a facelift,” says Bond) and inspired Stephen Sondheim to create his musical magnum opus six years later.
A prolific author, Bond has written both straight plays and musicals, and as an artistic director, was responsible for staging – among other things – the first professional production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983.
His latest effort is another musical, written in collaboration with long-time creative partner and composer (and Chickenshed co-founder) Jo Collins. Romford Rose is an original country and western musical that likens the East End of London to America’s Wild West, and focuses on one eventful night in the life of 18-year-old country fan Rose.
Central to the show is an onstage band that includes pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole and Iain Whitmore, formerly of the 1970s rock band Starry Eyed and Laughing.
Romford Rose debuts at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch on 27 May, and in the run-up to opening night, Craig Glenday spoke with the avuncular Bond about the show’s genesis, Dolly Parton and his love of football, as well as his earlier work, which – as Craig found out – does not include Evil Dead The Musical, despite the many online biographies that attribute the show to him. (There appear to be two Christopher Bonds with experience of horror musicals!)
How are the rehearsals for Romford Rose going?
They’re going alright, thanks. A new musical in four weeks is a tall order but we’re cracking on and it’s going well.
Is this something you’ve had written for a while or a brand new piece?
I finished writing it about two months ago. I’ve been working on it for a year but I left the last song until a couple of months ago, when I had a better idea of what it was all about and I’d finishing writing it. It took me about 12 months to write the book and the lyrics, and at the same time Jo Collins, my collaborator, was writing the tunes. I’d send her the lyrics and she’d write the music.
Isn’t this an unusually quick turnaround?
Yeah, it’s come together quite quickly. Normally nowadays the process is to have some kind of workshop but in this case I thought was better to just go for it. It’s a band show and the people I wanted in the band were only available for a limited period. Particularly BJ Cole, our pedal steel [guitar] player. So we decided we just had to go for it.
Have you written the show around certain performers that you already know?
Musically, because it’s country music, it’s important for me to be comfortable with the line-up, which is basically drums, bass, guitar and keyboards, but also a fiddle and a pedal steel guitar. The sound is so iconic – if it ain’t got pedal steel it ain’t country! We definitely wanted those particular people in the band involved. It has a strong through-story too, but that cast itself pretty quickly too.
Are you a long-time country fan?
Yes I am. I think the first 78 record I bought back in the day was ‘Cool Water’ by Frankie Laine; the first film I can remember seeing was High Noon. So yeah, a huge fan. I am a fan of other genres as well but country has always been special for me.
So why have you left it so late in your career to write a country show?
I did one before, actually, in Liverpool in 1977. When I was the boss of the Everyman Theatre there, we took a show out on the road to pubs and clubs on Merseryside called The Weston Kirby Cowboy, which was a country and western musical. But that was a covers show – ‘El Paso’, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and about a dozen others. This new one is an original musical with songs written specifically for the show.
What inspired the show?
I’ve worked here quite a lot in Hornchurch, which is about a couple of miles down the road from Romford, and one night I was touring Romford looking for a pub that had a Liverpool football match on the telly, and the place reminded me of the Wild West! It reminded me a bit of Liverpool and a bit of the Wild West. You know, bouncers on the door… you walk into these bars and it’s a bit like walking into a saloon. I thought: ‘Maybe there is a connection somewhere between the music and the place.” Then I thought about a young girl growing up and not really getting on with her parents but really getting on with Dolly Parton’s music. Dolly Parton appears in the show. Not, alas, the woman herself – not yet, anyway!
Anyway, it grew from there. I talked to Jo Collins – she and I’d done three or four shows together – and we agreed that we’d like to write a country musical based around this girl called Rose. Which is extremely easy to rhyme! And also The Romford Rose sounds like a country song. So, it’s set on the night of her 18th birthday party. A country band’s been hired in, there’s a marquee, a barbecue, and it all takes place over this one night in Romford. And it’s 90 or 95% sung-through. There’s very little dialogue.
It’s another interesting string to your bow. You’ve worked across a lot of genres…
I’ve done a few, yes!
And one my favourites is the horror musical, particularly Evil Dead The Musical…
Ah, I’m afraid I didn’t write that one! I occasionally look at what it says about me on Wikipedia and there are about three or four gross errors, which I’ve thought I should probably correct. Quite honestly, I’m not a fan of Wikipedia, although a lot of what is on there I did do! Sweeney Todd, of course. And I did the first production of Blood Brothers. I’ve done everything from new librettos for Carmen and Verdi’s Macbeth to pub shows. I’m just looking at my bit in the programme now, and – oh, look, a big picture of Dolly
Parton! We like that. Anyway, I’m ever so sorry – I didn’t write
Well, Sweeney Todd is pretty horrific. What did writing that play do for your career?
It’s been very good to me, and Steve Sondheim has always been great. I’ve directed [the musical version] seven times – I did it in
Berlin, Sweden, Liverpool, Watford, Holland Park, and a couple of other places. How much credit shall I take for it? Ten per cent? The story’s mine and the characters are mine, but really Stephen turned it into something amazing.
But it started with you revamping a well-worn story, so you deserve the credit!
Well, I gave him [Sweeney Todd] a reason for what he does. The joy of Sweeney is that it can be done so many different ways. I’ve seen it so many times, yet I’m still not sure who the biggest villain of the piece really is. Is it Sweeney? Is it Mrs Lovett? Who’s leading who?
[Laughs] It’s the judge!
Do you have a strong musical background?
No, not really. I was a child actor. My parents were both actors, and when my dad came back after the war, they set up a touring theatre company in the west of England and I toured around with them from when I was born, really. I started acting around the age of four or five, then did odd bits of child acting before going to what’s now the Royal Shakespeare Company when I about 10 or 11 and played all the boys parts. I went to drama school then got a bit fed up with acting so I started directing and writing.
I had a novel published when I was 20 or 21, but it wasn’t very successful, and I thought: ‘This is a bit too much like hard work.’ You’ve got to write so many words for a book, it’s much easier to write plays. So I wrote my first play for the Victoria Theatre at Stoke-on-Trent, which was Sweeney Todd when I was 23.
Wow, so Sweeney was your first piece?
Yup. Then I became the resident playwright at Stoke, where we used to do music documentaries. But then I went up to Liverpool to the Everyman Theatre and worked with the likes of Julie Walters, Alison Steadman and Pete Postlethwaite. I stayed in Liverpool for 17 years, eventually running both the Everyman and the Playhouse and doing, amongst others, Sweeney Todd the musical, the first production of Willy Russell’s show Blood Brothers, and a fair few other musicals – The Beggar’s Opera, a show called Love and Kisses From Kirby, which was one my favourites, but it was more of a documentary about living in Kirby.
Then I moved south and ran the Half Moon Theatre in the East End of London for a time, then I went freelance, and now I direct maybe one show every two years, usually abroad because they pay so much better. But Romford Rose is one from the heart, so here I am.
What have been the biggest changes in theatre you’ve observed over the years?
I think the transfer of responsibility from the artist director to the chief executive. Theatres – like everything, really – have become corporate. Everything’s now about co-productions between various theatres, about splitting costs, and there are very few theatres that have permanent companies the likes of which we used to have.
And musicals have become bigger and bigger and more and more expensive, to the point where there are now really just two types of musical: ones that are commercial and try-outs. There doesn’t seem to be that much in between. Mind you, I do live in West Cornwall, so I don’t get to see that much. I do get to see Kneehigh who are pretty hot. But in terms of musical theatre, we only really get the odd tour. It’s a shame that it’s all become so Disneyfied; and when I say this, it doesn’t mean that all of [Disney’s] shows are not good, but theatre has become a corporate business rather than an exciting event.
The cost of staging shows doesn’t help…
Well, yes, the tickets and are so expensive. It’s like football tickets. It breaks my heart when you go to a football match and see all those empty seats, probably bought for corporate sponsors. I feel that some West End musicals have got a bit like that.
Would you pay £120 for a ticket in the West End?
I can’t think I’d ever pay that for a ticket. I suppose I would pay £120 to see Liverpool play Seville in Basel but I’d probably have to pay 100 times that, because there are so few of them available.
Maybe for Dolly Parton?
I did pay nearly that to see Bruce Springsteen the last time he was at the Albert Hall. So yes, for Dolly Parton? Probably!
* Romford Rose continues at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch until 18 June.