Ben Elton’s career has spanned plays, novels, and a feature film, in addition to 30 years as a successful comic writer and performer on British television and the stand-up circuit. But Elton has always reserved a special place in his heart for musicals, having written three that feature music from such diverse talents as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Queen, and Rod Stewart. The last-named rocker was the inspiration for Tonight’s the Night, the 2003 West End show that has begun a new UK tour this year. He talks to theatre critic Matt Wolf about popular songbooks, his love of the stage, and why jukebox musicals deserve a far better rap than they sometimes receive.
It’s been over a decade now since Tonight’s the Night played the West End. What’s your feeling about the show as you return to it in a fresh production this many years on?
I’ve always loved this show for the same reasons that I have always loved the theatre. It’s wonderful to be a part of this community of artists who dedicate themselves to their art. Backstage they may be rinsing their socks out in the sink or whatever and then they go out and make everybody in the audience feel like champions. What we want to say with this show, in particular, is that there’s nothing wrong with theatre being a fantastic night out that makes you feel great so that you go home feeling better than you did when you arrived – that’s what people are paying for and that’s what the theatre can do.
In fact, you were exposed to the theatre as a youngster before you were ever exposed to Rod Stewart.
Absolutely. I played the Artful Dodger [in Oliver!] twice as a kid and my first real musical theatre experience came when I was about 12 or so and I was taken as the guest of a schoolfriend to see Grease at the Dominion Theatre – where [Elton’s Queen musical] We Will Rock You is playing now! I love musical theatre and always have done, whereas it took some time in my own life before I started going to gigs the way that my own children [14-year-old twins and a 12-year-old] do now. Going to gigs then was nothing as prevalent as it is now; I don’t think I went to any until I got to Manchester University and saw The Talking Heads and Dire Straits
What was the impetus behind a show that tethers an original story by you to the extant Rod Stewart songbook?
Well, let’s face it. It’s difficult to think of anybody more famous in the world of pop music than Rod Stewart. There may be people as famous like Bono and Paul McCartney but there aren’t many out there who can surpass what Rod has achieved. And what’s great is that when you listen to Rod’s music and then look at his life, he always seems so fabulously good-humoured as well, so I thought what would work might be a story that brought to the stage his grace and good humour and something of his devilish side, while also recognising the fact that he sings about heartache as well as anyone ever has.
Your script for Tonight’s the Night involves Satan and a so-called ‘soul swap’ and a geeky young mechanic from Detroit who is none-too-accidentally called Stuart. How did the idea for the story come to you?
I spent a week listening to Rod’s music intensively, which of course was no hardship at all, and as I listened and listened and listened, I tried to identify the overriding spirit of the songs, which were all about love and good times and winning and losing girls and all the things that quite frankly make for good stories! So I sat down and tried to think of something that would do justice to Rod’s own gift for storytelling and came up with a story that reminds us of that thing we’re always been told over and over again in drama – ‘to thine own self be true’.
How does a quote from Hamlet apply to Tonight’s the Night?
[Laughs] Our show is really about a shy kid in Stuart who wishes that he could be like Rod and gets his chance, only then to discover that only Rod can be like Rod, but that what Stuart can be is himself. The point is that you’ll do better in life if you try and build on your own strength and personality, rather than being jealous and wishing you were somebody else – that’s to say, nobody but Rod can be Rod just as nobody but you can be you and nobody but me can be me: it’s a simple story, which I think is perfect for a musical.
Were you worried about what Rod would think?
I first sent a synopsis of the script to Arnold [Stiefel, Rod’s manager, and a co-producer on the show] and fortunately he loved it and said that he was going to say that to Rod and hoped that he would love it, too. To this day, I’m not sure whether Rod ever read the synopsis or not but what happened was that he came to our workshop and turned to me at the end and said: “Well, you’ve made me a legend, haven’t you?” – which was of course hilarious because he’s been a legend all along!
Still, it must have been heartening to have so strong a seal of approval. Did you have an intuitive sense that his music would translate well to the musical theatre stage?
What’s great is that Rod writes songs from the heart like ‘Maggie May’ or he will choose to cover exquisite material like ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, the Cat Stevens song, but they always tell the story of somebody going through some set of emotions, be they pride and joy and heartache, or from love to hate or hate to love. They’re all about being a guy, really, I guess – they’re guy songs – but obviously they appeal to women as well, because they’re written with such sensitivity, and they come with emotions that concern us all, which are love, pride, hope and the dream that tomorrow will be a better day than today.
You’ve had success with the songbooks of Rod Stewart and, of course, Queen, with We Will Rock You going into its second decade at the Dominion Theatre in the West End. Are there some popular singer-songwriters whom you don’t think would lend themselves to this approach?
There are. I’m busking here as I say this, but I don’t think Bob Dylan’s music would necessarily work in this way; his music is too eclectic in that you can’t sit down and say, “What’s Bob’s vibe?” It’s just too crazy. And for my part at least, I’m just not that interested in writing the biography of someone set to their music. I was approached to do that as regards the genius of Tina Turner, but what I prefer to do is write an original story embodying the spirit of the artist or the band.
Since Tonight’s the Night, jukebox musicals have continued to proliferate both sides of the Atlantic; a new one drawing on the songbook of Carole King and entitled Beautiful has just opened on Broadway.
I’m not surprised and I will argue to anyone who wants to listen that jukeboxes are not something to be ashamed of [laughs]! They are filled with memories and dreams and love and laughter and they are good, fun things, and the theatre can be good fun, as well. In my view, it’s a perfectly legitimate and honourable thing to seek to entertain the public with music that they love, and the fact that the music is old and the story is new strikes me as no more reprehensible than attaching new music to an old story, as with The Lion King and Billy Elliot.
One last question for now: was Tonight’s the Night always the obvious song title for your show as a whole?
No and the jury’s still out as to whether this was the right one; Phil McIntyre, our producer, still thinks it should be called Hot Legs!
* Tonight’s The Night continues its tour until 2 August. The show is presented by Phil McIntyre Entertainments, Arnold Stiefel and Ambassador Theatre Group. Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger.
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Tonight’s the Night on tour from January 2014 – News