Jonathan Harvey interview: “A lot of the critics were taken aback when Louie Spence was gyrating in a G-string”
By Classic Pop | November 17, 2022
In 2019, 20 years after their first venture into musical theatre with Closer To Heaven, the Pet Shop Boys reunited with playwright Jonathan Harvey and actor Frances Barber for a sequel on the Edinburgh Fringe. That year, we sent Douglas McPherson backstage to meet the team…
“It was a musical in which the two main guys did a line of coke and then shagged in the gents toilet of a nightclub,” chortles playwright Jonathan Harvey. “It was never going to be The Sound Of Music, or on at the London Palladium!”
Maybe so, but when Harvey teamed up with Pet Shop Boys to write Closer To Heaven, they created a ground-breaking show that successfully bridged the gap between contemporary pop and traditional musical theatre, paving the way for many of the jukebox musicals that dominated the West End in the 2000s.
It also came with a superb soundtrack of specially-written Pet Shop Boys songs including Vampires, In Denial, Positive Role Model, Friendly Fire and the exhilarating title track, many of which were released ahead of the show’s West End run on their 1999 album Nightlife.
“It was before its time,” says Frances Barber, who played nightclub hostess Billie Trix in the original production, in 2001.
“Think of how prescient those songs were. Take the track Shameless: ’We’ll do anything for our 15 minutes of fame.’ Everything now is a reality TV show and they wrote a song about that 20 years ago.”
Sent from heaven
Fast forward to the present and the same creative team is about to stage a sequel of sorts at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Penned by Harvey, MUSIK is a 50-minute one-woman show featuring Barber as Billie Trix, who talks about her life as a rock star between belting out a set of four new Pet Shop Boys songs and reprising a few favourites from Closer To Heaven.
As the band’s Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe explain about the show: “When we wrote Closer To Heaven almost 20 years ago, we loved the compelling outrageousness of the character Billie Trix as written by Jonathan and performed by Frances Barber.
“We have all discussed for many years the idea of creating her own one-woman show which would give us the chance to write more songs for her as she looks back on her incredible career. We’re thrilled that this show is finally happening.”
Jonathan Harvey has been a Pet Shop Boys fan since they first scaled the charts in the 80s. “West End Girls, Suburbia… their album Please was a soundtrack to my late teen years,” reminisces the playwright who once wrote a series of television plays called West End Girls.
“It wasn’t about Pet Shop Boys. It was about two teenage girls bunking off school to go and see an East 17 concert. But because it was set on the tube, West End Girls seemed to be an appropriate title.”
Born in Liverpool, Harvey won the National Girobank Young Writer Of The Year Award for his first play, The Cherry Blossom Tree, in 1987.
He went on to make his name in the 90s with the play-turned-movie Beautiful Thing, and Boom Bang-A-Bang, a play about a group of friends gathered to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. He has since written for radio and television, penning more than 130 episodes of Coronation Street.
A meeting of minds
It was the BBC that first suggested a possible collaboration between Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys. “Some hotshot producer wanted to do a musical on telly and thought that we’d be a good match,” he recalls.
“I don’t think we actually met at that point. I wasn’t keen on doing a TV musical and I don’t think they were, either.
“But I had quite a few plays on in the early 90s and I was aware that Chris and Neil had been in to see them. Then I think it must have been their management that made inroads and we went out to dinner.
“They said that what they’d really like to do was a stage musical – that appealed to me much more. That must have been 1996 and it was then that we started getting together and planning what turned into Closer To Heaven.”
The idea was born before the success of the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia!, in 1999, and the subsequent fad for jukebox musicals that led to long-running West End hits such We Will Rock You featuring the songs of Queen and Our House, which revolved around the Madness back catalogue.
This being the case, there was no intention to write a jukebox show based on existing Pet Shop Boys hits, or to ape the long-running West End smash Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, with a biography of the band.
“We wanted to do something original and contemporary, set in a world we knew, with completely new music,” says Harvey.
“I remember my mum telling me about when she’d gone to see West Side Story at the cinema as a young person, and the fact that the album of West Side Story was No.1 in the charts at the same time.
“That sort of thing didn’t happen in my childhood, so we wanted to write something where the music in the show was the popular music of its day, which in our case would be club music.”
As the duo’s chief instrumentalist Chris Lowe said at the time: “It won’t sound like a West End musical at all. We haven’t compromised at all in the way the music is produced.
“We’ve got the computers playing, the electronic keyboards and samplers. Jonathan inhabits the kind of world we’ve inhabited. He’s been to clubs like Trade and Heaven, so it’s not like he’s an outsider.”
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Harvey had never written a musical before, so it was a learning experience for him as well as the band. They began by analysing film musicals including The Sound Of Music, to see how the songs were used to tell a story.
As Neil Tennant put it: “At the end of each song, people have changed, or the situation has changed. By the end of My Favourite Things, for instance, the governess is the pal of the kids. Before, they all hate her. And they do that in four minutes. And if you look at every song, that is the case.”
Harvey says that the Pet Shop Boys’ writing style was already suited to the stage: “They write sort of character songs – about people expressing their feelings.”
For his own part, he adds: “Music was quite prominent in my plays. Beautiful Thing has a soundtrack of Mama Cass’ music, so it wasn’t too great a leap to having characters actually singing.”
Harvey, Tennant and Lowe worked closely on the plot. “I had an idea set in the club world – a kind of Romeo And Juliet story,” says the playwright.
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“I told them the bare bones of my idea and they really liked it. But it was very much a two-line pitch idea. So together we organically developed the story, with me writing it and them giving me ideas.
“It was a three-way thing. Every time there was a decision to be made, we’d all have to agree on it. It certainly felt like what ended up on stage came from all three of our brains, not just mine.
“I remember Chris was very against one of the characters being killed off, but Neil and I overruled him,” the writer adds.
The script and songs were composed at the same time. “They had a house in the country where they recorded,” explains Harvey. “A car would pick me up and drive me from my council flat to the countryside and we’d spend a few days together.
“We’d watched loads of musicals and tried to work out how music was used. It seemed to be that musicals opened with a number sort of saying, ’This is the world of the show’ and what you can expect.
“So we’d go, ’Right, that’s the opening number. Now, what’s going to happen in scene one, what’s going to happen in scene two? Where do we need the next song? What does the song need to be about?’
“We did that together, then they’d go down to the studio and play around with some song ideas and I’d go to my room and write a scene. We’d reconvene at lunch and they’d play me some music and I’d show them what I’d written.”
Trix or treat
The story of Closer To Heaven follows Straight Dave, an Irishman newly-arrived in London, who gets a job as a bartender in a gay club. He finds himself romantically torn between the club owner’s daughter, Shel, and local drug dealer Mile End Lee.
Central to the show is Billie Trix, a washed up, drug-addled rock star who works as the club’s hostess and who was brought to life on stage by Frances Barber.
“I’ve always been a Pet Shop Boys fan and when I had an opportunity to do something that involved them I jumped at the chance,” says Barber, who had previously appeared in an episode of the Dawn French comedy Murder Most Horrid written by Harvey, as well as in his sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. “I adore their music and we all had a fantastic time.”
Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, Closer To Heaven opened at London’s 350-seater Arts Theatre in May 2001 and was intended to run until September. When early performances sold out, the run was extended to January 2002.
By summer, however, ticket sales were dwindling. With the producers jittery about declining audiences in the West End generally, in the wake of 9/11, the show was pulled on 13 October, replaced by The Vagina Monologues.
The band put the blame on bad reviews, although Barber says the newspaper critics simply weren’t ready for the show’s depiction of club culture.
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“It was ahead of its time, a bit like the Boy George musical [Taboo, which followed in 2002]. For people who’d never been clubbing, it was shocking. For those people who have been clubbing, it wasn’t.
“I loved it, because I was no stranger to clubbing in those days,” Barber continues, “but I think a lot of the critics were taken aback. When Louie Spence was gyrating in a G-string, I think they found it a little bit frightening!”
Despite its short original run, Closer To Heaven was fondly remembered by those who saw it.
“Now that the new show is being advertised, the most unlikely people are saying they saw Closer To Heaven and that they loved it,” Barber reports. “Just last night I met the editor of Vogue and he said, ’Oh my god, I saw that – I adored it.’”
Closer To Heaven was revived in Brisbane in 2005 and Texas in 2010. In 2015, it returned to London for a sold-out four-week run at the Union Theatre in Southwark, which is where plans for a sequel were drawn up.
“The Union Theatre is tiny. It was like they’d put it on in my living room as a trip down Memory Lane for me,” says Harvey. “So many memories came flooding back about when the show was on and what was going on in my life at that time.
“I went with Neil, Chris and Frances and we all thought what a hoot it would be to do a show at Edinburgh about Billie Trix and what she’s up to today.”
Variety is the spice
MUSIK takes its title from new song Ich Bin Musik – ’I am music’ – and takes the form of An Evening With Billie Trix. As the character talks us through her life, the new songs by Pet Shop Boys are performed in a variety of styles to reflect the different eras that she worked in, says Barber.
“She starts off singing how she was born in Berlin, she didn’t know her father and her mother hated her… and you kind of think, ’Oh my god, what is this evening going to be like?’ Then it immediately goes into jokes from Jonathan, because that’s what he’s best at.
“Then Billie goes into her Andy Warhol phase, so there’s a song about soup.”
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Next up is Run Girl Run, a protest song inspired by the iconic photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam.
“I recorded that when we did Closer To Heaven, but we didn’t put it in the show, so a lot of people won’t know it,” says Barber. “There’s a disco song called Ich Bin Musik. Then I reprise Friendly Fire from Closer To Heaven. You have to have that one in there, because that’s Billie’s big anthem.
“Then, at the end, there’s this joyful anthem about looking towards the future, being kind to yourself, burying the past and not being too hard on yourself. That’s the finale.”
Barber will sing over backing tracks by the band, and has also recorded the songs for release online ahead of the show.
“I’m not a singer, so I found it quite terrifying to do,” the actress admits. “But Neil and Chris really held my hand and were incredibly encouraging to me. Every time I messed up, they’d go, ’Don’t worry, Dusty Springfield used to do that!’ And Liza Minnelli and Chrissie Hynde, all these women they’ve worked with – oh my god!”
Barber was previously produced by the Pet Shop Boys on the original cast recording of Closer To Heaven. She also joined them to sing Friendly Fire on their first live album, Concrete, in 2006. The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 2 and she recalls: “I was incredibly taken aback when I went to rehearsals because it was with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
“In came Rufus Wainwright with his people, and Robbie Williams with his entourage. Someone said to me, ’Where are your people?’ I said, ’I don’t have any people!’ It was quite nerve-wracking for an actress who’s not known as a singer. But it’s such a great song and the lyrics are superb.”
Looking back at his work with the Pet Shop Boys, Harvey says: “The thing I remember really is that I was a skint artist in the 90s and their generosity was quite overwhelming. They really helped me out and were very supportive. Let’s not forget that the critics hated Closer To Heaven, but it’s something I’m really proud of. I’ll always be proud to have worked with Chris and Neil.”
Harvey is cagey about whether MUSIK will have a future after Edinburgh, saying: “Obviously you hope that what you do will have a longer life, but let’s not run before we can walk.”
Barber reveals, however, “We’ve been invited to go to the Leicester Square Theatre just after Edinburgh for four or five nights, which we’re in the middle of negotiating. Then hopefully it might end up as a late-night cabaret show in somewhere like the Crazy Cock. It’s more of a cabaret than a theatre piece.”
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