Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, the new show based on the songs of the Smiths, opened last week at the Lyric Hammersmith. Laura North spoke to Andrew Wale and Perrin Manzer Allen, aka the Anonymous Society, who emerged from rehearsals for a chain-smoke and a chat about Morrissey, Mamma Mia! and crying over show-tunes.
‘The Smiths’ and ‘musical’ are two words that do not sit comfortably together, and the combination has made fans of the band even more anxious than usual. How can you put the Smiths, arguably the most influential pop group of the eighties, on the stage? Morrissey and Marr didn’t write any overtly theatrical numbers like We Are The Champions or Dancing Queen which are featured in the pop-musicals based on Queen and Abba; the Smiths offer tracks titled Unloveable, Never Had No One Ever and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. How can such introverted, melancholy and witty songs find their way from Morrissey’s mouth to a theatre in Hammersmith?
“What a ridiculous idea” and “it’s going to be just like Mamma Mia!” are a couple of comments that Andrew Wale, Director and Co-designer, has heard about the idea for a show based on the Smiths. Even an academic, Dr Justin O’Connor, joined in the criticism, “The concept sounds absolutely terrible…” (Manchester Online). Andrew Wale and Perrin Manzer Allen (Musical Director and Arranger) dismiss any fears that the Smiths are getting the ‘pop-musical’ treatment. “It would be foolhardy,” insists Wale, “to attempt to put them into a story like that. It would be absurd to say were going to recreate Morrissey or his personal feelings.” The show is described as “a dig in the ribs to musical theatre” and Allen says that it “would be hard to see it as a musical”. Smiths fans can breathe a sigh of relief and slick back their quiffs without fear of parody; there will be no Morrissey look-alike dressed in a towel singing “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”
"It would be absurd to say were going to recreate Morrissey or his personal feelings”
But if it’s not a musical, then what is it? Wale provides an answer: “It’s like physical theatre with music.” There are six performers, who sing and dance, a string quartet, recorded percussive and rhythmic loops, and video projections. Wale and Allen have derived themes from the songs: “There are lots of Smiths songs that talk about dislocation, jealousy, bitterness and there are quite a lot of violent images,” says Wale. Lyrics from Big Mouth Strikes Again immediately spring to mind, its violent images overlaid with irony – “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking / When I said I’d like to smash every tooth / In your head”. The show transplants this into a family structure, littered with drinking, sexual abuse, the disintegration of relationships, and, ultimately, murder: Barbarism Begins At Home. Such adult content wouldn’t be found in a pop-musical (although the Bohemians in We Will Rock You do fight ferociously against the Boy Bands).
Since the notion that the show could be a musical has been strongly dismissed, I assume that they would disapprove of the pop-musical. In order to gauge the level of their disapproval, I ask if they had seen any of the big musicals. Both Allen and Wale laugh. “Yes, well,” Allen says, “we used to be in them.” It turns out that their careers have been firmly rooted in musical theatre and they met whilst performing in Les Misérables in Germany. They are in fact staunch defenders of the form. “How dare anybody say as a genre it’s completely worthless? There’s incredible things in the history of musical theatre,” says Wale. But some bombshells are bigger than others: Wale is currently associate director (in about eight countries) of a musical that really knows the name of the game – Mamma Mia! “Mamma Mia! is a show that can sometimes be perceived as lightweight and fluffy, but if it’s dealt with properly it can be a meaningful expressive piece of theatre.” And Allen, a man who looks like he’d cry only if you poked him in the eye, admits that musicals can make his tears roll freely. “I have to confess that there are still musicals that I listen to and they make me cry. In truth a good happy show-tune will make me weep. I even cried in Mamma Mia! I remember weeping many a time… while conducting.”
But even though musicals can still make them cry, they wanted to try something different. “We know those inside out,” says Wale, “so we don’t need to do that again. We were thinking ‘Oh God we’ve done this musical theatre thing for years, there must be something else.” He is aware of the limitations of traditional music theatre. “If you said I love you, you had to write music that said I love you, you had to hug somebody and sing I love you, and you had to light it in a loving way or dance some loving steps. Saying I love you is not as simple as that: you might say I love you but you might be in the supermarket.” Wale continues, “We wanted to try and stretch the form further.” They tried doing this six years ago with a show based on the music of Jacques Brel (a singer/songwriter from Belgium), to great critical acclaim, receiving a Fringe First Award, the TMA Best Musical Award and a review from the Independent which reads: “Anonymous Society blessedly and triumphantly breaks every rule”.
"In truth a good happy show-tune will make me weep. I even cried in Mamma Mia!"
Now they’re breaking the rules with the Smiths, and going further than having a romantic encounter in a supermarket. How did they choose which songs they would experiment with? “We listened to the whole cannon of Smiths music and plucked out the songs which we were particularly drawn to or that seemed apt,” says Wale. “There’s plenty to choose from in the Smiths.” Their final list is fairly extensive, and they offer to speak it into my microphone. Here are a few that made it in: Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, How Soon Is Now?, I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, I Know It’s Over, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want and, of course, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. Allen says, “We’ve developed probably 26 or 27. You never know, we might get into the third week and find that something is missing. Hope not.”
The music has been dramatically transformed, with a string quartet replacing the riffs and rhythms of Marr’s guitar. “It’s a very different sound. The Smiths are a guitar band basically,” says Wale. “But,” interjects Allen, “using strings was also the challenge. It would be very simple to put a guitar band on stage and recreate the sounds. There are a lot of guitar licks in the original recordings and it would be a pity not to have them here; it’s an interesting thing to hear them played by a cello instead of an electric guitar.” The string quartet (called Eclipse) is made up of classical musicians who have been doing work for pop bands. “And they’re very eager to work in that direction,” says Allen. “It’s like taking a ballet dancer and giving them some modern dance. Technically they’re all top of the line. They’re making sounds that they didn’t make during four years of music school playing Mozart and Sibelius concertos.” Apparently, the musicians didn’t really know the Smiths at all which, paradoxically, was a good thing says Allen: “they didn’t have a pre-conceived idea of how it must be”.
While Allen was very keen to rework the Smiths for the stage, Wale was reluctant. When Allen suggested the idea, Wale said: “I think that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life.” His response was not dissimilar to the recent disparaging remarks from fans, which isn’t surprising since Wale is an avid and protective fan himself – “I felt the music must not be touched.” When he was younger he listened to the records over and over again, and “could go and cry to myself in the bedroom”. But time has intervened and “you reach 40 and question why you don’t do that anymore. There hasn’t been a song in the last ten years where I’ve gone, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to hear that 50 times otherwise I’ll die.’” Allen isn’t so sure: “That’s not true! Everytime you come to visit me you pull out that Danish Eurovision song.” Which song is this? They sing it for me but I still have no idea, although apparently it came second in 2003. Apart from that mysterious song, nothing has glued him to his headphones since, and when the idea of the Smiths resurfaced he was more accepting. “I’d lived a bit and thought well maybe I can let it go, I’ll just breathe, breathe and let it go.”
"Oh my God, I’ve got to hear that 50 times otherwise I’ll die"
He can now assume a more altruistic approach to the music. “The Smiths songs are still here, you can still go and put the record on; we haven’t broken every record in the world.” It is true that music is subjected to change every time it is performed live. Morrissey’s voice at 46 gives his Smiths songs – for example, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – a mellower and more reflective tone that smooths down the edges of the intensely emotional original (listen to Morrissey Live At Earl’s Court for the most recent recording). Wale thinks that trying something new is more interesting than imitating. “A tribute band is a very strange thing for me. It is just copying; I can understand that people want to listen to the songs live and, I suppose, try and align themselves with the person they value and worship, but we’re not doing a tribute musical.”
As for the Smiths, Morrissey and Marr were happy to grant the rights. They haven’t been involved in the project, but Wale wouldn’t seek their involvement. He says that it wouldn’t really help, “short of sitting down with Morrissey and asking, ‘what does this really, really mean to you, what’s the personal story behind this song?’ which he’s never going to do. It wouldn’t be interesting to us anyway because the people in our cast have to get up and sing.” Wale then offers quite a scary thought. “If we had a cast of six Morrisseys then it would be a bit different.” If there were six Morrisseys on the stage or off, everything would be a bit different.