Comedian Harry Hill and composer Steve Brown have joined forces to create a new musical from Britain’s Britpop era. Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] arrives at The Lowry in October. So, what can we expect?
Harry: “We’ve tried to make it as funny as we can. Whenever I go to a musical and it’s described as ‘hilarious’ I sit there smiling. People laugh because they’re so desperate to do so but it’s what someone described to me as ‘a theatre laugh’. It’s not like a big belly laugh but we’ve crammed this show with big belly laughs. It’s basically a really good, fun night out. Obviously it’s about Tony Blair and it’s a great story. Whether you love him or loathe him you’ll get something out of it”.
What’s the basic premise?
Harry: “It starts off with him as a peace-loving hippie in a band and he then becomes Britain’s most successful Labour Prime Minister before he turns into what he is now, which is basically a kind of outcast. People have very strong feelings about him. I often wonder ‘If you bumped into him in the street, would you ask him for a selfie?’ He polarises opinion but we try not to take sides in the show. Well, we do take sides but it’s not left- or right-leaning. It’s more about the process of democracy and whether we ever get the leaders that we deserve”.
Where did the original inspiration for the show come from?
Harry: “I was struck by the arc of his story. It’s a story of extremes and it’s one we all know, which helps. There’s also an element of nostalgia to it”.
Steve: “I wasn’t a fan of his, I was more a fan of Gordon Brown, and I was amazed that Blair won when Brown was more of an intellectual heavyweight and a more serious figure. But we’ve seen what the public are prepared to fall for, although I’m not saying they fell for anything he didn’t at least attempt to give them. You may not agree with his principals but as Groucho Marx said ‘These are my principals and if you don’t like those I’ve got others’ and at least Blair had some. He still stands by what he did and he acts out of principle, even though he probably enjoys the limelight. Nobody goes into that line of work if they’re a shrinking violet”.
What makes his story ripe for musical comedy?
Steve: “All politicians are really ripe for such treatment but he’s higher-profile than most. He’s quite singular, much in the way Margaret Thatcher was. There have been straight dramas that have featured him and he’s been a big part of Michael Sheen’s career. And if it’s ripe for drama it’s probably ripe for comedy because as we all know comedy is tragedy plus time. In terms of it being a musical, in a sense he was the first rock-and-roll Prime Minister. We call it a rock opera but it’s a musical comedy. [Laughs] We only call it a rock opera because it gives it more pretension. It affords it a mock-serious tone. When he came to power there was the whole Britpop thing, which we allude to in one scene, and he’s obsessed with Mick Jagger and the guitar. Then he had Noel Gallagher round at Number Ten, sort of dishonouring the building and quaffing champagne. It was the last time the Union Jack wasn’t synonymous with fascist, far right, immigrant-detesting gits”.
Can you tell us a bit about the music in the show?
Steve: “I’m just trying to keep the variety and the pace going. Whoever is singing it and what’s being said dictates the style. Then sometimes you can achieve an interesting and funny juxtaposition. Saddam Hussein, for example, has a number that is done like Groucho Marx – to mention him again – more or less because Saddam had the moustache and the cigar, except his moustache wasn’t painted on. It’s a patter song, New Labour is very Britpop, and we begin in a sinisterly operatic, Grand Guignol style because Blair is on his deathbed. It’s like Citizen Kane, where we start with him dying, then head backwards from there. He’s sort of resurrected at the end and delivers the moral, which the audience goes out humming”.
Which other real-life characters are featured? And how much of the story is fact and how much is fiction?
Harry: “We’ve got John Prescott being played by a woman, as is Robin Cook. We’ve also got Gordon Brown, Princess Diana, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and George Bush in there.
“Obviously we can’t stick to the exact chronology and we have Gordon Brown going to the same university as Tony Blair, but we admit we’re playing with the truth all the way through it and we undermine it with a fairly light touch, at least until things go wrong. We also have Princess Diana coming back as a ghost”.
Steve: “Which to the best of our knowledge has never happened. And there are time constraints. The tour incarnation will be two tight 45-minute acts. In order to get everything in there, sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth. [Laughs] Boris Johnson told me that”.
From doing research, were there things you were surprised or intrigued to learn about Blair?
Harry: “There weren’t a hell of a lot of surprises. I didn’t know about his childhood. Apparently he spent two years in Australia, which we don’t mention in the show because it’s just dull. You can’t cover every aspect of his life. Have you seen his autobiography? It’s massive. Also, one of my bugbears about musicals is that they’re far too long, particularly for the modern attention span. For the tour we’ve cut about 15 minutes. It’s shorter and sharper. There’s not many things that merit more than two hours, including a break for an ice cream. A lot of musicals nowadays are bloated and they’re expensive, and the reason they’re expensive is often because it’s a film they are copying. The way we’re approaching it, at times it’s more like a cabaret show”.
What are you most looking forward to about taking the show around the country?
Harry: “The response will be different wherever we go. When we did it at the Park Theatre in London it was a kind of Labour heartland and there was a cafe opposite the venue with a banner saying ‘Reinstate Jeremy Corbyn’. They absolutely lapped it up, they got all the jokes and often were on their feet at the end. I personally feel that response will be universal, at least if you’re of a certain age. Whether young people will get all the jokes I don’t know but it’ll be interesting to see. And I think it will do really well the further north we get”.
Steve: “You often get a much noisier reception in the north of the country. The further south you go you tend to get slightly more loud smiling rather than the raucous laughter that occurs the further north you go. That’s only a general rule of thumb, of course. One thing we both detest is when people underestimate the intelligence of the audience, what they know and what they don’t know. Ultimately we’ve done something that makes us laugh. You just have to assume you’re not the only two maniacs in the country”.
Does The Lowry venue have any significance for you?
Steve: “I remember one time when we there there was an evacuation after the fire alarm went off. We were stood around chatting to all these people in period costume who were doing Jane Eyre in the studio theatre, went back in and launched into a version of Crazy Arthur Brown’s Fire – as had previously been arranged – but it was terrible because the mood was broken”.
Harry: “We were out there for about half an hour, which put the dampers on it. But it’s a good example of a modern theatre that works really well. You’ve got the two auditoriums there and they’re both really well laid out”.
Did you invite Mr Blair to come see it?
Harry: “There’s an open invitation for Tony Blair to come along and half-price for any members of his family. Is it a business, after all. What might he make of the show? [Laughs] I think he’d be heartbroken. I’ve made enquiries. I talked to [journalist and presenter] Robert Peston about it, after he came to the workshop. He knew Tony Blair back in the 1990s and when I asked him ‘What would he make of it?’ he told me that Blair basically doesn’t have a sense of humour. He said Cherie might find it funnier”.