It’s a boy- meet-boy romance.

With tap dancing gladiators. The Pet Shop Boys tell

Rupert Smith about their new musical.

There’s an old gay joke: if the Sistine Chapel had been

decorated by a heterosexual, it would have been

wallpapered. The same principle applies to musicals. If

you let straight men loose on the genre, you get Ben

Elton, football and the Troubles. Unleash gay men, and

you get West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate and the works of

Stephen Sondheim. So when it was announced that the Pet

Shop Boys had teamed up with playwright Jonathan Harvey

(Beautiful Thing, Gimme Gimme Gimme), nobody was

expecting anything laddish. In fact, their musical,

Closer to Heaven, which opens at the end of the month,

makes Funny Girl look like a Guy Ritchie movie.

‘We never sat down and said, ‘Let’s write a gay

musical,” says Neil Tennant, the Pet Shop Boy who

actually speaks. ‘The gay element of the story is about

transformation, about growing up and realising what you

want to be. That’s a very musical subject.’ Maybe – but

Closer to Heaven is also set in a gay nightclub, features

a cast of dancers who strip down to boots and sequined

G-strings, and revolves around a faded female icon of the

Judy Garland variety. All this and show tunes too.

Closer to Heaven has been a long time coming. Pet Shop

Boys fans won’t be surprised by the move: their songs,

and particularly their live shows, have always been

theatrical. In 1997 they had a residency at the Savoy

Theatre and released a version of Somewhere from West

Side Story. Many of their best songs (Rent, It’s a Sin,

Being Boring) sound like hits from non-existent shows.

Closer to Heaven has been on the back burner since 1994,

when the BBC suggested they should collaborate on a

musical with Harvey, then riding high on the success of

Beautiful Thing. ‘He’d also written a TV play called West

End Girls, about two East 17 fans coming to London to

meet Brian Harvey, so we knew we were on the same

wavelength,’ says Tennant. ‘But I was never keen on doing

a musical for television. It’s a lot of work for

something that’s just going to be shown once, so we

decided to do it properly, for the theatre. We started

writing in 1996, and it’s been a sporadic process ever

since.’ Some of the songs – Closer to Heaven, Vampires,

In Denial – have been waiting in the wings for a few

years, and found their way on to the last Pet Shop Boys

album, Nightlife.

With a draft version of the show prepared, Harvey (book),

Tennant (lyrics) and fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe

(music) financed a workshop in May last year to find out

if any of it actually worked. Frances Barber was drafted

in to play Billie Tricks, the drug-addled mother hen/rock

chick, and was such a hit that more songs were added

(despite Barber’s claims that ‘I can’t sing, not even in

the bath’) and her role expanded. In between writing and

gigging commitments, the final version of the show was

assembled and a venue found: the Arts Theatre, near

Leicester Square. ‘To me this feels like an off-Broadway

opening,’ says Tennant. ‘I didn’t want to compete with

the big West End stuff. The Arts Theatre is a small

venue, just a plain black box, no gilt, no cherubs. The

original plan was to stage the show in a non-theatrical

venue. That was our manifesto: a musical with

contemporary pop music in a non-theatrical venue. But if

we’d waited for the perfect place to come along, we’d

never have got it off the ground.’

They are eager to distance themselves from

run-of-the-mill West End shows, and the gay-sex-and-drugs

milieu is a far cry from Les Misérables across the

street. But not that far: Closer to Heaven is produced by

Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Group and, despite

the clubland trappings, it still tells a boy-meets-girl

(then-meets-boy) story in which the characters sing songs

about their feelings. There are dancers, some of whom

have been rescued from other West End shows such as

Napoleon. There’s no orchestra (the music is nearly all

produced elecronically), but there are big numbers. ‘I

appear at one point on a huge sofa in the shape of a pair

of lips,’ says Barber. ‘Then there’s my rap number about

Caligula, with all the dancers in tiny gladiator costumes

doing a tap dance.’

‘What I like about musicals,’ says Jonathan Harvey, ‘is

that you get high emotion – why else would people burst

into song? – and you get spectacle. I’m learning fast

that people don’t go to a musical to hear the words. They

go for the music and the visual excitement of it. I was

hooked on musicals from a very early age: when I was five

years old I was up in my bedroom dancing to My Fair Lady

while my brother was playing football down the street.

There wasn’t much hope for me, was there? My mother used

to tear her hair out.’

Tennant and Lowe cite similar formative experiences. ‘One

of the first films I ever saw was The Sound of Music,’

says Lowe, in a rare burst of articulacy. ‘I just

remember that magnificent crescendo at the beginning,

before she launches into, ‘The hills are alive.’ My

little brother was so terrified he ran out of the cinema

and never came back.’ Lowe senior stayed, though, and has

dipped in and out of musicals ever since, learning a

thing or two about a good tune along the way. Tennant’s

is a more scholarly interest: he discovered Sondheim in

the 1980s and has been an ardent follower ever since.

‘The first Sondheim show I saw was Follies, and I

remember thinking Losing My Mind would make a good hit

record. So we went away and recorded it with Liza

Minnelli and loads of people thought we wrote it.’

Given this track record, it seems inevitable that

Tennant, Lowe and Harvey should write a musical together,

even create their very own camp icon. Billie Tricks is an

amalgam of Nico, Marianne Faithfull, Debbie Harry and

every other wayward rock’n’roll queen. ‘I see her as an

Absolutely Fabulous version of Nico,’ says Tennant.

‘She’s someone who was a big star, who takes herself

absolutely seriously and is often unintentionally funny

for that reason. Sincerity is the essence of true camp.

When Judy Garland sang Over the Rainbow, she didn’t wink

at the audience and go, ‘This is so flipping camp, I

can’t believe I’m singing it.’ She meant every word.’

Billie’s big 1960s hit (which should, with luck, be on

sale in the foyer) is called Run Girl Run, a protest

number inspired by the famous Vietnam photograph of the

naked, napalmed child. (Sample lyric: ‘Run girl run away

from the sun/ Napalm burns all over your body . . . the

western world would like to say sorry.’)

Barber has flung herself into the role ‘too far, perhaps.

I’ve started going out every night with the dancers, and

I’ve become a mother figure to them. They fix my

eyelashes for me and they tell me about all the new party

drugs that I’ve never even heard of, let alone taken. I

was completely intimidated by them at first: the boys are

incredibly handsome with washboard stomachs, the girls

are all beautiful and sexy. I felt old and wrinkled, and

I’ve been going to the gym three times a day just so that

I don’t look grotesque standing next to them. Now we’re

like a little family. They tell me all their secrets

about depilatory creams and shaving their hairy arses.

I’m learning a lot, fast.’

Barber may steal the show, but there’s plenty more on

offer. Choreo-graphy is by Peter ‘Billy Elliott’ Darling.

Paul Keating (who starred in the West End production of

Tommy) is the male lead Straight Dave, and there’s enough

music to make up a cast album that will be released later

in the year. In theory, it’s an irresistible combination.

Tennant isn’t given to blowing his own trumpet, but he’s

made it clear that he thinks Closer to Heaven is a

blueprint for an ailing theatrical form. ‘You look at

some of the shows that are on in the West End, and you

just think, ‘Why?’ They’re so obviously not going to

work. There seems to be an idea that you can make a

musical out of any old subject, but things like the life

of Napoleon just aren’t appropriate. Closer to Heaven is

a much more traditional musical. It’s a love story, and

it’s about show business. We’ve set it in a world that we

know and love, and that will come across.’

‘You’ll come out of the show smiling and singing,’ says

Lowe. ‘It’s definitely a feelgood evening. Although of

course this is Pet Shop Boys, so it’s feelgood with a

touch of feelbad. That’s how we like it.’
Taken from: The Guardian
Interviewer: Rupert Smith