West End Boys

The Pet Shop Boys used to have strong feelings

about the state of the modern musical – until they

wrote one themselves. On the eve of its premiere,

they and their collaborator, hit playwright Jonathan

Harvey, talk to James Delingpole .

THE Pet Shop Boys are being boring. Actually, that’s not true. Mercurial,

irreverent, puckish, camp, digressive, petulant, charming, funny, stupendously

clever and amazingly dumb, the Pet Shop Boys are never boring. But what

they are being, which is almost as bad, is uncharacteristically discreet.

For a good quarter of an hour now,

we’ve been talking about the theatrical

showbiz world into which they are

preparing to launch their new musical

(co-written with playwright Jonathan

Harvey), Closer to Heaven. Not once

has either Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe

found an unkind word to say about blue

rinses, provincial coach parties, cheesy

tunes, trite lyrics or vacuous spectacle.

They haven’t even been rude about

Andrew Lloyd Webber.

This would be forgivable if they had no

strong feelings on the subject. But they

do. Not so long ago, Tennant could be heard claiming that Lloyd Webber had

‘not made a musical contribution to our culture’, lamenting the dearth of good

musicals, saying how much he’d disliked the hit Broadway show Rent for

presenting ‘HIV as being an alternative lifestyle choice’, with music sounding

like an early Seventies rock opera.

‘You’re being terribly polite,’ I grumble, after Tennant has uncritically

name-checked some of the more popular musicals in the West End. ‘We’re

on-message,’ says Lowe enigmatically. ‘It’s because we don’t want to lose

everybody’s sympathy if the show flops,’ suggests Harvey, author of the hit

play Beautiful Thing and the kitsch, so-bad-it’s-good sitcom Gimme, Gimme,

Gimme. Harvey has become an honorary third Pet Shop Boy because they

appreciate his sense of humour, especially when he got them all banned from

rehearsals for laughing at inappropriate moments.

‘Also, when you’ve worked in musicals for a while, you develop a certain

respect for them,’ says Tennant in his refined, fluting Geordie. ‘It’s not our

style of music, the sort of thing we listen to at home. But you cannot help

being impressed by the way the songs land at the right moment, move forward

the plot and get a reaction from the audience.’

Later, though, a more plausible explanation emerges when Tennant lets slip

that Closer to Heaven was first workshopped last year by Andrew Lloyd

Webber’s Really Useful Group. How come? ‘They’re producing it,’ says

Tennant. This comes as a surprise, because it isn’t at all clear on the

promotional literature. No wonder you can’t be nasty, I say. ‘That’s not the

reason. You’re cynical, aren’t you?’ says Lowe, amused. ‘I’ve got Andrew

Lloyd Webber’s greatest hits. And I play it,’ protests Harvey. The Pet Shop

Boys seem to find the idea of this hilarious.

If you’ve read either of Chris Heath’s laconic books about life on tour with

them, you’ll already have a pretty accurate idea about what it’s like to be with

the Pet Shop Boys. Tennant, the singer and lyricist, is the well-read, cultured

one who comes up with all the clever, provocative observations, such as: ‘I

have always thought that the ideal, for a pop star, is not to be able to believe

that they’re real.’ Lowe, the keyboard player and co-songwriter (never

pictured without a hat), plays the bolshie, low-brow, impulsive one who

generally opens his mouth only to subvert or take the mickey.

Behind Lowe’s loutish persona, however, lurks a sharp, galvanising brain. I

know this because, while our meeting is due to take place in an empty theatre

over coffee and sandwiches, Lowe suddenly decides that it should be moved

to lunch at the Ivy restaurant. Tennant feels uncomfortable about this.

Normally, you’d have to book a table days in advance, and he hates using the

‘Excuse me, we’re enormously famous pop stars’ method of queue-jumping.

Lowe has fewer qualms. The Ivy it is.

After a short, quintessentially Pet Shop Boys debate about the correct English

pronunciation of the final word of risotto nero (Tennant decides it should be

like the Roman emperor, rather than with a pretentious Italian accent) and a

discussion about how confusing it is that the Milky Bar manufacturer once

known as Nestles now has to be said with an accute accent, Tennant launches

into his expurgated version of what he thinks is wrong with modern musicals.

The rot set in, he reckons, with rock ‘n roll. When Rodgers and Hammerstein

were writing their great musicals in the Forties and Fifties, show tunes and

pop music were one and the same. But once songs started being written by

the likes of Leiber and Stoller specifically for pop stars, and when, worse still,

pop stars such as the Beatles began writing their own material, musicals lost

their sense of purpose. ‘I think musical theatre reacted by forming a hybrid

between what had gone before and the pop music of the day.’

But Tennant concedes that his thesis that ‘musicals have ceased to become

pop music’ isn’t watertight. For a start, the current West End vogue is for

shows featuring compilations of old pop hits, such as Mamma Mia, Buddy,

The Official Tribute to the Blues Brothers, and forthcoming ones based on the

works of Queen and the Beatles. Also, he recalls, with his ex-music

journalist’s grasp of pop trivia, that the second best-selling pop single of 1998,

Boyzone’s No Matter What, was written by one A Lloyd Webber.

What Tennant does know is that Closer to Heaven is going to be the

antithesis of shows like Les Miserables (which he and Lowe walked out of

because they hated the music so much). ‘We’re trying to do a contemporary

play with contemporary music quite true to the reality of clubbing which

people who don’t normally go to the theatre can relate to,’ says Tennant. If it

has a musical predecessor, then it’s the film version of Cabaret. ‘But there are

no Nazis in our show,’ says Lowe, helpfully.

A Noel Coward fan, Tennant has been planning to write a musical for more

than a decade. During their 1991 American tour, Lowe mischievously assured

one interviewer that they were writing a show about cheese, with each

performer playing a different one – Camembert and so on. Actually, though,

it’s set in a hip club (redolent of the decadent early Nineties night Kinky

Galinky) populated by evil managers, young drug dealers and louche

Marianne Faithfull-meets-Nico Sixties icons.

It tells the story of a bisexual love triangle between a young barman from

Ireland, an ambitious club manager’s daughter and a streetwise drug dealer. ‘I

believe we have a first in the musical theatre: a gay love song sung between

two men in bed together,’ says Tennant. ‘Some of the show is quite dark in a

cynical way. I’m surprised by how hard it is, how unsentimental, and how

accurate about clubbing. But this moment is really touching.’

The music is unlikely to disappoint Pet Shop Boys fans, since the only

difference is that the vocals will be sung by actors instead of Tennant. Even

that familiar wash of melancholy synthesisers will be there. ‘It’s going to be the

only show in the West End with computers playing live,’ says Tennant.

‘There’s also a keyboard player. And a percussionist. Just like us on tour.’

This prompts memories of a huge open-air freedom concert in Budapest last

year, when, half-way through the show, their equipment started going wrong,

and they barely made it to the end. Something similar has already happened

during rehearsals for Closer to Heaven. ‘That’s the problem with technology.

It’s so much more nerve-racking than playing with a live band,’ says Tennant.

‘What worries me is aeroplanes. You know how your computer just freezes.

What if that happens when your plane takes off?’ says Lowe. Tennant says

he’s always dreaming about planes crashing. ‘It means fear of failure,’ says

Lowe, darkly.

One of the advantages of working in theatre, thinks Tennant, is that you have

more people to blame if it all goes wrong. ‘When you’re a pop star who came

up in the mid-Eighties, you’re used to having what Janet Jackson would call

‘control’. You have control of everything: your image, what your videos look

like, what your records sound like. But in the theatre, now we’ve written this

show, it is in effect out of our control. You’ve got the cast, the director, the

designer, the producers, and the graphics outside the theatre all making their

own contributions. It’s quite exhilarating because you think, well, it’s not our


All three writers cheerfully admit that the show could easily flop. And although

the Pet Shop Boys haven’t invested in it personally, writing it has cost them an

awful lot of money in studio time, which they could otherwise have used to

make a new album. The sales of their last one, Nightlife, may have been

modest by previous standards. But it still sold 1.2 million copies. I ask

Tennant what they’d make per record: about a quid? ‘One pound twenty,

about,’ he says, adding: ‘And the same again in publishing.’

Blimey. I’m sitting with two megastars who, at a conservative estimate of 30

million albums sold, must have made well over £60 million between them. But

you’d never know it. Tennant explains that they have always made a

conscious decision to live a normal life. ‘Even in the Eighties, when we were

quite a big pop group and we had teenage girls camping on our front gate, I’d

just say hello to them and carry on to the dry cleaners. You can do that, if you

want to.’

Later, Tennant listens as Harvey and I talk about our favourite Pet Shop Boys

albums. Mine’s Very, or maybe Behaviour. Harvey’s is Please. ‘It encouraged

people to be polite,’ he quips. ‘Everyone was saying, ‘Can I have the Pet

Shop Boys’ Please.’ ‘

The subversive Tennant says that actually this did happen. ‘When we took off

in Japan, we asked someone at the record company why it was doing so well.

He said: ‘Ah. People think you are very polite. Pet Shop Boys please.’ That

was until we went there, of course.’
Taken from: Daily Telegraph