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 show.’ 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