Lloyd Evans on the extraordinary story behind Trevor Nunn’s ‘Gone with the Wind’
The heart sinks, almost. The brow droops, a little. A yawn rises in the throat and dies away. Another musical has opened in the West End and, yes, it’s based on a blockbuster movie and, yes, that too was based on a million-selling novel. Those of us who want more new straight plays in the capital and who tire of these revivals-of-revivals are bound to feel a twinge of despair that a song-and-dance version of Gone with the Wind has opened at the New London theatre. Directed by Trevor Nunn too. What could be more tediously predictable?
But when I looked at the show’s promotional campaign I began to realise that even though new musicals are much riskier to produce than new plays they’re nevertheless far easier to market. It’s a cruel paradox (cruel, at least, to supporters of new writing) that the very unoriginality of the show makes it more commercially viable. The audience for a revival is ready-made. You can rely on thousands of twinkly-eyed nostalgics eager to immerse themselves in the warm Jacuzzi of retrospection. This effect is redoubled when the source material happens to be one of the greatest films ever made. And because a musical is more complicated and labour-intensive than a play you have far more points of interest for gossip columnists and feature writers to get their teeth into.
By contrast, when you’re marketing a new straight play you have just two promotional tools. Either the play will have a topical theme that strikes a chord with the public. Or you’ll have a big star in the lead role. Neither tactic is especially powerful. Topicality is a highly perishable commodity and the star strategy, used alone, is apt to look predictable. ‘Celeb appears in West End’ isn’t likely to bulldoze its way out of the entertainment section and on to the front pages of the national dailies — which is where the producers want the show’s name to appear. That’s why so many plays require their celebrity leads — from Jerry Hall to Daniel Radcliffe — not just to turn up for the performance but to turn up and take off their clothes. That sells papers. It sells tickets too. Bums on stage equals bums on seats.
With a musical based on a film you need no such shock tactics because you already have a rich profusion of tempting journalistic angles. Will the show do justice to the book? Could it possibly be better than the film? Will the stars fall short of/equal/surpass their predecessors? Can they sing? Will their throats survive the opening night? Is the music any good? Can the design fulfil our expectations? Will the director end up with a career-endorsing triumph on his hands or an embarrassing turkey? And will the show overreach itself and implode financially? This is a particularly juicy question. Since it costs at least three times as much to mount a musical as to mount a stage play, the possibility of complete commercial and artistic meltdown can be dangled before the heartless public like a bleeding goat strung up to tempt a hungry lion. ‘Trevor Nunn homeless after West End fiasco’ would shift truckloads of copies of Hello!. ‘The bankrupt director shows us around his tarpaulin bivouac under Charing Cross Bridge.’
So inevitably the backers of Gone with the Wind have sought to protect their investment by attracting the best talent available. Executive producer Aldo Scrofani is a Broadway veteran whose company Columbia Artists Theatricals has been producing hits for 50 years. He praises Nunn as a director who can ‘make a complete experience for the patron’. Translated from corporate-speak, that means Nunn is the most bankable director of musicals in the world. Designer John Napier is equally distinguished. His CV includes Cats, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, Les Misérables and Sunset Boulevard. Nevertheless he claims this is the biggest design job he’s ever taken on. Scarlett O’Hara is played by Jill Paice, who originated the role of Laura Fairlie in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White. And Rhett Butler will be played by Darius Danesh, one of the few singers with the charisma to carry a big musical who is also instantly recognisable to the under-30s. Danesh leapt to fame during the infancy of talent-search telly when the format enjoyed a brief heyday of innocence and novelty. In the closing round of a contest he had effortlessly dominated he crashed out in spectacular fashion when he chose to sing, or rather screech, a weird unaccompanied version of Britney Spears’s ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. It was more painful to watch than a seal cull on a Canadian ice floe. Yet in one of those bizarre reversals of fortune that TV specialises in, his doomed display of glissando-ing ululations secured him a lasting place in the hearts of young Britons. He has since become a platinum-selling singer-songwriter in his own right and is the youngest performer ever to play Billy in Chicago. So he completes the galaxy of trusted talent.
And yet there’s one glaring exception, one big gap in the show’s grin of flawless commercial perfection. The music and lyrics have been written by a certain Dr Margaret Martin. Ding any bells? No, because Gone with the Wind is her stage debut. She’s a complete unknown. And it’s her extraordinary part in this show that offers a glimmer of hope to supporters of new writing. Aged 54, Dr Martin is an academic and journalist specialising in child psychology. Though she looks every inch the successful corporate blonde, she evidently had it tough on the way up. ‘Like Scarlett, I have three children. I had my first at 17. I was a battered teenage mom married to an abusive man.’ When he walked out, she supported her family by renovating and selling distressed properties in Los Angeles. At 33 she gained a doctorate in public health and became a freelance contributor to parenting magazines. In her spare time she founded an institute that offers music lessons to deprived children. (If you want to donate that old bassoon go to www.harmony-project.org.) By the late 90s she’d conceived a yearning to compose a musical and she describes the moment of inspiration with a single word, ‘Wow!’
She was rereading Margaret Mitchell’s classic one day and she realised, ‘Here is a story I can write in a way no one else can. I have walked in Scarlett’s shoes.’ It took her four years just to wangle the rights from the Mitchell estate. She then wrote a synopsis, recorded a short demo tape and sent the package to Trevor Nunn on spec. He was struck by ‘the scale of the project’s ambition’ and signed up instantly. The tape contained just four songs. The more you read about it, the more extraordinary Dr Martin’s story seems. A middle-aged journalist with no theatrical experience whatever wakes up one day and appoints herself lyricist and composer of a non-existent musical. A few years later, it opens in the West End. ‘Wow!’ is the only word. Martin is now working on two new plays. If she’s searching for another triumph-over-adversity narrative she need look no further than the mirror.