Notting Hill local Gary Barlow has crafted yet another musical masterpiece and, for the first time in his songwriting career, it has hit the West End. Here, he tells The Resident about teaming up with Tim Firth to write The Girls and how Notting Hill inspires him
‘The shops are off the scale in Notting Hill now,’ muses Gary Barlow, when asked what it is that he loves about the area in which he has a home. ‘And The Hill [Resident] magazine is great.’ [Why thank you Gary, you ol’ charmer!]
It’s perhaps not surprising that Barlow loves this creative hub so much, given that the taxing job of songwriting requires constant inspiration. It’s particularly necessary, he tells me, when penning songs for a musical, as opposed to pop bangers, too.
We are chatting at rehearsals for musical The Girls, where Barlow found himself writing eight songs for every sequence of the show, before whittling the choices down to create the finished product. This amounted to around 76 songs being written, with the musical only featuring 12-13 of them. Fortunately, he is not short of inspiration from the small Cheshire village that he grew up in either, the village in which he met Tim Firth, the original writer of the screenplay of Calendar Girls.
With Firth having won the Olivier Award and UK Theatre Award for Best New Musical and the British Comedy Awards Best Comedy Film for Calendar Girls – and Barlow having written and co-written 14 number one singles, selling over 50 million records worldwide and being a six times Ivor Novello Award winner – it’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve teamed up to create the masterpiece that is The Girls.
Tim Firth called me up and asked me if I’d like to see his play, Calendar Girls. Half way through when I realised he wanted me to make it into a musical
Based on the true story, the film and the award-winning play Calendar Girls, the musical opened at the Phoenix Theatre at the end of last month, following a sold-out run at the Grand Theatre Leeds and the Lowry Salford late 2015. ‘I met Tim when I was 15 and doing a songwriting competition called a Song for Christmas and he was one of the judges on it.
‘We realised we both came from the same town and we got to know each other,’ says Barlow. ‘Five or six years ago he called me up and asked me if I’d like to see his play, Calendar Girls. I thought it was strange that he wanted me to watch it, until half way through when I realised exactly what he wanted and that he wanted me to make it into a musical.’
Considering the heartfelt inspiration for the storyline came from a group of women mourning the loss of their beloved friend, it is unsurprising that Barlow fell in love with the concept from the off. ‘I was blown away with the story, it’s such a beautiful narrative and it’s true,’ he says. ‘I was moved by it and knew we could do something special. Where we both come from certainly helped with inspiration too.’
Although writing music is something that is second nature to Barlow, writing a musical was a whole step further and a little more difficult. ‘Firth very cleverly set me on the right path, as I’d never done it before,’ says Barlow.
‘He said: “I’m going to send you some lyrics. I don’t want you to pretend that you’re a musical writer, but I just want you to do what you do. Use the lyrics and see if you get anything.” So, I’d make a mini album for him for each sequence and then he would cleverly take bits and put them together like a patchwork quilt of songs.’
From here, Barlow would revisit the songs and complete the compositions, making it a much longer process than when he would write songs for Take That. ‘It’s been a constant workflow of going through piles and piles of music,’ he says.
‘It’s nice to be on the other side of it though and to be able to sit with the audience and watch – it’s moving and rewarding as a writer to be able to watch your music take on a new life and story.’
At the heart, it comes from the people involved and the narrative lyrics are chatty, conversational and not pop songs. ‘It was all very natural, the whole procedure, and it just came about organically with the help of the community around us,’ he says.
‘I cannot wait; I’ve got to be honest. Obviously I’ve never had a show in the West End before and I can’t wait to walk into The Phoenix and have a thrilling night of entertainment.’
Having had the pleasure of sitting in on the dress rehearsals for the show, I can honestly say that this is one not to miss. It’s a show that – although set in a Yorkshire village far, far away from the bright lights of London – oozes community, love and laughter. This is something that Notting Hill can get in line with – the focus on community is something you will all relate to.
In fact, I’m told by Firth himself that the first 20 minutes of the movie were actually written in The Portobello Hotel in Notting Hill. ‘There is a similar village feel in Notting Hill,’ says Firth. ‘As much as this is about loss, it’s about community.’ This is one musical that’s sure to go off the scale.