Tim Firth and Gary Barlow have been friends since before Take That was a twinkle in the Mancunian singer-songwriter’s eye.
But the Whiston-born writer admits when his old mate first mooted the idea of a musical based on the songs of the band, he was less than keen. He'd already penned the musical Our House, and felt it was inventive storytelling lyrics like those by Madness that were needed to drive a decent plot.
And when Firth – the man behind stage and screen hits from Calendar Girls and Neville’s Island to Kinky Boots, Preston Front and The Flint Street Nativity – heard Barlow and co were planning a TV series to search for young lads to star in it, he even told them they were “nuts”.
Luckily for Take That, and for audiences up and down the country, the 52-year-old writer relented, albeit after having a theatrical ‘Eureka’ moment.
'The band'. Top: Tim Firth (seated, third from left at front) with cast and creatives from the show.
“I said to them you’re nuts if you think you can find five guys who can sing and dance and act well enough to hold an evening in the theatre,” Firth explains of his retince about the Let It Shine project on the BBC.
But then he went away and thought – what if they didn’t?
“What if they just sang and danced, and what if there was a completely different way that the songs were used in the show?” he adds. “What if it was a completely different position that the band had?
“What if it wasn’t about them? What if it wasn’t a biopic? What if the band, ie Take That, those two words, were never mentioned? And the power of the song, the importance of the song in the lives of the fans, was the prime driving force of the narrative?
Read an interview with Sario Solomon about being in The Band
“Suddenly this other story appeared.
“As a writer you spend most of your life in fog, and then occasionally you’ll fly though the cloud and you get a moment when you can actually see clearly for 10 yards.”
Having spent a lot of time accepting gifts for Barlow from fans waiting at stage doors, Firth pondered on what was life like for the band’s devoted followers? Who were they and what importance did certain songs hold for them, both as teenagers and through their adult lives?
And the story that was set to become The Band took shape.
A scene from The Band
Instead of the musical, which comes to the Empire this month, concentrating on the young band itself, the singers become a Greek chorus-style soundtrack to a tale of a group of 40-something women, friends since they were teenage fans of ‘the band’, as they try once more to fulfil their dream of meeting their heroes.
The show, Barlow and Firth’s second collaboration after The Girls, opened in Manchester last September and is currently on its inaugural UK tour, where it continues to be refined and tweaked as it goes.
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“I hope it will be a bit like cleaning your glasses in the dishwasher as opposed to doing it with a rag in the sink,” Firth says of the changes from its Opera House opening. “Everything is still there, it’s the same show, but it just shines a little more.”
While he made his name writing for the big and small screen, and ‘straight’ stage plays, in recent years he’s penned Madness musical Our House, The Girls and This Is My Family, the latter of which was staged at the Liverpool Playhouse as part of a UK tour.
Is this shift in to music theatre a pre-meditated move, I ponder, or simply a happy accident?
“It’s funny,” he admits. “To a degree it’s what I always wanted to do. I started off writing songs, I didn’t start writing plays at all. When I was a kid I entered songwriting competitions, I used to write musicals for school. My first thing I ever wrote was a rock nativity for school when I was 14 in Warrington.
“So in a way the playwriting has been a slight but very welcome diversion. Because what it’s taught me, it teaches you a little bit more about structure, about narrative, and I kind of feel that music has found its place.”
It’s about knowing how to use music to help tell a story he explains. Or knowing when NOT to use music.
“Because not every story needs it. And it’s being honest. You’ve got to really ask yourself – why are they singing? What is the point?
“If you don’t know why people are singing, for me you’re in to very dangerous territory and it’s a musical for its own sake and I won’t go and see those!”
Happily, people have certainly been coming to see The Band.
So with his latest ‘baby’ launched, what’s next for the prolific wordsmith?
“Gary and I have got a plot to do another original musical,” he reveals.
“And what I’d love to do is to do a new family musical at the Everyman. That’s my big dream.
“Doing a new musical is hard because it’s an original story, but I’m just hoping we can find something that’s a big tight family comedy that we can do. Because I’ve never worked at the Everyman and I’d love to do that.
“My hope is we’re going to do a little workshop with an idea I’ve had with their company in June or something, have a look at a new idea and then see if they like it. Fingers crossed.”
The Band is at the Liverpool Empire from January 23 to February 3. Tickets from the website HERE.