The opening night of Calendar Girls at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2008 felt like a landmark moment… a great new play on stage in the presence of the original Calendar Girls in the audience.
Now it all comes full circle as Calendar Girls The Musical comes to the CFT from November 13-23, original writer Tim Firth teaming up with his long-standing mate Gary Barlow to take the show into a new incarnation.
“It went from Chichester on a short tour and then a big series of tours,” Tim recalls. “It toured for four years after the West End, and then we gave the play for 18 months to the amateurs and everyone was doing it.
“And then they all started talking to each other and it all ended up with invitations to this mass meeting in Yorkshire where hundred of people that had been in it in different productions up and down the country came along and met up with the real calendar ladies and they also met up with leukaemia survivors.”
Tim suspects at the right time it will be offered out to amateurs again at some point – all part of a remarkable journey that began in Chichester 11 years ago.
“I think something strange happened on that first night in Chichester which none of us had accounted for, and that was the fact that far more than the film was able to do, the play replicated the real scale of the endeavour that went into making that calendar. To some degree, the actresses on the stage were having to do what the original ladies had done, but the actresses were doing it in front of hundreds and hundreds of people.
“And the salute from the audience to that photo shoot section was so unexpected. I thought it would be a two or three minute sequence at the end of the first act, but it became this tumultuous massive sequence that went on for nine or ten minutes because of the audience reaction. And in a way that provided the impetus to try it as a musical.
“In some ways, it was very difficult to get past that photo shoot) point. If you did a head count in terms of laughter, the second act was statistically funnier than the first, but people don’t remember that because they remember the photo shoot scene at the end of Act One and they don’t get past that.”
Key to the musical was to move the photo shoot until much later in the play.
“But also you don’t turn a play into a musical just by adding songs. You have got to ask yourself why you are doing it. What does this great presence of music do that you are not already doing?
“But the other strange thing about the play was that it had soliloquies in it, long speeches that the cast delivered to the audience. It is really rare that I do that, but it happened naturally in Calendar Girls, and in a way that structure was aching to be turned into a musical because in a way these soliloquies were songs without being songs.
“And then what happened when we moved the photo shoot sequence to the end of the musical rather than having it in the middle, it allowed us the space to develop this village-green musical with the space for the husbands and the children.
“But what you have to do is reread the play and then put it away and start again. For the musical, we had to completely start again, and that was weird. And then you have to start to think ‘I am going to tell this story but I am going to tell it through songs.’ And you know that those songs are going to be really useful in allowing you access to moving through the story on different wings. It gives you a different set of gears.
“I had gone to Gary and said ‘I am thinking of doing this and would you be interested in becoming involved’, but that conversation took place two years before we ever got any actresses in the room. I started to write tiny bits of lyric and gave him those bits of lyrics and we started to play with musical ideas.”