Fisher & McGowan Play Song for WOS, Plus PicsDate: 14 August 2008
Theatregoers at our sell-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to the first major London revival of Neil Simon’s 1979 musical They're Playing Our Song at the Menier Chocolate Factory last night (13 August 2008) were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with the musical’s two lead stars, Connie Fisher and Alistair McGowan.
The semi-autobiographical story is based on the often turbulent relationship between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, who provide the music and lyrics for the piece. Vernon Gersch, a neurotic and successful composer with a host of awards, is paired up with the lovably eccentric Sonia Walsk, a young lyricist who’s a hopeless time-keeper and dresses in cast-off theatre costumes. The unlikely pairing seems destined to falter off-key, but as their working relationship grows, so do their feelings for each other. The score includes “Workin’ It Out”, “If He Really Knew Me”, “Just for Tonight”, “I Still Believe in Love” and the title song.
After shooting to fame on the first BBC musical casting programme How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? two years ago, Connie Fisher subsequently won best newcomer prizes at both the Whatsonstage.com and Critics’ Circle Awards for The Sound of Music. Over the past two years, TV impressionist Alistair McGowan has also accumulated a number of musical credits including Merry Wives – The Musical, The Mikado, the West End transfer of the Menier revival of Little Shop of Horrors and, most recently, Cabaret. They're Playing Our Song runs at the Menier until 28 September 2008 and is directed by Fiona Laird and designed by Matthew Wright.
Last night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On creating the characters
Connie Fisher: We did look at the real-life characters, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, but the characters are much more heightened in this show and, obviously, this is all scripted. we wanted to create our own characters, so we worked on our relationship rather than theirs.
Alistair McGowan: You can only play what’s on the page really. They never call themselves Marvin and Carole, but it’s interesting to know a bit about that. I remember them actually. I remember their song about the rubber duck. It was a terrible song, but it had some very funny lyrics.
Fisher: Carole wrote some very amazing lyrics to some amazing songs. She wrote “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, which is my favourite. She wasn’t the main inspiration for me though. I watched a lot of Friends actually. There’s a bit of Janice to my character and a lot of Phoebe in there as well. We talked a lot about the idea of my character being quite sanguine, that kind of kooky character who is a bit away with the fairies. I’m a bit like that anyway really.
McGowan: I try not to watch too many things because I don’t want to copy anyone. The thing is that for five or six years on television, in fact longer than that because I did stand-up clubs before that, I was always trying to sound like other people, so now I want to try not to sound like other people. For me, the echoes of this period were Woody Allen, Alan Alda and those sorts of people who were from New York in the late 1970s. I used to love watching them when I was younger. Tootsie, which I hadn’t seen for a long time, was a bit inspiration for me. That was when I thought, “Yeah, I’m on the right lines in terms of recreating this work and these people”. I think Vernon has a bit of Dustin Hoffman in him. But the main thing is to find the character in yourself. Sadly, strangely, maybe happily, for me there’s an awful lot of Vernon in me, so there wasn’t a huge leap to make. I’ve experienced an awful lot of what he has been through.
Fisher: Sonia is very irritating, she is not a character like Maria where you absolutely adore her, but I quite like the fact that she’s a little bit kooky. She’s supposed to be irritating and wind Vernon up, and wind his neuroses up. There is a bit of Sonia in everyone. She is very irritating but she never irritates me.
McGowan: She only annoys me in the first scene a little because she is so full-on, but I think from then onwards she is so witty and I like people who are witty. I think that’s what Vernon responds to most as well - from the word go, she’s coming up with some really funny stuff.
On working together
McGowan: I think there’s a special kind of relationship between a lyricist and a composer. If you’re co-writing a script then you’re both using words, and you might contribute a different point of view, or one does the jokes and one does the emotional element, however that might work. But when one is doing the lyrics and one the music it is pretty unique. There’s no other real art form that you share the responsibility like that.
Fisher: It’s like us with this really. There’s only two of us so we rely on each other. It really is a partnership and you have to give and take.
McGowan: I always feel nervous after that bit where I start writing the song at the beginning. I remember what it was like when I did my TV show; arriving with a bag load of sketches to read in front of everybody and I remember the terror of presenting your own work. I think it’s more pressure than an actor feels usually, because with acting it’s your performance, but it’s not your whole piece. I always get a memory of the TV show when I’m doing a piano piece in this show. I look at the audience afterwards wondering “did they like it?” In the studio, the jokes that nobody laughed at were the ones that people liked most on television, which was weird. Writers laugh at subtle things, and they don’t laugh at obvious things.
On performing at the Menier
Fisher: I was really keen to do something in a much smaller venue where I could see the people and see their eyes and enjoy the audience. It’s such a small, intimate space. I love the Chocolate Factory. I’ve wanted to work here since I was at college. I sent my CV to David Babani about 20 billion times. This was the only time he picked it up, which was pretty cool.
McGowan: This is the first thing I’ve ever done at this venue, and it takes some getting used to. In rehearsals we talked about that. My last show was Cabaret at the Lyric where I played Emcee. With the size of the theatre, I had to do lots of big movements and I loved all that. So to come here and be very subtle with your acting is really different. The feeling of having people so close is quite strange really.
Fisher: For me, as a young actress, I think it’s a really great learning curve. I learnt by being thrown in the deep end at the Palladium and holding my own on that stage. Here it’s good for me to have people in front of your face, to be eyeballing your audience to see whether they’re laughing or not.
McGowan: It has different pros and cons as well. You do the smallest little eyebrow raise here and people get it, which is lovely and you don’t have to bang out a tune, but at the same time, when you get to a big number, you can’t really take the roof off. We have got two massive numbers which are lovely and beautiful, and those are the moments where you really want to be at the Albert Hall or the Palladium, where you want to fill the room. That’s the thing about this piece. You go from a big song to such a lot of dialogue. I don’t know if a big theatre would suit it because the dialogue might get lost.
On the casting process
Fisher: I went to dinner with the director, who said “I’d love to work with you and is there anything in particular you’d like to do”. I said “I’d like to do something funny and in a small space, I’d like to challenge myself”, and she said “I’d love to do that with you, there is this Neil Simon piece called They're Playing Our Song, would you like to do it?” It was about a month or two later that I discovered they had got Alistair as well, and then it was happening. It was very exciting.
McGowan: I only had about ten days. I was doing Cabaret and I thought I was doing that till the end of September and suddenly we got the horrible news that we were coming off, and everyone was very upset about that. Within about a week, David Babani rang me, from Barbados weirdly, and asked if I could do this in ten days’ time so I said yes. I knew the musical, I remembered it. I couldn’t remember much about the music but he said the script was by Neil Simon and I said “in those six words you have convinced me” … I think it’s a very optimistic story. The whole relationship thing is so well handled. I think the line “There is a Leon in everybody’s life” is so true. It’s very hard to start a new relationship with someone else still there. We’ve all probably been in that situation, I know I have. When they come back together, they are like new people. She is a new person, Leon is gone, so I think signs are good for them at the end.
On a career in musical theatre
McGowan: I caught the bug when I was watching shows like this in the 1980s. I used to come to London as a kid and see shows and I just loved it. But I never thought I’d do it. With The Big Impression I kept sneaking in tap routines and back-up singers in the hope that someone would say “well, let’s get him in a musical for god’s sake”. I was desperate to be in a musical. I fell in love with the feel of it. I have not been disappointed with any of the ones I’ve done. Just having that orchestra behind you, when they start up is amazing.
Fisher: My journey has been mad I suppose. It certainly beats working in Telesales and Pizza Express. I did go to drama school. I think the press forget that when they write about me, they call me Telesales Connie, but I did go to college for three years. I was prepared in a college fashion, as graduates are these days. Really, I’m just a young graduate learning really quickly. I’ve always been lucky. When people ask me to pick a number out of a tombola, I always pick my own and things like that. So I’ve always been quite lucky.
On learning lines & accents
Fisher: We decided that it’s a play with music. I really wanted to do something a bit straighter than a full-on musical, so doing a play with music is very exciting. It meant that I could sing and have a jolly, but also really be challenged by a duologue, which is massive. I didn’t quite realise how massive it would be. It was a really short rehearsal period here so it was challenging, but it was easy to do it with Alistair. I think we just really worked well together.
McGowan: Connie inspired me in many ways. Certainly from the word go she knew all her lines. Usually if you’ve got the time and if you have a smaller part as well, then you can come in for a couple of weeks and play around with the part and explore. But with this, from the very first day, we were doing scenes and we had to know the lines so you would come in with it 99% learnt and then go away and really drum it in. For four weeks we just did everything, we spent all day here and all evening doing lines, the show took over.
Fisher: Friends you were supposed to see socially over dinner turned into people to test you on your lines. We had an acting coach who really helped us with it. About a week into rehearsals, we decided to change the accent and be real New Yorkers, before that we were general Americans. Alistair is great with impressions any way so he can do anyone.
McGowan: I thought I could do the New York accent from people like Woody Allen and John McEnroe and people like that, but then our acting coach came in and gave us all these sounds that we had never ever noticed and he also pointed out the physicality of it. He was just a big part of the jigsaw for us both I think.
On their favourite songs they’re playing on their iPods
Fisher: “Don’t Stop Me Now” from Queen. I think that’s representative of me - on a steam train since being thrust into the business and saying “don’t stop me now, I am having a good time”.
McGowan: I don’t have an iPod. I skip around the radio dial a lot. I like a mixture of stuff. One of my favourite ever songs is a song called “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman which is seven-and-a-half minutes of pure jazz joy. Other than that, lots of things from Hello Dolly, which I find immensely enjoyable, and also classical stuff.
By the way, our Whatsonstage.com photographer Dan Wooller was on hand at last week's opening night for 1st Night Photos, and the post-show party at the Menier Chocolate Factory along with the cast, producer Sonia Friedman, director Fiona Laird and other first-night guests.
TO SCROLL THROUGH ALL OF THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG's 1st NIGHT PHOTOS,