Why I wrote a Britney Spears cabaret

As ”Britney Spears the Cabaret” arrives in London, the writer Dean Bryant explains what drove him to pen the piece

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears
Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears
© Jeeves

I was jogging past the Sydney Opera House listening to Britney’s new album (Blackout) when the idea for the cabaret hit me. This was 2008 and I was wrapping up the original season of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in Australia (as associate director I’d help create the musical) and as soon as I got the West End season up, I’d be officially unemployed. I needed to make some art!

A few weeks earlier I’d seen an actress give a superbly funny performance as April in Company; her name was Christie Whelan-Browne. I’d seen her a few years earlier in an arena version of Grease, stealing the show as Patti Simcox, which got her over to the West End shortly afterwards. A funny blonde who can sing? She’d be perfect for Britney! I called Christie and pitched her my idea. What if we took the cabarets we all dread going to – think "girl in her twenties does tell-all cabaret about her very short life so far" – but this time the girl was Britney Spears? Christie adores Britney (she’d named her cat after her) and we were off.

How on earth can anyone make "I’m A Slave (4U)" land with only a piano?

I pitched the idea to a close friend Lisa Campbell who was dubious as to the merit of such a show – who’d be interested? She was running the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and they were chiefly interested in exploring the classic American songbook. I said, "what about the modern American songbook? Pop songs are our generation’s classics – we’re going to take the structure of these throwaway singles and illuminate their brilliance". She was sold and the show was booked.

Early creative sessions with Christie and musical director Matty were fraught – how on earth can anyone make "I’m A Slave (4U)" land with only a piano? As a pageant vaudeville, using tap shoes and hula hoop, it turns out. But bit by bit we took Britney’s oeuvre and found both the comedy and pathos. I used the legendary Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads as a template for the dialogue, riffing on the famous parts of Britney’s life from her perspective, imagining what it must be like for a 17 year-old to become world famous and fall in love all at once. As Christie spoke these invented words, Britney became more real and more sad to me, giving back the dignity to a girl (not yet a woman) who has been so pilloried.

For the London run I wrote a whole new set of jokes about Britney watching The Crown

We did a run through for Lisa before our world premiere in a 60-seat venue and she screamed with laughter then sobbed as the story got darker and darker. She decided on the spot to produce it herself after Adelaide and we opened in Sydney a few months later. Though a critical smash, we didn’t sell at first. That would usually be the end of the road in Oz. However, Lisa decided that Melbourne had the right taste to launch it to a wider public. She was right. The season sold out, beginning a run of seven years of sell out seasons all around Australia. Whilst warming up for our London season last month, people came who had come back year after year. There’s something about the story, and the way Christie brings it to life, that entrances an audience.

Sadly I won’t be with Christie for our London debut, which is disappointing because I wrote a whole new set of jokes about Britney watching The Crown. Luckily Christie is addicted to instagram, so I’ll probably get a few grabs of it. I can’t wait to see what London makes of her phenomenal talent, and the show I made to have the world sit up and notice it.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret runs at The Other Palace from 5 to 9 September.

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Christie Whelan-Browne's top five Britney tunes

5. "I’m a Slave For You"

Hot, hot, hot.

4. "Everytime"

She wrote this one. Words and melody so divine. The simplest and most delicate of her songs. And oh so sad.

3. "Sometimes"

Takes me back to days of dancing at the beach with a pink beach ball with my friends – oh no wait, that was the film clip.

2. "From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart"

I had my heart broken in year 12 at school. I listened to this song on repeat for five days.

1. "Toxic"

My favourite because of the arrangement Matty made for the show. It's totally different than Brit's version but really awesome.