Year of the Producer: Michael Harrison’s Eureka moment for Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed a Dream

Yesterday, Michael Harrison was amongst the producing team launching the West End screen-to-stage musical The Bodyguard. He’s also created a buzz – and widespread international press – for his other big production this year, I Dreamed a Dream, the musical story based on the real life of Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Susan Boyle.
The show stars Elaine C Smith, who also co-wrote it with Alan McHugh. In spite of mean-spirited sniping from some quarters during development, the show triumphed with a host of four- and five-star reviews when it premiered in Newcastle in March. It’s currently embarked on a 22-week UK tour, with a possible West End transfer and international productions now being discussed.

As part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series, Michael Harrison tells us the story behind the production.

Michael Harrison: I read a press statement about plans to make a movie of Susan Boyle‘s life in which they asked Susan who she would like to see play her. I think Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close had been suggested, but Susan said, “There’s a lovely Scottish actress called Elaine C Smith and I’d like her to play the part”.

Now Elaine and I have had a long association. She was in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband, both of which I produced. The next day she and I were on the phone and I asked her if she’d seen what Susan had said about her. Elaine told me she had been on holiday and her phone had gone crazy. She said, “I’ll never get the movie, though. It will be some Hollywood star”.

So I said, “Why don’t you do something about her in the theatre? A musical or a play with music would be a really interesting idea. Think about it – a working-class story set in Blackburn in Scotland, the growing up, the bullying, the family life, the boyfriend, the loss of the parents, the being in a position of ‘where do I go from here?’ This was a girl whose parents were told she’d never come to be anything and she went on to be one of the biggest singing sensations in the world. It’s a fairy tale, Elaine.”

Susan Boyle & Elaine C Smith

We sort of laughed about it and then hung up, but about ten minutes later she rang me back. She said there could be something in it so I got in contact with Susan’s management to see whether it was something they might be interested in and happily it was.

Of course, there was a lot of sneering from certain quarters. People believed we were just out to do a jukebox musical. But I love the underdog. And, while I’m not for one moment comparing I Dreamed a Dream to Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables and Wicked, they were also poo-pooed before they opened – ‘how can you bastardise Victor Hugo’ or ‘why do a show with a load of songs by Abba’ or ‘who cares about what happened before The Wizard of Oz?

It’s not hurtful; I know that people judge, I judge other shows. But when you’re not involved in it, you don’t know about the story or the team that’s being put together or the cast that’s being assembled. My biggest thrill is that, from the very first run-through in the rehearsal room in Glasgow, people have been surprised by it. It’s not what people thought it would be, it really is a play with a soundtrack.

Elaine C Smith as Susan Boyle. Photo credit: Keith Pattison

Susan Boyle hasn’t been involved in the writing of it, but everything in the show is based on fact – taken either from her book or from things that she has said. Obviously, there is a bit of theatrical licence to make it work on stage, but Susan has been around a lot and she sang at the opening performances. She and her family were in on press night, too, which was very emotional, and they all absolutely loved it, giving it a big thumbs up.

As for the show’s future – we are touring until June and will do Edinburgh and Glasgow in September and October which will obviously be a very big deal in Susan’ native Scotland. It was never intended to be a London show because of those sniggering reactions, but we have had interest from the West End and from around the world since we opened to such strong reviews. The problem is that everyone wants the show with Elaine C Smith! It is a powerhouse performance, a fantastic performance, but Elaine can’t be in Australia, Canada and America at the same time!

– Michael Harrison was talking to Terri Paddock