As dates in the diary go interviewing Gary Barlow about his involvement in the new Calendar Girls musical has got to be up there with the best of them.
I was among invited press, charity workers and carers invited to a final dress rehearsal of the musical which adds a new dimension to the true life story of the WI women who became a global sensation when they laid bare for a charity calendar.
Their passion to make a change following the death of one of their husbands has raised almost £5million for Bloodwise and spawned a hit film in 2003 and play, which made its debut in 2008, both penned by Olivier Award winner Tim Firth.
For this new retelling the writer teamed up with childhood friend Gary Barlow to offer a fresh take on the story through music.
It’s an inspirational tale that’s rooted in the warmth and tenacity of Yorkshire folk and it’s fitting, therefore, that the new tour of the musical is making its debut at Leeds Grand Theatre, before it heads off around the country, with a date at Sunderland Empire from March 19-23.
Speaking backstage at the Grand ahead of the show, Tim and Gary said they were looking forward to bringing the show to theatres across the country.
Asked about how his involvement in the production came about, Gary said: “About seven years ago Tim asked me to come and see Calendar Girls the play and I loved it and then Tim’s idea was to add music to it.
“We’ve done a couple of regional versions and had it in the West End (where it played a six-month season at the Phoenix Theatre), but this is a two-and-a-half-year tour we’re about to embark upon. It’s had a couple of changes and we’ve got a whole new cast.”
Bringing to life Gary and Tim’s words is a cast including presenter Fern Britton, actress Denise Welch, Hi-De-Hi’s Ruth Madoc, West End actress Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe and Karen Dunbar amongst others.
With Take That Gary has written and co-written 14 number one singles and sold more than 50million records worldwide. So how does it compare writing for a musical?
“Songs from the show, like Dare, could be on an album of mine,” he explained. “It sounds like one of my melodies. What Tim’s taught me with this experience is that it’s all about the story and I’ve really enjoyed that as a songwriter, actually having those goalposts to work to is really nice. But it is all about the story, nothing is bigger than the story in a musical.”
Speaking about why the women of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute struck such a chord when they stripped naked to pose behind strategically-placed cakes and kitchenware for their calendar in 1999, Tim said: “Comedy. Everyone knows that it’s a story born out of tragedy and even though people will cry, they will laugh more than they’ll cry and laugh so much they forget they’ve cried. But it’s a story that needs both elements.”
“Fighting grief and adversity with wit is something that doesn’t just apply to people in the North or people struggling with illness. That’s life. And it’s a very good way of coping.”
Gary was last in Sunderland earlier this year when he played two sold-out nights at the theatre as part of his solo tour. Prior to that he’s rocked the city with Take That band members at the Stadium of Light where they began their huge Circus and Progress tours in the city.
The pop star said he’s always had an affinity with the area.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with the North East,” he said.
“We had this time when we started our first theatre tour at Newcastle City Hall and ever since then we’ve always tried to start our tours in the North East because it felt like good luck. So whenever I go back to the North East I always look forward to it.
“And I’m really looking forward to this cast going to the North East with this show, I think it will get a really good response.”
The close collaboration of Gary and Tim, who both grew up in the village of Frodsham in Cheshire, is clear to see in the new musical with words and lyrics blending seamlessly in tracks such as Yorkshire and I’ve Had A Little Work Done to really flesh out an already strong story.
And the women who inspired this story are never far away, whether it be in celebrating the gentle comedy of everyday life in a Yorkshire village, to the fact some monies from the production will go to Bloodwise to build on the legacy of the Calendar Girls.
•Calendar Girls the Musical is at Sunderland Empire from March 19-23. Tickets are available from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland