Take a musical made famous by two of the greatest dancers of all time, add in a toe-tapping score, sprinkle liberally with West End sparkle – and you have the recipe for Top Hat.
Following a London run, the musical has been sashaying its way around the country in a shimmering spectacle of classic Hollywood glamour and now it’s heading to the Sunderland stage.
At the helm are two of the stars from the West End version – Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch – who are stepping into the magical shoes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the lead roles of Jerry Travers and Dale Tremont.
They’ve helped the show to win a wave of glowing reviews as they breathe new life into the original RKO motion picture, and music and lyrics by the legendary Irving Berlin.
Top Hat was the most successful picture of the nine movies Astaire and Rogers made together. It premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in 1935 where it broke all box office records. Within a few weeks, all five songs from the film occupied the top five places on the American Hit Parade. It is still widely regarded as one of the greatest dance musicals of all time.
But bringing it to the stage was no mean feat, as producer Kenny Wax explains.
“When it all started, I was actually having tea with some friends of mine, it was around the height of series 6/7 of Strictly Come Dancing, and they said ‘have you ever thought of doing something along the line of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’?” he explained.
“They knew Anton Du Beke socially and we did have discussions with Anton. He was very keen, but it would have meant him leaving Strictly, which he didn’t want to do at the time. So we parted ways amicably.
“We started doing auditions for a workshop and someone suggested Tom Chambers. He loves dancing and Fred Astaire was one of his heroes. He’d won that year’s series of Strictly and was very good. He’s a great actor too, so having him in the lead was a great way of launching the first tour.
“It was a combination of Strictly being popular, great songs and re-visiting a title.”
It tells the story of Jerry Travers, a famous American tap dancer, who arrives in London to appear in his first West End show. Travers meets the irresistible Dale Tremont, the girl of his dreams, and follows her across Europe in an attempt to win her heart.
They go on to dance their way through a host of classics such as Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails from the original, as well as extra numbers added to the score such as Let’s Face the Music and Dance and Puttin’ On the Ritz.
Kenny said: “Astaire and Rogers did nine musicals together, they were both signed to RKO Pictures. The truth be told they weren’t the greatest films, as the plots were a bit silly, but they had two hugely popular stars, along with Irving Berlin’s songs, which made them very exciting. At the time they were very popular, but they haven’t really been re-visited since.
“It’s Irving Berlin’s three daughters who manage the estate, they are in their late 70s and 80s. Irving himself lived until he was 101. We had to present our case to Berlin’s daughters. Many people have done that before, but they’ve always said no.
“I think the reason they said yes to us is because of the popularity of Strictly, but also because I told them about my daughter Jemima, who was eight or nine at the time. She wasn’t brought up on those classic black and white musicals like we were, the ones people would sit and watch with their grandparents on a Saturday afternoon.
“Now, on Saturday afternoons, children play on their games and gadgets, the family doesn’t watch things together. I said these songs would be lost forever if we didn’t bring them to a new audience with a big, beautiful musical. So I think the daughters agreed for one final hoorah.
“They even suggested a couple of songs from their father’s back catalogue, around 1,400 songs, which we didn’t know about, which work perfectly in the show. It’s a nice way of tying up in a bow that relationship.”
The gamble paid off for Kenny and the musical went on to be the recipient of the Evening Standard Best Night Out Award and has received five Whatsonstage nominations, including Best New Musical.
It’s been a labour of love for Kenny who’s long admired the musicals from the golden age of Hollywood.
“It’s these kind of shows that got me into theatre,” he said. “I was a huge fan of Me and My Girl when I was about 18, a time when I was starting to think about a career, and I thought it would be great to be a producer, to provide that amount of pleasure for audiences. So Top Hat became my nod to a genre that meant a lot to me.
“Those big, dazzling shows with great songs don’t come along that often. They’re quite rare because they’re expensive so it’s difficult to raise funds.
“We love it, we’re very proud, we’ve been touring with it for a few years now. After Sunderland we only have a couple more dates in the UK and then we’re off to Japan. It literally went wild in Newcastle, it sold so well, I think people like that it’s a good, classy night.
“There’s something retro and modern about it, but it has that Top Hat title. It’s brilliant that the leads are so good, and they really are, it’s kind of the most important thing, as you want people to get the quality of it. They are such lovely people too.”
Kenny started his career in theatre as an usher at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, at the beginning of the run of Miss Saigon back in September, 1989.
It sparked a love affair with the stage that would see him climb the career ladder to produce recent tours of The Witches of Eastwick starring Marti Pellow and Aspects of Love starring David Essex, as well as children’s shows including The Gruffalo, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
It was while working as an usher that he would rub shoulders with one of the greatest of theatre producers.
“I think working as an usher helped my love of theatre. I was an usher for the first Miss Saigon which I absolutely adored,” he recalls. “Cameron Mackintosh was around a lot in the theatre at the time and he was very generous with his time. He said the best thing was to work in different roles and learn about the business. I’ve had many successes and many failures since then. But Top Hat is right up there for me.
“It’s my first big show and it’s opened a lot of doors for me.”
•Top Hat is at Sunderland Empire from June 24 to July 4. Tickets are available from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.
We’ve teamed up with Sunderland Empire to give away a pair of tickets to Top Hat on June 24 at 7.30pm.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: Who wrote the score for Top Hat?
A) Irving Berlin
B) Andrew Lloyd Webber
C) Gary Barlow
Email your answer and contact details to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk
Closing date: June 17.