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Jane Hollowood in the original schools production of Blood Brothers

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dublin production

Korean cast with Glen Walford

Simada: mrs Johnstone

St for Blood Brothers

Toyko poster

Con O'Neill

Tokyo programme cover:  This programme is huge and a work of art!

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Blood Brothers history...

 

A (not so) short history of the show


Blood Brothers, one of the longest running musicals in the West End and a massive success all over the world from Broadway to Australia, began - as all the best things in life do - rather more humbly than the huge hit it has become.

Its author, fresh from the Click to see more early Blood Brothers imagessuccess of Eduating Rita, was commissioned to write a 70-minute piece for Merseyside Young People's Theatre Company, a small touring company who visited schools in the area, with a company of five actors and only minimal props.

That version of Blood Brothers had only one song in it - the Marilyn Monroe refrain - but the day it opened, Russell started to work on the full-length piece that would eventually sweep the world. It also so happens that a West End producer, Bob Swash (who was one of the team behind Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's last full-sale musical, Evita) went to see it at one of the schools where it was being presented, and loved it.

"He'd been badgering me for a long time to write a new musical", explains Russell, who earlier in his career had already had a hit in the West End with John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert, but that musical (written while Russell was still a schoolteacher) had used the Beatles catalogue rather than an original score. "With the Lennon/McCartney material to choose from, I was not going to put myself up as composer for that one but, it meant that when I came to write Blood Brothers, I had already worked within a structure that was in some way a musical. And I'd been a songwriter before I went into the theatre."

Briefly, the question came up of who would compose the score for what would become Blood Brothers. "I wondered whether to approach another composer, but eventually I thought why? I was itching to do it myself, though I was also frightened. But I finally thought I should risk falling on my face."

In the event, he landed on his feet. Reunited with Barbara Dickson - one of the discoveries of Russell's John, Paul, George, Ringo & Bert - starring as Mrs. Johnson, the full-length, fully scored version of Blood Brothers opened at the Liverpool Playhouse. It was an instant success and, after its 12 week run there, Bob Swash transferred it immediately to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where it opened on 11th April 1983.

Barbara Dickson on stage with the original cast including George CostiganBut, despite outstanding reviews and public acclaim from those who saw it, it was slow to catch on in London. "We just didn't do enough business for the first six or seven weeks", admits Russell. The theatre managers, nervous about its prospects, booked another production to follow it. By the time the show started catching on, much helped by radio plays of Barbara Dickson's rendition of 'Tell Me It's Not True'. It was too late to reverse the decision to shut the show to make way for its replacement. But the run ended on a high, with sell-out houses and extraordinary disappointment by everyone involved that it had had its life unfairly cut short. As a result, says Russell, "it always felt like unfinished business to me."

Blood Brothers, however, refused to die. The rights were released to repertory companies and many productions followed around the country, as well as abroad.

Enter, now, Bill Kenwright, the prolific presenter of West End and touring productions, like Russell himself a native Liverpudlian although they did not know each other. Bill acquired the rights to produce a national tour, and he and Russell finally met when they drove together to see it. "During the drive," remembers Russell, "we started to get to know each other better, and found that we had a lot in common."

Together they got to work on improving a production that Russell had immediately recognised as terrifically well cast - "and if you cast well," he adds, "you can always sort everything else out."

But Russell was wary of seeing it return to the West End: "I didn't want to diminish the memory of the original - there'd been such a warm feeling towards it in 1983." So another national tour was booked. "I was still haunted by the fear of breaking the spell of what it had been." Finally, he was persuaded after a visit to the show in Manchester. "I took a mate of mine who hadn't seen it before. We booked the tickets in his name, so no one knew I was coming, and he was spellbound, and so were 2,000 other people in the auditorium. I sat there thinking, "What am I doing denying it a lifeblood in the West End?" So I contacted Bill that night and agreed that it could go back to the West End. I was so grateful to him: not only because it was such a terrific production and a massive hit, but also because it finally allowed me to let go of it."

Now it was Bill Kenwright's turn to inherit the responsibility for it, and British musical history was made when, for the second time in the same decade, it was acclaimed all over again by the press, and in turn public, when it opened at the Albery Theatre in St. Martins Lane on July 28th, 1988. This time, however, it would not have its life cut short. Instead, it would see its life constantly renewed by the love and affection of its public, and of course by the dedication of its production team and the hugely talented casts that have performed it.

In the West End, Kiki Dee (who had led the production on the national tour and at the Albery) would eventually be succeeded by Angela Richards and then Stephanie Lawrence. Stephanie in turn led the show to Broadway, together with Con O'Neill as Mickey. Warwick Evans as the narrator and several other British cast members joining an American company. On Broadway, the show opened at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street on April 25th, 1993, where it would run for over two years. Petula Clark, Helen Reddy and Carole King later starred as Mrs. Johnstone. At one time the twins were played by the brothers David and Shaun Cassidy. Together with Petula, David also led an American national touring production. Adrian Zmed (from the TV series T. J. Hooker) did an extended run as the Narrator on Broadway.

Meanwhile the show also went to Australia, where local star Delia Hannah played Mrs. Johnstone in a cast that also included David Soul as the Narrator and Stefan Dennis as Eddie.

Back in Britain, demand for Blood Brothers was so great that in 1991 it moved to a larger theatre, the Phoenix; and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the show's writing, Barbara Dickson returned to the role of Mrs. Johnstone for the summer 1993. The West End lights of Blood Brothers continue to burn undimmed even as the show continues to play throughout the world and on a new British national tour.

Mark Shenton

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