Interview: Ricky Ross on his new musical, The Choir

The Choir - Ryan Fletcher, Sandy Nelson, Myra McFadyen, Anne Kidd, Scott Reid, Peter Polycarpou, James Quinn, Joanne Thomson, Jess Murphy & Neshla Caplan. Picture: Tim Morozzo

The Choir - Ryan Fletcher, Sandy Nelson, Myra McFadyen, Anne Kidd, Scott Reid, Peter Polycarpou, James Quinn, Joanne Thomson, Jess Murphy & Neshla Caplan. Picture: Tim Morozzo

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RICKY Ross has finally written a musical, but the showstopping numbers won’t be Deacon Blue’s

RICKY Ross has often been told he should do a musical. A few people – myself included – think he should do a jukebox musical. It worked for the Proclaimers, after all, and if there’s one other band in Scotland whose songs are lyrically evocative enough to be shaped into a story, it’s Deacon Blue.

Picture: Tim Morozzo

Picture: Tim Morozzo

“There have been three or four daft suggestions going way back,” Ross acknowledges, humouring me. “People always wanted to make a musical of Dignity [he screws up his face at this] but it’s quite a thin story.”

The most recent offer, he reveals, got kicked into the long grass by the fact that, for the first time, he actually has written a musical – The Choir. “Oddly enough the week I had a meeting about this [The Choir] I had a meeting with someone else about that [a Deacon Blue musical] and I sort of took the decision that as a songwriter this is the one that I’m really interested in. There’s no way that we could do both at the same time, it would become very confusing. I said to this person, ‘When we get this done we’ll maybe think about that.’”

How long they – and we – have to wait may depend on how well The Choir does. “It might die in the first week,” says Ross cheerfully, “and we’ll have learned quite a lot, but if that doesn’t happen then it’ll go on tour.”

It could, on the evidence, go either way. The Choir is written by Paul Higgins, well-known as an actor (in The Thick Of It on TV, Complicity in cinemas and Black Watch on stage) but relatively untested as a writer, although his play Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us got positive reviews at the Traverse in 2008. It’s the story of a community choir; as Ross explains, it’s “really about the phenomenon of people joining choirs and why they do it, what brings them together when the only thing they have in common is that they love singing”.

Next time I’d like to go the other way. It’d be much more fun to have singing Christmas trees

As songwriter, Ross has set himself a formidable task. The conceit is that the choirmaster asks all the members of his choir to come along with “a song that means a lot to them”, except that all of these songs are not well-known hits from across different musical eras but entirely new songs by Ricky Ross. So, I ask him, are you writing imagined classics?

He laughs, a little nervously perhaps. “You’ve just expressed why the thing will fail! But I didn’t try too hard with that. Any time I’ve ever been in a hole about anything I turn to the same thing… do I like it? It’s the only thing you can ever do, the only test.”

If anyone can pull this off, it has to be said, it’s Ross. He has, after all, not only written a long string of hits for his own band, but successful songs for Ronan Keating, James Blunt, KT Tunstall and Jamie Cullum.

The Choir’s central idea is also very timely. A community choir that tries to find harmony between a Tory councillor and a refugee from the Middle East is clearly a potent metaphor for a society at large in which – the week I meet Ross – Theresa May delivered her notorious Tory conference speech on immigration while Nadiya Hussain won The Great British Bake Off. “It doesn’t get more relevant than now,” says Ross. The choirmaster, he reveals, is an Iraqi doctor. “He’s the most interesting character. What has happened to him is a big part of the story, but also what he wants is to give back. If we don’t learn from people who come in we don’t learn very much.” There are also, he says, “a lot of interesting ideas about who’s Scottish. There are three or four characters who live in Scotland but are not Scottish and that discussion comes up. Who are we?”

Paul Higgins and Ricky Ross. Picture: Tim Morozzo

Paul Higgins and Ricky Ross. Picture: Tim Morozzo

While The Choir is technically Ross’s first musical, he has been writing music for the stage for years, from On The Line, Dundee Rep’s 1994 show about the Timex strike, to Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum. The meeting of minds with Higgins began, appropriately, in a theatre – Ross saw Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us at the suggestion of his wife, Lorraine McIntosh, who had just been working on a TV show with Higgins. Ross liked it, and they met up again when Higgins was in King Lear at the Citz. As Higgins remembers it, Ross told him, “I want to do a musical but it has to be real.”

“When I started I couldn’t get my head round the idea of people popping up and singing on buses and no one else hearing them,” explains Ross. 
“My only example of ‘real’ was Cabaret where they sing the songs in the Kit Kat Club, and then Paul said to me… ‘a choir’. And it became obvious that they could sing the songs and no-one was ever singing to each other in the kitchen. I think I’m over that now. Next time I’d like to go the other way. It’d be much more fun to have singing Christmas trees.”

In the meantime, Ross is going to the other extreme of showbiz – the week after The Choir opens, he’s embarking on a solo tour billed as “The Lyric Book Live – 30 Years of Songs from Deacon Blue and Beyond”. Booked before he had a date for the musical’s premiere, it has created something of a scheduling headache, but he’s looking forward to it.

“I just quite liked the idea of not having an album and being able to play lots of things from what amounts to 30 years’ worth of songs. There are certain songs you’d never do live, they just don’t work on piano and vocal, but a lot of them started life like that. What I don’t want to do is go out and play the same set as a Deacon Blue tour but on the piano. It’d be like the rubbish version! But I think the people who are coming know it’s a bit different.”

• The Choir, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Saturday to 14 November. The Lyric Book Live tour begins at the CatStrand in New Galloway on 1 November. Full list of dates at www.deaconblue.com

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