‘I KNEW there would be snobbery about it,” says Elaine C Smith, of her initial reluctance to become involved in the stage musical of Susan Boyle’s life, and she’s right, on two counts.
Firstly, because the story of Susan Boyle – of the talent show that discovered her, of the people who compete to appear on it, of the millions who watch it, and of the very songs Susan sings – is a story of British popular culture, largely ignored by our cultural and political elites, and often ridiculed when they do notice it.
Secondly, because in a world of theatre where large venues are now often dominated by “tribute musicals” of one kind or another – from the global mega-hit Mamma Mia! to smaller masterpieces like the recent Ian Dury show Reasons To Be Cheerful – there is still widespread snobbery about a genre that is seen as making theatre secondary to other media, either to popular music itself, or to the broadcast and recorded media through which it finds its audience.
Yet a single look at a show like the new Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed A Dream – produced by Qdos pantomimes boss Michael Harrison, written jointly by Smith and Scottish panto genius Alan McHugh, and directed with flair by rising star Ed Curtis – is enough to demonstrate that genre doesn’t necessarily dictate quality. Smith says that she was never interested in a show that would “take the piss” out of Susan Boyle, or present a sugary version of her life; or in one that would just be “sing-a-long-a-Susan” – the music, she felt, would have to express something more than that.
Whatever critics and audiences finally make of I Dreamed A Dream, it’s hard to deny the boldness of the first-person narrative through which it gives Susan Boyle a voice, or its honesty about the tougher aspects of her life; about her dismissal as brain-damaged at birth, the tough economic and social circumstances of her West Lothian home town, the bullying she suffered at school, the limited life imposed on her even by her loving family, and the shocking and brutal coverage – particularly of her physical appearance – she received in the gutter press, following her first sensational success.
The show’s playlist of songs, too, is as unexpected as it is entertaining, capturing a whole history of popular music in Susan Boyle’s 50-year lifetime through songs like Janis Ian’s 17 and Tears for Fears’ Mad World, as well Dave Anderson’s beautiful Joy Is In The Child, and the more familiar SuBo anthems. And although a personal appearance by Boyle at the end inevitably forms the show’s climax, Smith says it will have done its job if the audience are already on their feet and cheering, by that time.
“As I’ve said to Susan,” says Smith, “I’ve only got a tenth or a hundredth of her fame, and I still find it hard to cope with. To go from the Happy Valley karaoke in West Lothian to global celebrity, literally in a few minutes – well, I think she’s done an amazing job of coping with it. And I hope, in the end, we’ve produced a show about not judging a book by its cover. Because that’s what our culture does; and it’s so wrong, and the consequences can be horrific.”
SUBO: THE TV STAR
THAT girl in the audience rolling her eyes in delicious expectation of the horror to come: that was us. We knew the deal on Simon Cowell’s shows: the occasional shy or overweight person would turn out to have a nice voice, but the ones introduced with a comical soundtrack, who came out in the wrong kind of outfit, trying to engage the judges in the wrong kind of banter, they were always the jokes – or rather, the set-up, existing only to cue Cowell’s scathing delineation of their failure.
And then Susan Boyle turned an old Les Misérables song into a moment of beauty, a lifetime of looking and talking and being wrong pouring out of her and coalescing into rightness, and the shock rippling over the audience was ours, too. Could this silly variety contest really contain some genuine feeling? The other judges’ faces lit up (as much as Botox would allow) and if you freeze-frame, you can actually see the dollar signs pop in Cowell’s eyes. “You didn’t expect that, did you!” said Ant, or possibly Dec, backstage, jabbing his finger towards us, as if his own show hadn’t set us up.
The shame of misjudgement was ours, but also the vindication of watching the show in the first place. We may have laughed at the freaks, but when one of them turned out to have real talent, we fell over ourselves to praise, forwarding the YouTube clip or encouraging friends to watch. Even those, particularly in the US, who only watched the clip later understood the story arc, a mini-Hollywood epic of an underdog’s triumph.
For all the many patronising things written about Susan Boyle, who appears, thankfully, to have kept her sense of humour, it’s been overlooked that she seems to understand exactly what happened to her on the night her audition was shown. It’s been reported that she fears her new life could come to an end as suddenly as it began. She’s too famous (and, presumably, rich) for that to happen as such, but she probably understands how fickle we are. One day another moment will come which eclipses her triumph. It may not be the opera-singing teenager from this year’s BGT, already inappropriately dubbed “the new SuBo”, but it will be someone who unexpectedly brings something real into a reality show. And we will watch and be surprised all over again.
SUBO: THE SINGER
A LOT of artists claim to be “all about the music”. But it doesn’t quite feel right to frame a discussion about the appeal of Susan Boyle in purely musical terms. There are many singers out there performing middle-of- the-road covers on a pretty lavish budget, but how many of them become the subject of a stage musical only a few years into their career? So much of what resonates with Boyle’s fans is down to who she is that the music can only ever be part of the picture.
For the more casual among her fanbase, she may represent nothing more than easy listening for the car or while doing the housework. But what makes Susan Boyle a phenomenon is what she represents to her ardent fans. And what she represents to those fans can fall anywhere on the spectrum between role model and deity.
Every famous performer will be the subject of fan projection. Look at the empty vessel that is Kylie Minogue. As a singer she gives very little of herself – there may not be much to give – instead, she provides a blank canvas on which her audience can paint their own Kylie image. Boyle is naturally more open than that but her vulnerability is crucial to her appeal. Likewise, the humble roots she cleaves to. Here is a relatable woman who struggles with life, not a groomed, camera-ready pop star with a charmed existence. Without that background to exploit, Boyle is just another capable singer with a tendency to overdo the vibrato. With that background, she becomes a well of cathartic emotion.
There have been some shrewd creative decisions made about how to best channel that emotion. Who would have predicted that she would open her account with a Rolling Stones cover, and a non-cheesy, arguably quite restrained one at that?
Yes, there have been predictable choices on her three albums to date, but also a carefully curated strain of curveball covers. Susan Boyle interprets a song about being strung out on heroin? It’s there among the Christmas cheer of her second album, The Gift – Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, as sanitised as her version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Having dispatched reasonable readings of songs by Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears, which tangential offering could be next? A Johnny Cash number seems a cert at some point, but I’m holding out for something from the bonkers catalogue of Julian Cope.