By his own admission, Mark Knopfler is not big on musicals. But he will cop to a “soft spot” for West Side Story. “I fell in love with it when I was a little boy,” he says.
It’s a long way from the Upper West Side of New York to the upper west side of Scotland and the fictional yet wholly believable fishing village of Ferness, location of Bill Forsyth’s much cherished film Local Hero for which the Dire Straits mainman wrote the evocative and equally loved soundtrack. And yet, 35 years down the line, Knopfler has revisited that location for his maiden voyage into musical theatre, writing the music and lyrics for the much anticipated stage adaptation of Local Hero which premieres next month at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre.
“I remember thinking at the time when I was doing the film that I didn’t want to do anything too tartan,” he says. “I certainly had huge doubts about whether I could do this. I wasn’t sure if I could write songs for these characters. But I love the film. Every time it gets to the end of Local Hero I get emotional. It’s an extraordinary film in a lot of ways so what you’ve got to then try to do is make a piece of theatre that stands up on its own. When the actors do it now, it works on me every time. Why is that? There is something in the whole human situation that is timeless and I found I could write songs for the characters. I gave it a shot and I just kept going and I’ve enjoyed getting into it. But I’ve still got to find out whether or not it’s worked...”
The cast don’t appear to have any reservations. Across town from Knopfler’s luxury apartment in St Andrews Square, three of the principals are gathered in a small windowless meeting space in the Lyceum Theatre’s rehearsal annexe which has been dubbed the panic room. Presumably, this is where artistic temperaments go to fray.
But no one is panicking in the panic room. Rather, they are models of relaxed enthusiasm, arriving fresh from rehearsing a group number in which the members of the Ferness community dream about what they might do with the money set to come their way if plans to build a refinery in their locale get the green light.
Seasoned musical theatre actor Damian Humbley plays Mac, the Houston oil executive who arrives with the game-changing offer only to discover he’s not sure if he wants the game to change when he falls in love with the landscape and the people of Ferness, not least Stella and Gordon, the couple who run the local hotel, played by Taggart actress Katrina Bryan and Matthew Pidgeon, a self-confessed musical theatre novice but a veteran of David Greig’s “play with songs” Midsummer.
The actors have already had four weeks of rehearsals in London and as the Edinburgh sessions get underway, streamlined rewrites are happening on a regular basis. Only a few days earlier, Bryan was handed a brand new song for Stella, whose role has been beefed up in this production.
“The development of Stella was one of the things that I remember being concerned with,” says Knopfler. “I think Stella needed to move with the times really, and I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I think she represents a lot more than in Bill’s time.”
In a neat example of how Knopfler’s music is used to convey physical and emotional landscape, Mac first encounters Gordon and Stella practising a tango for a local competition, and the relationship which develops between the three leads becomes an elegant dance of conflicted feelings and contrasting expectations.
“In a musical, you might think of people singing about high ideals,” says Pidgeon, “but in Local Hero people are dealing with their earthly issues and the lyrics reflect that. And there’s a more poetic side with Mac and Stella. Both of these people have fallen in love with this place and their songs sometimes are more lyrical.”
Knopfler jokes that his musical theatre debut is “un-musical” while Bryan reckons “the music has got a folky feel but it’s not twee, it’s real and earthy and you can relate to it.”
Humbley goes further in distinguishing Local Hero from many contemporary musicals. “This feels more like a play with music,” he says, “because the music is so ingrained in the storytelling – like Shakespeare, when it goes to verse it has to heighten. Or like a film soundtrack, where music can be the subtext, and what’s being said or sung on the surface is often in antithesis to what’s actually bubbling underneath.
“They’ve been able to capture the culture shifts. The American stuff is hard and fast and moves along, and then you get to this small town in Scotland where the songs are more like folk music, telling these old stories. There’s a couple of earworm numbers where I swear I’ve heard this before – that’s what folk music is, isn’t it? Centuries old storytelling, and Mark’s really been able to capture that in his music.”
Director John Crowley, whose work straddles film, TV and theatre, describes Knopfler as “a master craftsman”.
“He writes heartbreaking ballads and he can write extremely funny character sketch songs as well and I think taking on an individual’s deepest feelings that they cannot express to somebody else was right in his sweet spot, as was writing for the community in terms of razor sharp comedic but not clichéd voices.”
“You’ve got to be careful with stereotyping,” says Knopfler. “Being a new boy in musicals, the challenge of ordering this material and the light and shade of it all is really a deadpan balancing act. Local Hero is a proper grown-up story.”
“The show is like a Steinbeck novel,” says Humbley. “Life goes on to where the story starts, then these things happen, and then life continues after these big shifts in the family or the home, and by the time you leave it I really do think that musically it will live on.” n
Local Hero is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh,from 14 March until 4 May. To book tickets, visit www.lyceum.org.uk