sat 25/05/2024

'This is how it happened': Tom MacRae on writing Everybody's Talking About Jamie | reviews, news & interviews

'This is how it happened': Tom MacRae on writing Everybody's Talking About Jamie

'This is how it happened': Tom MacRae on writing Everybody's Talking About Jamie

How the musical about a boy who wanted to go to the school prom dressed as a girl was created

John McCrea leads the cast of 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'© Johan Persson

I’d always wanted to write a musical, but I didn’t start actually trying until four years ago. Now four years on, my first show, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, is about to hit the West End –  that’s four years to go from no show, no idea and no experience to opening at the Apollo Theatre. It’s utterly crazy, I still can’t believe it – and this is how it happened...

Chance meetings made everything possible. The first was between me and Dan Gillespie Sells, my songwriting partner, when we met on a gay rights march in Piccadilly. Like me, he’d always wanted to write a musical, but had spent the last 10 years getting distracted by being a pop star in The Feeling. Likewise, I’d been writing TV dramas, but harboured an ambition to try my hand at lyrics and to write a play for the stage. The two of us coming together just made sense. 

Chance meeting number two came during the Chichester production of Kiss Me Kate, when Dan and I bumped into Michael Ball at the theatre. We didn’t know Michael, but we explained who we were and what we were trying to do. Michael, magnificently, decided to take an interest in us. He listened to some of the songs we’d been working on and liked them, and became the godfather of what was to eventually be our show.

Entirely unbeknown to us, in faraway Sheffield, more amazing coincidences were taking place. Jonathan Butterell, the theatre director, had by chance caught a BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, chronicling a teenage boy’s ambition to go to his school prom in a dress. Jonathan thought this could make a good musical, and had approached Daniel Evans at the Crucible who agreed to commission the piece - but Jonathan still needed writers. He’d been looking everywhere for the right people with the right voices, and mentioned his mission to Michael.

Michael said, "Well I bumped into these two guys at the theatre…"

Jonathan Butterell, Dan Gillespie Sells, Tom MacRae_Photo The Other Richard_2But of course, these are just plot details. The real story is how this chance upon chance upon chance meeting gave me my two best friends. Working together is a joy, and that joy is at the heart of everything we do. That joy is what we have somehow managed to put onto that stage – and don’t worry, there’s grit and grey and tears along the way too, but always, behind everything – is joy. (Pictured above: Jonathan Butterell, Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Photo by The Other Richard)

After we met Jonathan, we watched the documentary, and we absolutely loved it. It was a story that sang, and became the inspiration for everything we did next. We set ourselves one rule: we wouldn’t watch the documentary again, or meet Jamie and Margaret in person, until we’d finished the show. We needed to be free to tell our own version of the story and to build our own world to tell it in. 

And so we started writing. Thank God Jonathan knew what he was doing. Dan and I didn’t have a clue – but I think that’s why it worked. We never knew what we were doing, and so we never thought we were doing it wrong. Dan, Jonathan and I gelled into a unit instantly. We work together. We hang out together. We go on holiday together. When Jamie opened in Sheffield we even lived together.

Imagine me and Dan, total newbies, full of fear, waiting for the first public performance of our show in Sheffield to begin. We had no idea if it was any good. We had no idea if the audience would stay till the end. We’d never been more terrified. Then, when the crowd started laughing, and whooping, and clapping along to the songs and cheering us home during the bows – it was the most emotional experience of my life. My mum had died just a few months before, and she never got to see our show which is, ultimately, about mothers and sons. I literally ran into Tamsin Carrol’s dressing room (who plays Miss Hedge), hugged her and sobbed for about five minutes. Then I composed myself, dashed out front, and joined Dan signing CDs in the foyer. Little did we know that by the next week the CDs would be entirely sold out.Everybody's Talking About Jamie in rehearsalOpening night was the first time Jamie and his mum saw the show. We wanted everyone to love it, but them most of all. And thank God, they did. They took their own bow at the end, and stood there hugging and crying as the entire house gave them a standing ovation. We say that their story "inspired" our show – and it did in every possible way. They are an inspiration to us.

And now we’re coming to London (rehearsals pictured above by Grace Wordsworth), and it’s time to cross our fingers all over again. We’ve been working on it since the day it closed in Sheffield, refining, rewriting, and creating three brand new songs. 

I can’t wait till press night. I’m terrified of press night. Here we go again…

Jamie and his mum took their own bow at the end, and stood there hugging and crying as the entire house gave them a standing ovation

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