Musical up there where it belongs

With its soundtrack of hit songs, An Officer and a Gentleman was a natural to fit the vogue for turning movies into stage jukebox musicals.

Thursday, 31st May 2018, 11:45 am
Updated Thursday, 31st May 2018, 11:47 am
Emma Williams as Paula Pokrifki and Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo in the iconic last scene of An Officer and a Gentleman

But it has taken a long time – the film came out in 1982 - for a show to come to fruition to the satisfaction of the man who wrote the original story and was a producer on the film, Douglas Day Stewart.

Part of the reason, he says, is that it took him time to decide which form it should take. “I felt on the basis of the way people responded emotionally meant the stage would be the perfect home for it but I didn’t know if it should be a play or a musical,” he explains.

Emma Williams as Paula Pokrifki and Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo in the iconic last scene of An Officer and a Gentleman

It was only after seeing it performed Takarazuka-style in Japan that he was convinced it should be a musical. “But it took a lot of incarnations and a lot of time to reach the musical we see today,” he continues. “People thought it would take a lot of bells and whistles because it was such a box office success forgetting its origins as a very simple working class story.

“We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning (an Australian version closed after six weeks) but luckily I met Nikolai Foster (artistic director of the Leicester Curve) and he understood straight away the simple origins and tone of this story and he wanted to do it true to the movie but also what young audiences today would want to see.”

It is the story of a young naval cadet undergoing a gruelling boot camp in order to be one of the elite chosen to be trained as a pilot and his love for a local factory girl.

The film is remembered as much as anything for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes singing Up Where We Belong, specially composed for the movie, which accompanies one of the screen’s most iconic romantic scenes of all time when Richard Gere in white uniform comes to the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off in her arms at the end.

Ray Shell and Jonny Fines in An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical

Spoiler alert: that is the climax to the stage show too. The other songs are a cavalcade of hits from the Eighties such as St Elmo’s Fire, Heart of Glass, Material Girl, and The Final Countdown.

The story of An Officer and a Gentleman is based on personal experience for Day Stewart.

Back in 1965 he found himself about to be drafted he was given some advice from a naval officere friend of the family.

He said, ‘Our country is going to go to war in Vietnam eventually and you have a choice, do you want to die as a marine in some muddy ditch somewhere or would you like to be a naval officer served food on linen tablecloths and probably live to see the end of the war?’

The company for An Officer And A Gentleman with Douglas Day Stewart (centre)

“Well that was a kind of no brainer so I ended up signing up for officer candidate school and I went to Newport, Rhode Island, to this 13-week school and I couldn’t believe what I ran into. There was this drill instructor just like the guy I wrote about in the film and all these college grads struggling to figure out how to do all this stuff like celestial navigation and aerodynamics and all the brutality of the boot camp experience.

“The only way any of us made it was we would rush into town once we finally got liberty after our first three weeks and we would date these girls from the factory in Fall River.

“They would refer to these girls derogatorily as the Puget Sound Debs and the instructor warned us, ‘you had better be careful these girls are out to marry a naval cadet and escape their dead-end lives’.

“We all laughed and thought it was a joke but it was all so true. I went through this experience and fell in love with a factory girl and had almost all the experiences you see in the musical.”

A predominantly young cast is headed by Jonny Fines, whose previous credits include Annie in the West End and UK tours of The Sound of Music and Avenue Q, and four-time Olivier Award nominated Emma Williams, filling the shoes of Richard Gere and Debra Winger as Zack Mayo and Paula Pokrifki, with Jessica Daly and Ian McIntosh in the best friend roles of Sid Worleyand Lynette Pomeroy.

One of the few in the cast who is old enough to remember the film when it first came out is Ray Shell playing Marine Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley.who considers: “The Eighties songs give a sense of being in that place and time which I can say as the only American in the company.”

The role of the hard-nosed drill instructor earned Lou Gossett Jr an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Shell admits: “I have to get Lou Gossett out of my head. Although I take elements of it you don’t want to regurgitate his performance. You want to make the part your own but also honour what Douglas has written and give the atmosphere of it.”

Ray Shell, who divides his time between the UK and America, has fond memories of Sheffield from being at the Crucible in Blues for Mr Charlie in 1989.

“I had a great time. Clarke Peters was directing, it was the days of Clare Venables, and one of the reasons I remember it well was I had my daughter there on tour.”

An Officer and a Gentleman is at the Sheffield Lyceum from Monday to Saturday.