WHEN Neil Hannon – brains of melodramatic pop act The Divine Comedy – realised his ambition to write a musical, he maybe didn’t count on the contrast to the day job that took him round the world.
Long a purveyor of colourful hits such as Something For The Weekend and Frog Princess, it wasn’t so unlikely a prospect, and then he hooked up with Tom Morris, director behind the West End show War Horse.
Together they created Swallows & Amazons, a canny and adorable revival of Yorkshire-born writer Arthur Ransome’s 1920s tale of childhood adventure.
“I was only a small cog in the machine,” claims the Irishman ahead of the show playing The Lyceum from April 10.
“In all the reviews, that have been fantastic – and I’m not grumbling – it’s been ‘oh, and there were some good songs’ at the end of it. I thought of doing it in the first place! But it doesn’t make any difference; the show is the thing. People are coming and everybody loves it.”
Neil had designs on transforming Swallows & Amazons when he read the book to his daughter Willow. The idea grew when Divine Comedy fan Tom approached him after a gig.
“The idea of making a musical had always been on the periphery, but I didn’t know how to approach it. Then luckily Tom said ‘You should do a musical’.
“It took ages to really work out what to do. And I thought albums took a long time to turn around...”
So then began a learning curve towards the “rollicking good tunes” that made the production as script and action ideas were work-shopped.
“In many ways it’s a bit like a Divine Comedy album in that it covers an awful lot of genres. I have no issue with one sounding quite classical and the next sounding a bit jazzy or tribal.
“To begin with I simply had a go at things that had sparked my initial thought ‘might make a musical’.”
The music evolved with Helen Edmundson, who adapted the story, and Tom who would write out diagrams and bullet points. “He would give us both challenges for the day; I’d be sent off to a room with a piano and bashed out things.
“There were quite a lot of off-cuts, but the more script Helen wrote the more we understood where the songs needed to be. There was a bit of cross-pollination because some of the lyrics I had taken from the dialogue Helen had written, and she put some of the better gags from the lyrics I’d written into the dialogue when the song itself got chucked. You win some, you lose some in this business.”
After four years fermentation the show opened at London’s Vaudeville Theatre this month. Neil’s 10-year-old daughter is a fan.
“She loves it. When we started it I thought ‘She’s going to be far too young for the show’ but by the time it came round she was the perfect age. To begin with I was visualising it as a film, like The Sound Of Music, and that helped me along even though what we’ve got on stage is a million miles away from one of those big film musicals.
“It speaks to my childhood in that those were the sort of books I would have read. The interior life is the world I inhabit now, and then. I was never the outdoor type. I like walking the dogs but that’s as far as it goes. ”
Swallows is on a UK theatre tour until mid May and Neil, who wrote the Father Ted theme tune, admits it seems odd to have penned songs that someone else is taking on the road.
“It’s genius. Why didn’t I think of this before; how to tour without touring.
“I make more money when I’m doing a gig, but I think it’s a wonderful thing you can go into areas and be heard by people who wouldn’t naturally listen to your music.”