May 23 2015 Latest news:
Sunday, March 9, 2014
A 1970’s TV favourite with its nostalgic tales of 50s small town America, Happy Days is now getting a new lease of life as a stage show. John Bultitude speaks to co-producer Amy Anzel, whose battle to bring The Fonz to a brand new audience was the subject of a hit BBC Drama.
Bringing hit TV shows to the theatre is nothing new. Many producers over the years have decided to move some of the favourite characters and programmes from the small screen to the stage.
For Happy Days co-producer Amy Anzel her long-held dream of a stage version the all-American Cunningham family and their friends to UK audiences stretches back a decade.
She started her career performing musical theatre in New York but decided she needed to widen her horizons by pursuing a TV and film in the arguably even brighter lights of Los Angeles.
Amy remembers: “Strangely enough, my first audition was not for TV or film. It was for a musical theatre production called Happy Days in the US.”
This was where she first met Garry Marshall, the creator of the original TV series and current stage show. She caught his eye and ended up being cast as one of the Pinkettes, and admits she was bitten by the Happy Days bug. “I did the workshops prior to the show being created and it was an incredible experience. I loved the material and I loved the show. I thought it had great potential,” she said.
From there, she moved back to New York, met her husband and decided to move back to his native England in 2009 when the Happy Days story continued.
She said: “When I moved here, I noticed that 1950s Americana was doing really well in the West End. Hairspray, Jersey Boys and Grease were all doing well. So I contacted Garry and asked: ‘Why is Happy Days not in the West End and not in the UK?’ as the British seemed to really embrace 1950s Americana. He said: ‘Good question, we’d like it to be.’
And that is where her dream started to become reality. Whether it was seeking money, finding the right cast or just securing venues to host the show, it was a lot of hard work with part of the angst and drama happening under the spotlight of TV cameras for the BBC’s hit theatrical fly-on-the-wall show The Story Of Musicals.
She always had a strong sense of self-belief in the show based on her love of the concept and her knowledge of what people enjoy seeing at the theatre. She said: “I always had total faith in Happy Days. I loved this idea and I believe in it. For the past few years, I’ve been watching the British public watch shows and I just felt that they would love this.
“We also have really high production values. I remember spending more and more on design and people would say “Amy, have you seen what’s down the road? Why are you spending this much money?” But I thought I can’t do anything less than that because I want everyone to enjoy what Happy Days should be and what musical theatre should be when it’s touring the country. I’m just so proud of this production. It is everything it should be and more. It’s my goal to get it in the West End eventually.”
Amy has worked hard on casting attracting a number of top performers to the show who mix being household names with a strong performing pedigree.
Sugababe and TV favourite Heidi Range takes on the role of Pinky Tuscadero, in what is her first major musical theatre role. Casting The Fonz proved a bit trickier and after seeing dozens of people, the role went to Ben Freeman who combines a high profile in the likes of TV’s Emmerdale with a strong theatrical reputation most recently in the West End hit Wicked.
The iconic role of Mrs Cunningham is taken on by Cheryl Baker, who had grown up with the show and had always wanted to play the show’s matriarch.
Finding the right creative team to help bring the show to fruition was also key and Amy believes bringing on board the director and noted choreographer Andrew Wright was crucial for this, although this search for the right person provided some of the most memorable scenes in The Story of Musicals.
She said: “I had lots of trouble with directors. I wanted a director-choreographer because I thought the choreography should be seamlessly woven into the direction of the show.
“There were about five people that I could choose from. One of them was Craig Revel-Horwood who I’d heard a lot of great things about. I saw his personality on TV and thought that it seemed to suit the Happy Days brand. Unfortunately he is a very busy man and could not do it.
“Then Andrew Wright was highly recommended to me and I’d seen his choreography. He was involved with Singin’ In The Rain and got an Olivier Award nomination for that, and I could just tell when I met with him that he was just ready to direct.
“I just believed in him. He shared the same passion that I had. We got together and I just knew it would be great. Every mistake, every issue, every bump in the road led to something greater. That’s what happened with Andrew and I just think his work is incredible. He is definitely going to go places as a director from here.”
With all the team in place onstage and behind-the-scenes, the next stage of the Happy Days story began as the production gradually began to take shape.
“It was so exciting and it was almost surreal because this has taken so many years for me. I loved every minute of it. We have made a few changes since then because you don’t know how dialogue is going to work. Now that we are hearing it and seeing the audience’s responses, we have incorporated a few things.”
With the UK tour is underway, Amy’s emotions are a mixture of relief mixed with hope that audiences will love it.
She said: “After lots of blood, sweat, tears and doors slamming in my face, here we are. I’m very grateful for all those who have supported me, especially Garry and the team. They’ve been so helpful in making it happen. It’s like being pregnant for four years. It’s an exciting time and I’m grateful so many people have shared it.”