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Theatre maker Nikolai Foster talks about bringing a musical version of hit 1980s film An Officer And A Gentleman to the stage.

Although it’s been more than 40 years since An Officer And A Gentleman hit the big screen, the film has remained hugely popular - not least because of its famous finale, in which Richard Gere sweeps Debra Winger off her feet.

It is a classic moment in what has become a classic film - and this year fans can enjoy the story on stage, thanks to the UK tour of An Officer And A Gentleman - The Musical.

Created at Leicester Curve and helmed by the venue’s artistic director, Nikolai Foster, the show, which premiered in 2018, aims to be as true to the movie as possible.

The film’s original screenplay was written by Douglas Day Stewart, who based the story of the love affair between trainee navy pilot Zack Mayo and factory worker Paula Pokrifki on his own experiences training as a naval officer. And Nikolai was keen to ensure Douglas’ gritty story remained at the heart of the musical.

“I really love the film,” says Nikolai. “It’s the quiet simplicity of it, the complexity of the relationships, and the quite desolate world that it presents which is really beautiful. I think Douglas did an incredible job - along with the film’s director, Hackford Taylor - of depicting that world with real integrity and heart and humility.

“With the musical, we wanted to make really good theatre that inspires people and moves people, but also it had to be realistic about the source material and not pull it so far away from where it started that it’s unrecognisable to audiences. The whole point is people are coming for the nostalgia, the enjoyment and the love they felt towards that film and those characters when they first saw it, so you don’t want to disappoint them.”

To develop the show as a musical, the team turned to much-loved songs from the 1980s, including Bon Jovi’s Blaze Of Glory and Livin’ On A Prayer, Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, Madonna’s Material Girl and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun, along with the theme tune to the film, Up Where We Belong. The choice of song was very important to the ethos of the musical, says Nikolai.

“The only way I could see it working was if you take the original film script and you use songs of the period - the type of music that those characters would have been listening to at pivotal moments of their lives, whether it was funerals or weddings or birthday parties.

“So it’s not using those songs in the traditional musical theatre way, of songs carrying the story forward. That’s not going to work with a load of random pop songs. It was about choosing songs which would reflect the poetry and the souls and the inner lives of those characters and hopefully give them an expression.”

Nikolai worked closely with Douglas Day Stewart on the musical, and despite it being set in 1980s’ America, they saw that the story resounded with British audiences of today.

“It’s about working-class lives and working-class culture. When my family first came to this country, we were welcomed into working-class communities in the north of England. So my stepfather worked in a textile mill as an engineer and my mum worked in a shop. These weren’t careers that would necessarily take you anywhere, they were very much nine-to-five standard jobs, and I could see the similarity in the lives Douglas had portrayed.

“I’m very moved and inspired by the beauty and the courage of the working-class experience, and I think that is what I could see in Douglas’ writing. It’s very hard-hitting, it’s very true to the complexity of real life, and it’s done with real heart and grace.”

Plans for a second UK tour had to be delayed because of Covid-19.

“Had it not been for the pandemic, we would have brought the show back sooner. It only did 16 weeks in the UK, and we could have carried on, as theatres were crying out for it - those that didn’t get it and those that did get it, it sold very well, so they were immediately asking to get it back.”

The delay has also given the team time to make a few small changes to the show.

“We’ve worked on the design for this new version, and the joy of doing a second version is that you can re-write some things; you can have another go at it. We’ve put a new song in for Paula’s mum in Act Two and a few other bits of tinkering, but there are no massive re-writes - what’s the point when it works and it’s good?”

Nikolai is looking forward to the show being back on tour.

“I’m very excited about it - it’s been something I’m very proud of. I think there is something for audiences about your own life being reflected on stage. Working-class culture is a massive part of who we are in this country, but it’s often derided or mocked or the source of comedy. Seeing a part of your experience, albeit removed and on another continent but still similar, is important to people.

“There’s a nostalgia to the show, and you can experience the piece on different levels. You can see the politics of ’80s Reaganism and the destruction as it was here with Thatcher and the coal mines and industry and how that marginalised those communities. You can see how women in society were ostracised through misogyny and sexism. You can take some of those themes from it if you like, or you can just have a really good night out, listening to some great songs, following a great love story and enjoying the romance.”

Whatever levels people choose to see in the musical, Nikolai believes the show will lift their spirits.

“I hope they will feel really inspired and a little bit lighter. We all walk around with heavy hearts at the moment, with so much going on in the world and our own personal stuff. I hope they’ll just be taken away from that and genuinely feel uplifted and inspired by having been transported to another place and time for a couple of hours.

“What people love about this story is the optimism, and of course the iconography of the piece. I mean, that ending - it’s just iconic. Who doesn’t want Richard Gere to come in and sweep you off your feet and take you off from your life? I mean, if he walked in now the way he looked in the ’80s, I’d be ‘Pick me up, Richard, I’m out the door with you!’”

An Officer And A Gentleman shows at The Alexandra, Birmingham, from Friday 23 February to Saturday 2 March; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from Monday 6 to Saturday 11 May; and the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, from Monday 23 to Saturday 28 September

By Diane Parkes

Image: Nikolai Foster - photography by Ellie Kurttz

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