The truth about those ‘WICKED LIPS!’
By Richard Kates
WICKED LIPS first saw the light of day in 1984. Over the years I had written a lot of parody, but only for my own amusement, or for the odd end of show party. However after seeing FORBIDDEN BROADWAY in New York, and believing, as it stood, it wouldn’t work in London, I decided to try and write a British version. I would also like to make it clear, that although I used a similar concept for my show, not one single ‘lyrical’ idea from FORBIDDEN BROADWAY was ever used.
My first draft was written in a matter of weeks, and presented to the producer Paul Elliott, who immediately agreed to produce the show. The Donmar theatre was booked for six weeks, and Cheryl Taylor, Valerie Walsh, Tudor Davis (who also directed the first version) and myself, together with our musical director, Alan Bence, began rehearsals. It was an extremely exciting time. Everything was going brilliantly, and we all had the feeling that we had something special on our hands, until three days before we were due to open when an article appeared on the front page of ‘The Stage’ quoting a few of my new lyrics. Peter Hall singing ‘Why Are My Shows All So Boring?’ (Oh, What a Beautiful Morning – Oklahoma!) and Elaine Paige ‘I auditioned in the past and how they all adored me. Now Stephanie Lawrence turns up in the morning and gets my jobs before me!’ (Memory – Cats). Within hours Paul’s office began getting calls, first from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, and then The Really Useful Group, who both refused us permission to use any of their songs. As you can imagine, a major problem had arisen.
When FORBIDDEN BROADWAY originally opened, they hadn’t asked for permission either, and we had hoped to start in the same way. However, they’d begun in a tiny supper club with very little publicity, whereas we were opening at The Donmar Warehouse and Paul Elliott had hired a publicist who, unfortunately for us was drumming up a lot of interest.
After many frantic phone calls, we had managed to get permission for some of the other songs in the show
Sandy Wilson, very kindly was the first to say yes (‘I’ve got to have, I plot to have, for it’s so dreary not to have, one single hit since the boy friend!’) but Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Group still adamantly refused.
One mustn’t forget that back in 1984 Lloyd Webber ruled “the staves”, and after removing numbers from Cats, ‘Midnight, I can’t sleep while they waver, as to who will play Eva’, (even though Trevor Nunn gave us permission) Evita, ‘Another Suitcase, Another Tour’ and from Superstar – Lloyd Webber lamenting ‘I don’t know how to tell Tim’, we slowly realized with permission still pending for other numbers, we would probably not be able to open.
With no other choice left to him, Paul Elliott made the decision to cancel. However he decided we should go ahead with one private performance, in front of a specially invited audience on what would have been our opening night.
So on August 2nd 1984 at 11.15pm the one and only performance of WICKED LIPS ’84 took place. The atmosphere was truly electric, and we all kept an eye on the door, half expecting Lloyd Webber to come bursting through the doors at any minute, demanding we stop. From the phenomenal audience reaction, it was clear we had a hit show, which made the situation all the more depressing. Afterwards I was surrounded by people promising faithfully to help me get the show back on. However, this is theatre we’re talking about and I did note at the time, none of them bothered to take my phone number.
To be honest, I still feel very angry towards the people who prevented Wicked Lips from opening. Not just because it felt like we were being censored, but most of all because of the work that had gone into it all and deserved to be seen. (As well as being ‘bloody’ good!) We were just a small, late night revue, and the ‘big boys’ in their big offices stamped on us – because as all ‘big boys’ do, they have to flex their muscles from time to time to let us all know who’s in charge.
It was four years later in 1998 that I was in a position to re-mount the show. I’d managed to get permission for about 50% of the original show, and had now written a great deal of new lyrics for more up to date stuff.. The songs I couldn’t get permission for, I would now simply just re-write the tunes too. Paul Elliot once again came on board as the producer, and everything began chugging along nicely. Sadly, Valerie and Tudor were not available, so I re-cast with Tim Burley and Buster Skeggs. The ‘brilliant’ Cheryl was once again on board and this time I was directing.
Paul Elliot took me out to lunch two weeks before we were due to begin rehearsals, and out of the blue informed me he was pulling out. (Try eating a fish lunch through that news.) His excuse was that if we played to packed houses at every performance we could only just break even. He actually quoted that he would come out with just ‘two pounds profit.’ In truth, I think he was more worried about my being writer, performer and director, without a proven track record. He’d had a very successful working relationship with Tudor in the past and he obviously believed that without Tudor at the helm it wouldn’t work..
I understood his concern, but still felt stabbed in the back. In 1984 Paul had written me a most touching letter, about his belief in my talent and promising to do everything he could to bring the show back, and now it looked as if he was hammering the final nail in the coffin himself. He did however, very kindly give us the set and all the costumes that had originally been made for us. And I will always be grateful that he took a gamble on me in the first place. If the show was now to continue, I was stuck with the job of being producer as well as all my other roles, which was something I had no time to be, or the experience – let alone the desire.
I phoned a few small producers to see if they would be prepared to manage the show. Although, having already raised the money, I couldn’t raise their interest. Eventually I approached the Terrence Higgins Trust who agreed to allow us to use their name as producers. It meant giving any profit made straight to the charity, but it also meant it was unlikely anyone would sue us. In truth I was still the producer but they were of great help with a huge mail out, and in many other ways that were invaluable.
Come opening night, excitement ran high, and from the second our musical director Andy Spiller started the overture, the audience were behind us every step of the way. The reception was even better than the first time around, the sound of laughter almost drowning out the songs, then as the final number ended the audience spontaneously rose to its feet and I knew we’d done it. Wicked Lips had returned. The following day we received our first review from the late Jack Tinker who wrote in The Daily Mail, ‘I offer my thanks for one of the slickest pieces of impertinence it has been my pleasure to enjoy.’ Despite the furore surrounding the show, it was still very hard to get any of the major papers in to see the show. It started at 11.15p.m. and in London that was and still is a hard time to get people in to see a show. However the few critics who could be bothered to make the trip all gave it excellent reviews.
A few days after we had opened I was called to a meeting with Ian Albery, who then owned The Donmar. He said he was prepared to bring the show back for a longer run, but there were ‘conditions.’ I was to make it more political, change the material weekly and allow Nica Burns to co-direct. I couldn’t actually see why he wanted to change so much when we had received such excellent reviews. The audience were on their feet every night, and he had not seen the show himself. It was a very hard decision to make, but I turned him down. I could see no reason for appointing a co-director, and there was no way the standard of the show could be maintained if material was changed weekly, especially as I was the only writer. Besides it was a theatrical revue, not a political one.
A few days later I was approached by the agent Kenneth Earle, who had been to see the show with Paul Raymond. Paul said he had loved the show and it was only the second show he had ever sat through without leaving before the end.. Paul offered us The Windmill Theatre, (at that time Paramount City which was sitting dark,) which would have been perfect. But due to the musical, THE NEWS, having lost money for him at the same theatre a few months before, he eventually decided, after much deliberation, that it was too much of a financial risk to re-open the theatre just for WICKED LIPS.
Robert Kennedy and Richard Gibson, who had recently re-opened the Boulevard theatre, (an ex strip club,) were the next people to approach me, to ask if we’d transfer there, which although not the perfect venue, I decided to accept. Kenneth Earle, who was one of the show’s biggest fans still wanted to be involved, so investing a small amount of money (£2,000), he came on board as my co-producer.
We opened at The Boulevard in October 1988 six months after closing at The Donmar. This time Buster and Cheryl were not free, which was a serious blow as they were both so perfect in the show, but I replaced them with Tracie Hart and Pauline Hannah, both seasoned and talented performers. I had to adapt the show to the much smaller space, and because the theatre had no proper bar, I removed the interval, making the show shorter.
The only copyright problem we had at the Boulevard was from Don Black, whom I had worked with a couple of years before in “Dear Anyone”. Having seen and loved the show at The Donmar, he came back stage and offered me ‘carte blanche’ to parody a number from his upcoming musical Budgie. Don asked to have a look at the lyric, which I sent him quite happily as I had done with a few other people. I really thought it would just be matter of fact. So it was like a bolt out of the blue, when, a few days after we had re-opened at The Boulevard, I received a letter from Don requesting I remove the Budgie parody immediately, saying “Although an admirer of your work I know that your pen has to be a little poisoned in order for your concept to work. However, we all feel that you O.D.’d a little too much this time!” In a later letter I was also told that Anita Dobson was also objecting. ‘In one of my weaker moments, I signed to do a show. I must have been mad, to ever let Eastenders go.’
Of course his objection was more to do with the fact that Budgie, playing at The Cambridge was about to fall of its perch, and he was obviously feeling extremely sensitive. Hand on heart, the lyric itself is so tame. It was more about ‘Angie’ and ‘Eastenders’ than ‘Budgie’. And if saying in song that ‘the show won’t last long, is not playing to packed houses and got bad reviews’ is ‘poisonous’ which was all true, I find it difficult to understand why having seen my original revue, he ever asked me to parody one of his songs in the first place. If Don were to read the lyric today, I think (at least I hope) that he would see how much he over re-acted. Interestingly, when I met Anita a while later, she told me she had no idea there had been a number about her, and how much she would have loved to have seen it. Anyway, Don got his revenge on me a few years later. But that’s another story.
Our run at the Boulevard ended just before Christmas, with plans to return in the spring with an updated version. In truth, the version at The Boulevard just didn’t work as well as it had at The Donmar. The theatre just wasn’t right and it was hard work building up the momentum again, trying to get an audience in week after week with no budget for advertising, to a theatre no one had ever heard of.
On learning FORBIDDEN BROADWAY was due to open in London a few months later, I thought it pointless opening again in direct competition, as they would have a much bigger budget than us (ours was virtually nil), and as much as I loved the show, I knew it was time to throw in the towel.
Looking back, the fact that WICKED LIPS didn’t reach a wider audience is one of the major disappointments of my career. If it was then, as easy as it is now, to make a recording we at least could have had the show on CD.
There are a few bootleg recordings flying around and also a rather amateur video, but nothing that shows Wicked Lips as it really was.
The history of Wicked Lips is full of so many ifs.
If we had been able to open as originally planned.
If Paul Elliott hadn’t pulled out of the show at the eleventh hour.
If Andrew Lloyd Webber had been on our side.
If we had had a proper producer to steer us through the waves.
The list goes on and on.
Interestingly, about six months after our first and only performance of WICKED LIPS in ’84, I got a phone call from someone who had been to see the latest edition of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY in New York and told me they were using some of my songs. Of course this was not true. It was simply that a few of their new songs were strikingly similar to a couple of ours. Tudor had sung a rousing “I am an old ham”as George Hearn to I am what I am. Whereas their version was George Hearn singing I ham what I ham. And the company Les Miserables, “One Day More” sequence was strikingly similar, down to the waving of the red flag, using “I Dreamed a Dream” and “God on High”, which I had re-written as “God It’s High”, which was the same title they used. But I guess all is fair in love and showbiz.
From time to time people still mention Wicked Lips to me, and how much they enjoyed it. To think that more than twenty years down the line people still remember Charles Vance and Malcolm Knight singing Any show you can stage I can stage cheaper! I shall always remember the show with such affection, but unfortunately for me, it was a horse that fell just before the final fence. But for those of you who wonder whether it will ever return…the reality is, probably not. But who knows, they’re still writing shows…and I’m still writing!
Wicked Lips tried hard but oh,
Lord Lloyd Webber still said no.
‘Borrow tunes?’ Well he should know!
Bless his golden skates!
Sincerely, Richard Kates!