By Jeff Favre
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
The moment Tom MacRae knew it was time to take the leap from successful veteran TV writer to novice lyricist came when he watched the joy and acceptance showered on Jamie Campbell — a 16-year-old with drag queen aspirations who wanted to go to the prom in a dress and heels.
The small English town of Bishop Auckland gained international recognition when Campbell’s story was told in a documentary. That convinced MacRae and his collaborators to turn the story of overcoming intolerance into a musical, believing it could connect with a universal audience filled with people who desire to be seen and welcomed for who they are.
“It was a huge surprise to everyone involved,” MacRae said about the real-life Jamie’s prom night. “It was such a triumph of the human spirit. And particularly for that kind of working-class community of Jamie Campbell’s, where it’s easy to go, oh, you know, working-class people, they’re all kind of prejudiced and stupid — and this is fundamentally not true. Watching that feel-good, unexpected kind of warm, wonderful ending, it really does feel like it should sing. And then that was kind of what hooked us in.”
A furious creation process followed, as MacRae, composer Dan Gillespie Sells and director Jonathan Butterell created “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” which is a fictional recreation based on the true story. The show debuted in 2017 in Sheffield, where the story takes place. It then moved to London’s West End, and the team followed that by adapting a movie version streaming on Amazon Prime.
Downtown Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre will host the American premiere of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” from Jan. 16 to Feb. 20. The cast features actress Shobna Gulati, the only major performer who has starred in both the film and stage versions.
The story follows Jamie (Layton Williams), who dreams of becoming a drag queen. He lives with his fiercely supportive mother, Margaret (Melissa Jacques), and he’s supported by his friend Pritti (Hiba Elchikhe), a shy, reserved Muslim girl, and Margaret’s friend Ray (Gulati).
Jamie’s detractors are his father, who he doesn’t live with, and a school bully, Dean.
Though the songs sprang from MacRae’s head, he was pleased to know the people depicted in the story said he captured their feelings, in particular with Margaret’s ballad “He’s My Boy.”
“For Margaret Campbell, all the thoughts were in her mind. She just didn’t have a song to sing about it,” MacRae said. “She wasn’t surprised that we’d kind of put that spin on her character. She was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my song. I just didn’t know it existed yet.’”
Developing realistic characters — and finding the humor in them — has long been a staple for the writer, whose lengthy credits of English shows include episodes of “Dr. Who” and whose move to Los Angeles a few years ago came with screen credits for the TNT show “The Librarians.”
But crafting lyrics was new to him.
“I try to approach it like dialogue,” MacRae explained. “Like with the song ‘He’s My Boy,’ one of the reasons why the song lands so strongly is not just because it is a good song, but it’s because Margaret has spent the whole of the show not saying what she thinks, and then suddenly it all comes out. So when it does, it is quite poetic, you know, and here’s her talking about these kinds of feelings and moods, and she’s saying things in a way she wouldn’t say in real life.”
The relationships are one of the keys, MacRae said, to making the dialogue feel authentic. Gulati, who portrays Margaret’s best friend, agrees.
“I think it’s the relationships between the women that are important,” said Gulati, whose extensive work in English TV is highlighted by eight years on the famous soap opera “Coronation Street.” “(Ray and Pritti) are accepting as to where Jamie’s at and what Jamie believes and what Jamie is. And I think each is trying to help Jamie find his authentic self. In my own experience as a single mom, you want to do your best.”
MacRae praised Gulati for her versatility, moving the character from stage to screen and back again.
“I’ve seen Shobna do it on stage and throw the laughs out to the back of the audience and keep an audience of 1,500 people engaged,” MacRae said. “And I’ve seen her do the exact same line on camera and keep it so close and tight and real. She’s so funny. And so much of Ray’s spark comes from her.”
MacRae is excited for “Jamie” to be one of the earliest shows to bring theater back to the city. “A Christmas Carol” opened in November. Center Theatre Group canceled some performances with the recent surge in COVID-19, but the company hopes to return to its full schedule.
Center Theatre Group Managing Director and CEO Meghan Pressman is glad to start the season with another optimistic production.
“I really love that we’re bringing it to the LA audiences first,” Pressman said. “It’s been a goal of ours to have folks see it, because it’s just such a great, uplifting show with such an important story. Having a show about accepting and belonging is a great way for us to kind of welcome folks back to the theater.”
It’s the welcoming message that pleases MacRae about how popular the show — and the movie — have become. He was surprised to find that the musical may be the first major production to have a Muslim character who wears a hijab.
“We did a fan event and a girl came up to me and she said, ‘I’d never seen myself on stage before. This is the only musical that has a hijab-wearing Muslim girl as a lead.’ I said, ‘No, that can’t be,’ but I looked into it and it is. And I noticed that we have a big trans fan group. And, of course, there are no trans characters. But I know lots of trans kids have been in touch with me, and it means so much to them because they see something of themselves in Jamie.”
MacRae said there appears to be a connection for audiences regardless of background or location, even though it takes place in a small town in England.
“People in South Korea love it and people in Japan, and it was just about to open in Australia before COVID, and hopefully in the States it will be embraced in the same way,” he said. “Sheffield is not London, it’s not New York, but most places aren’t. Most places are kind of like Sheffield. So most people live in those places, and then they can see themselves in that we weren’t snobby or dismissive of that world at all. Sheffield and LA are many miles away, but actually we’re all just people trying to get on. And that’s what Jamie is. And that’s what he celebrates — that kind of ordinary life.”
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”
WHEN: Various times Sunday, Jan. 16, to Sunday, Feb. 20
WHERE: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
INFO: 213-628-2772, centertheatregroup.org