Entertainer Tommy Steele returns to Sunderland Empire next month 60 years to the date of his first stage appearance.
He’ll be stepping into the shoes of Glenn Miller for the The Glenn Miller Story, which celebrates the life of the band leader who vanished over the English Channel as he flew to Paris to entertain the troops during the Second World War.
Wow 24/7 chats to him about what audiences can expect.
Q: Tell us about how The Glenn Miller Story came to be and who had the idea.
A: Well, it all started after I gave a lecture to some secondary school pupils about rock ‘n’ roll and country music, and this little girl, who was probably about 12, asked me what it was like to sing with Glenn Miller, to which I laughed and said, “I’m not that old!”
I told this story to friend Bill Kenwright over dinner one evening and he said, “That’s it … the Glenn Miller Story, we can do a stage musical about it”. And when I asked him who will play Glenn Miller, he said, “You are”.
Despite my protests that I am a pensioner and English, and Glenn Miller was young and American, Bill insisted and said, “it calls for a song and dance man – you”. I said, “Bill, I’m too old to play Glenn Miller.” To which he replied, “Tommy, you’re never too old.” So he ended up talking me into it!
Q: So it was impossible to turn down then, the role of a lifetime?
A: Glenn Miller is my idol. I was taken by my parents to see him when I was a little boy. I was a kid during the Blitz. The bombs were dropping everywhere and in 1942 the Americans came into the war. I was only four and all of a sudden over American Forces Network came this music saying Glenn Miller’s coming to England, my mum and dad were thrilled. My dad took me to the Albert Hall to see him. Today, all I can remember is this wonderful sound and then came the mystery of his death. It’s a great story.
Glenn Miller was a man searching for the perfect sound and I loved that whole tale of him being so meticulous about his music. When you add that to the tragedy, you have all the material for a musical theatre show. It’s an adventure in music you won’t stop tapping to.
Q: Without giving too much away, tell us about what the show is all about.
A: It’s a show about a man looking for a sound, then finding it. And it is a fully blown song and dance musical, with a big orchestra. It’s got a wonderful ‘taste’ to it, that’s all I can say. But this is not a concert, it’s a musical. People ask, “Are you going to be conducting the band?” I start it as me at 78, and get younger. I am Glenn Miller. The film is iconic, wonderful, lovely, the great Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson.
James Stewart played him when he was 60. Age doesn’t matter as much in theatre as it does in film – people break out into song and dance, and that’s not real, so anything can happen. It’s a great example of music from the swing era, when he started out in the ’30s, and it works beautifully.
Q: Tell us about getting the show together, from the songs to the script to your supporting cast – are you a perfectionist when it come to your craft?
A: I think to be a perfectionist you have to know what perfection is. I’m always searching for things to be better. In my business, someone gives you a script, and you read the script, then someone gives you a score, so you read the score. Then you go to rehearsals and sometimes it’s nothing like you imagined it. Because a director comes in to it, a choreographer comes into it, a designer comes into it. Then the next thing you know, you’re asking, “can we try this, and can we try that?” and in the end you drive yourself mad!
Q: How do you find touring, isn’t it exhausting?
A: It’s never that strenuous when you’re in a great show and you can’t wait to sing the songs, do the dances. I can’t really explain it but you walk on stage, do two and a half hours and you’ve got an audience listening, you can’t be luckier than that, can you?
•The Glenn Miller Story is at Sunderland Empire from November 1-5.
Tickets are available in person from the Box Office on High Street West, via the ticket centre on 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland