BACK in the 1970s and 1980s, The Fonz, the Cunninghams, Potsie, Ralph Malph, Joanie and Chachi were icons of our TV screens in hit show Happy Days.
Now the old gang are back together again. A new musical is taking on the beloved TV show and bringing it to life for theatre-goers.
Stepping into the effortlessly cool shoes of Arthur Fonzarelli is Ben Freeman, Heidi Range plays feisty Pinky Tuscadero while Cheryl Baker dons Mrs Cunningham’s apron.
Rather than attempt to bring the show up to date, the musical pays homage to the show’s wholesome 1950s theme and recreates the fashion, fun and sounds of the era.
Former Emmerdale actor Ben Freeman explains: “The scenarios are ones that happened in episodes of Happy Days and it’s set in Arnold’s with the same characters. Visually and audio-wise it’s as you would expect from the era.
“The music by Paul Williams is great. Because it’s set around a juke box in the ‘60s the music is so important.”
Ben is playing perhaps the show’s most loved character – The Fonz.
Original Fonz, Henry Winkler, has taken a hands-on approach to developing the musical, working alongside the director in creating the Happy Days world of 1959 America.
He’s been guiding the cast as they create their characters, and Ben says his involvement has helped to inform his performance.
“I grew up watching him and he’s still Mr Cool,” Ben explained.
“He’s creative consultant on the musical. He’s a very busy man but he still managed to come in and do workshops with the cast, which we were very appreciative of.
“I was slightly in awe of him on the first day of rehearsals. Even though it was our first day, he wanted us to go off script and try new things.
“He really helped us to get the spirit of Happy Days.
“He made us realise that the most important thing is that people love these characters and the relationships between them.
“If you don’t have that, you don’t have Happy Days.
“It’s about more than being cool or about being a geek, it’s about the connection between the characters and the family unit. People look up to that.”
Though Ben is known for his TV roles – he played Chris Longworth in Grange Hill and Scott Windsor in Emmerdale for 10 years – he’s no stranger to the stage.
His West End roles have included Warner in Legally Blonde and, most recently, Fiyero in the hit musical Wicked.
“It’s great being on stage, I love musicals,” he said. “I think they get such a misrepresentation sometimes as people think they are lacking in substance.
“But they have great stories, I love them and feel lucky to be in this job.”
Ben and the rest of the cast are in the midst of the first tour of Happy Days, whose story is based around the battle to save beloved diner Arnold’s from demolition.
Getting a new musical off the ground is no mean feat, but this one has pulled in the big guns including a book by Garry Marshall, the creator of the television series, who is also the director of hit films Pretty Woman, Beaches and The Princess Diaries 1 and 2.
It also includes 21 original songs by Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe award-winning songwriter Paul Williams, as well as the much-loved Happy Days theme song from the TV show.
Ben said: “A new musical can be difficult to get off the ground.
“You are competing with old favourites that people know, that they will go and see again and again and still get enjoyment from them.
“So it’s hard for people to find time in their calendars for a new show. But this show is a lot of fun.”
Fellow cast member Heidi Range says response to the show has been strong.
“Everyone seems to be really enjoying the show. I don’t read reviews because if they’re negative they affect you for the rest of the run, but I believe the ones we’ve had for this have been really good. I tend to judge it from the audience,” said Heidi who is best known for being the longest serving member of the multi-platinum selling girl group Sugababes.
Since the band announced a hiatus, Heidi has thrown herself into new challenges such as Dancing on Ice and Celebrity Masterchef but says she is loving every minute of treading the boards.
“When I found out I had the part I bought the box set,” she said.
“My character Pinky is only in three episodes, but that’s nice in a way because I can develop her character. I love the costumes too, they’re so flattering and fun.
“I know the crowds up there from the Sugababes days and they’re always up for a good time.
“And this is a really feel-good show. I love being in theatre, I’m going to places I’ve been to before with the band but then you only get to perform the show and then you’re off somewhere else. In theatre you get to stay for a week, so you get to know places.”
Happy Days is at Sunderland Empire from April 14 to 19. Tickets, priced £10 to £35, can be purchased by calling the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022, online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland or at the Sunderland Empire Box Office.
We’ve teamed up with Happy Days to give away a pair of tickets to the show on Monday, April 14.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: What is the name of the famous diner in Happy Days?
Email your answer with your contact details to Katy.Wheeler@northeast-press.co.uk.
Closing date: April 3.