During Old Trunk’s London run of The Secret Wives of Andy Williams, I got a lovely email from a chap called Bill Lothian from the International Andy Williams Appreciation Society, asking me some questions about the play…
Are you old enough to remember The Andy Williams Show in 1969 and were you fascinated by it yourself?
I don’t remember the Andy Williams show as am 33, but my mum absolutely loved him, and I have always loved Andy Williams’ music. My mum loved the fact that he was included in the play as she has really fond memories of watching the show. I did however watch lots of clips on Youtube when writing the play, and I know that if it was on today I would be a dreamy-eyed loyal viewer. He’s a cutie.
Do you remember the Cookie Bear’s weekly appearances, for example?
I hear that little bear got too popular and was axed after a while so Andy could reclaim his spotlight. Ha ha – was this true?
I wondered if any of his songs get a mention or if you could give a hint to the sort of Andy Williams references included.
We started the play with the opening bars of Music To Watch Girls By because it’s a such an upbeat energetic opening for the play and gives the first scene – Caitlin’s narration and the introduction to her, Tilda, and Susan, two bonkers orphans – a great dynamic. We had a scene where Andy Williams appears as an almost heavenly being in the young nun Caitlin’s dream, where he appears to her and offers her some advice on love, and for a while we were using the jaunty instrumental bits from Can’t Get Used To Losing You in the background, but the ‘plucking’ effect wasn’t working as we thought, so we used Andy’s version of Ave Maria instead which was far gentler and dreamier and turned it into the scene we were hoping to create. We had a little snippet of Moon River and a bit with Andy talking in our Andy Williams Show segments. (And for a while had a little scene where the nuns played Moon River on recorders, which we decided to cut in the end as it hampered the drive of the plot and we didn’t want to stick something in just for our own nerdy enjoyment!)
We closed the play with Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, which rounded up the story with a wonderful, affectionate burst of energy after quite an emotional scene, and the audience loved it. We were very happy with the response we got, laughter and tears in equal measure, which is more than we could have asked for. The music definitely made the play what it was, it augmented the moods we were going for without our needing to use words in certain places. Music’s very powerful in that way, and I think the audience responded with affection because the songs we picked are so well-known and so well-loved that they bring with them a sort of cultural history too. Every time you use songs like that that are so imbued in our cultural pysche you sort of cheekily borrow from their success, if you do it right and don’t just turn it into a cheese fest. Brilliant songs. I also really wanted to use the The Village of Saint Bernadette somewhere in the play as the themes of Lourdes and salvation and peace were very relevant to our story, but we found there wasn’t a scene that it fitted with naturally and we didn’t want to prise it in and risk being nauseating. I would have used his entire back catalogue if I could but it would have been a very long play!
Were you by any chance in touch with him (if you were writing it last year before he died) or his people at the Moon River Theatre in Branson?
Alas, no. That would have been awesome. I did a lot of reading about Andy while writing the play and I thought the Moon River theatre sounded wonderful! I was aware of the timeliness of writing a play about him the year after he died, though that wasn’t the reason for writing it. I like to think he would have liked it though. He had some rather impressive pearly-whites – I’d have liked to make him laugh and show them off, all glinty-like.
How did you come to pick this musical TV icon to be the “motif” for your show.
It’s quite strange, but I don’t really remember certain bits of how the story all came together in my head. I take a while to get started on a play – i have to let the elements of it mill around in my head for a while before I can start writing, and once I can hear the characters talking to each other I know I’m ready to start. It’s almost like it forms its skeleton quietly in my mind while I’m pottering about with other things, and then I pull back a curtain and this creature starts walking towards me demanding my attention. That sounds a bit mental, doesn’t it. Oh dear. Most of the time when I’m writing a play I don’t remember making many conscious decisions about the plot or characters or elements, other than certain editorial tweaks I make much later on in the process once the words are up on their feet with the actors. A lot of it seems to float up from the depths; it’s already there. I don’t sit down and think “I’m going to make this happen, and include this” or anything. Once the characters have formed it’s pretty much just my job to follow them and write down what they’re saying to each other. They’re already there, and that’s how it was with Andy Williams too. He was just there in my head.
I always get to about halfway through a rough draft, then need to hear it aloud with my cast. Then the characters flesh themselves out, and I go away and finish the bugger. I love writing for actors I know well. Knowing your cast makes the voices come out with greater vibrancy. You know what they can do, where their powers lie, and you bend things a little around this. You’re writing for a purpose, not just writing a play which might never be performed and might sit in a drawer forever. I find that so exciting, and know how lucky I am that to have a strong company of people who want to be involved in all the various stages of making a play happen.
Despite not remembering how certain things found their way into the script, I do remember certain key ‘decisions’ I made while dreaming it into shape. I knew the play was to be the prequel to my last – The Bastard Children of Remington Steele. I knew that it was to take place at St Agatha’s Covent Orphanage again. I knew I wanted to peel back the stories of the place like layers of wallpaper.
I knew it was going to be set mostly in the late sixties, thirty years before Bastards, at a time of increased sexual freedom and decision-making for young women.
I knew I wanted a young nun torn between her love for God and her love for a man.
I wanted to tell, sub-textually, the story of the nuns and how they had come to live that life, and what their lives might have been like if they had made different decisions. I wanted to think about to what extent they function as ‘ordinary’ women – do they have crushes, do they feel certain impulses within their bodies, how do they stopper certain hormonal impulses that we all have, how do they regard their bodies, their uniquely female parts, do the truly inexperienced nuns ever imagine any of the things they declined to live for themselves? And I thought the idea of these women who had chosen not to know corporeal love having a harmless fascination with a chastely charming sort of man like Andy Williams, and for half an hour a week just giving in to a world of fantasy watching his show, was quite beautiful. Just like Eskimos might dream of fields of grass, or children of space. There is always something we want that we know we will never have. Andy Williams – in this story, for these women – is a symbol of all the things that might have been, but never were. He is also used as a dream figure that advises Caitlin about love, and answers her big question: “Just…follow your heart. It’s my favourite answer because it’s the shortest but gets the best results.”
And it had to be someone like Andy Williams. It wouldn’t have been psychologically plausible or tasteful to have them fawning over James Dean or Elvis or anyone typically sexualised or rough around the edges. He had to have the qualities they respected and had built their lives around. Andy Williams seemed on the surface like a very suitable candidate. Though I’m sure he was a cheeky tinker in his own way too.
This was a very long-winded way of saying I can’t remember picking Andy. I think the nuns picked him.
By the way, did you know Arthur Smith once did a show called Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen? But, when he took it to America, he wasn’t sure if they would know who Leonard Cohen was, so he changed the title to Arthur Smith Sings Andy Williams. Still don’t think it contained any singing, though.
Yes, I’ve heard of that. Ha ha! Arthur Smith is a funny chap. He gave me some pineapple and an old T-shirt at a gig I did years ago. He was getting rid of all his old T-shirts and had packaged them in plastic sleeves with a picture of him wearing the t-shirt on the front, which is rather cute I think.