OffWestEnd talks to Harry Hill, the writer, and Steve Brown, the composer & lyricist for “Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera” on at Leicester Sq Th until 21 May

What are audiences in store for when they come see the show?

Harry: We’ve tried to make it as funny as we can. Whenever I go to a musical and it’s described as ‘hilarious’ I sit there smiling. People laugh because they’re so desperate to do so but it’s what someone described to me as ‘a theatre laugh’. It’s not like a big belly laugh but we’ve crammed this show with big belly laughs. It’s basically a really good, fun night out. Obviously it’s about Tony Blair and it’s a great story. Whether you love him or loathe him you’ll get something out of it.


What’s the basic premise?

Harry: It starts off with him as a peace-loving hippie in a band and he then becomes Britain’s most successful Labour Prime Minister before he turns into what he is now, which is basically a kind of outcast. People have very strong feelings about him. I often wonder ‘If you bumped into him in the street, would you ask him for a selfie?’ He polarises opinion but we try not to take sides in the show. Well, we do take sides but it’s not left- or right-leaning. It’s more about the process of democracy and whether we ever get the leaders that we deserve.


Where did the original inspiration for the show come from?

Harry: I was struck by the arc of his story. It’s a story of extremes and it’s one we all know, which helps. There’s also an element of nostalgia to it.

Steve: I wasn’t a fan of his, I was more a fan of Gordon Brown, and I was amazed that Blair won when Brown was more of an intellectual heavyweight and a more serious figure. But we’ve seen what the public are prepared to fall for, although I’m not saying they fell for anything he didn’t at least attempt to give them. You may not agree with his principles but as Groucho Marx said ‘These are my principles and if you don’t like those I’ve got others’ and at least Blair had some. He still stands by what he did and he acts out of principle, even though he probably enjoys the limelight. Nobody goes into that line of work if they’re a shrinking violet.


What makes his story ripe for musical comedy?

Steve: All politicians are really ripe for such treatment but he’s higher-profile than most. He’s quite singular, much in the way Margaret Thatcher was. There have been straight dramas that have featured him and he’s been a big part of Michael Sheen’s career. And if it’s ripe for drama it’s probably ripe for comedy because as we all know comedy is tragedy plus time. In terms of it being a musical, in a sense he was the first rock-and-roll Prime Minister. We call it a rock opera but it’s a musical comedy. [Laughs] We only call it a rock opera because it gives it more pretension. It affords it a mock-serious tone. When he came to power there was the whole Britpop thing, which we allude to in one scene, and he’s obsessed with Mick Jagger and the guitar. Then he had Noel Gallagher round at Number Ten, sort of dishonouring the building and quaffing champagne.


Can you tell us a bit about the music in the show?

Steve: I’m just trying to keep the variety and the pace going. Whoever is singing it and what’s being said dictates the style. Then sometimes you can achieve an interesting and funny juxtaposition. Saddam Hussein, for example, has a number that is done like Groucho Marx – to mention him again – more or less because Saddam had the moustache and the cigar, except his moustache wasn’t painted on. It’s a patter song, New Labour is very Britpop, and we begin in a sinisterly operatic, Grand Guignol style because Blair is on his deathbed. It’s like Citizen Kane, where we start with him dying, then head backwards from there. He’s sort of resurrected at the end and delivers the moral, which the audience goes out humming.


Which other real-life characters are featured? And how much of the story is fact and how much is fiction?

Harry: We’ve got John Prescott being played by a woman, as is Robin Cook. We’ve also got Gordon Brown, Princess Diana, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and George Bush in there.

Obviously we can’t stick to the exact chronology and we have Gordon Brown going to the same university as Tony Blair, but we admit we’re playing with the truth all the way through it and we undermine it with a fairly light touch, at least until things go wrong. We also have Princess Diana coming back as a ghost.

Steve: Which to the best of our knowledge has never happened. And there are time constraints. The tour incarnation will be two tight 45-minute acts. In order to get everything in there, sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth. [Laughs] Boris Johnson told me that.


From doing research, were there things you were surprised or intrigued to learn about Blair?

Harry: There weren’t a hell of a lot of surprises. I didn’t know about his childhood. Apparently he spent two years in Australia, which we don’t mention in the show because it’s just dull. You can’t cover every aspect of his life. Have you seen his autobiography? It’s massive. Also, one of my bugbears about musicals is that they’re far too long, particularly for the modern attention span. For the tour we’ve cut about 15 minutes. It’s shorter and sharper. There’s not many things that merit more than two hours, including a break for an ice cream. A lot of musicals nowadays are bloated and they’re expensive, and the reason they’re expensive is often because it’s a film they are copying. The way we’re approaching it, at times it’s more like a cabaret show.