From Television to Stage: Happy Days musical launches UK Tour

Happy Days CastThe screen-to-stage formula is one which has proven highly successful in the musical theatre industry, with Ghost, Dirty Dancing, The Bodyguard and Billy Elliot being a few of the films which have made the jump to the stage. Some have fared better in the transition than others, but the process has become commonplace in the creating of new musicals and many now look to the world of film for inspiration. Does that same process work out so well if adapting a stage musical from a slightly smaller screen though?

There are few instances of television shows making the jump from our TV sets to the stage. Plans are underway for a musical production of popular American sitcom Glee, but as there has always been a strong undercurrent of musical theatre running through it, the seeds have already been sown for it to translate well on the stage. In the UK, long-running soap Coronation Street received the musical theatre treatment in 2012, but like a toddler learning to walk, fell flat after taking its first steps. The musical, entitled Street of Dreams, only played two performances before the planned arena tour was cancelled amidst financial controversy.

Hoping to succeed where it failed is a brand new musical production of Happy Days, which embarked on its epic UK Tour on Saturday (11th January). The musical is based on the classic 1974 American show of the same name which kept viewers hooked for ten years following a group of characters living in 1950’s America, with the Cunningham family providing the central focus of the show. It has set off at an advantage by having Gary Marshall, creator of the television series, come on board to write the book of the musical, while one of the show’s original stars also contributed to helping bring the production to life. Henry Winkler, who played iconic character The Fonz, served as creative consultant on the musical, which also features the renowned Andrew Wright (Barnum, Singin’ in the Rain) as director and choreographer.

Happy Days – A New Musical also benefitted from a ton of advance publicity while still in the developmental stage when it featured in the Channel 4 documentary The Sound of Musicals. Producer Amy Anzel, who had sank her life savings into making her vision of a Happy Days musical a reality, was prominently figured as the cameras followed her dogged efforts to recruit original Fonz Henry Winkler to the creative team, as well as through casting sessions in which actors were auditioned in the search for the next Fonz.

That starring role eventually went to stage and screen actor Ben Freeman, who leads the UK Tour of Happy Days as Arthur ‘The Fonz’ Fonzarelli. Perhaps best known for his TV character of Scott Windsor in ITV soap Emmerdale, he has also played leading roles in some of the West End’s biggest musicals, most notably playing Fiyero in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. His credits also include originating the role of Norman in Dreamboats and Petticoats (UK Tour and West End) and playing Warner in Legally Blonde (Savoy Theatre). He appears alongside other famous faces, Cheryl Baker and Heidi Range.

Avid Happy Days fan Cheryl Baker, former member of pop group Bucks Fizz, stars as Mrs Cunningham in the musical. As part of the band, she won the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest with hit song ‘Making Your Mind Up’ and went on to release a string of hit records, including the No. 1 single ‘The Land of Make Believe’. She made her theatrical debut as Vi Moore in Footloose, for both the UK Tour and in the West End, and has since played Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast and appeared in Menopause The Musical.

Pop star Heidi Range will also star as Pinky Tuscadero in the musical. She was the longest-serving member of the British girl band Sugababes, which was as known for its ever-changing line-up as it was for its music. Seven albums have been released under the Sugababes name and they have had several No. 1 hits with such songs as ‘Freak Like Me’, ‘Round Round’, ‘Hole in the Head’ and ‘Push The Button’. She makes her theatrical debut with her role in the Happy Days musical.

The rest of the cast includes James Paterson (Mr Cunningham), Scott Waugh (Richie Cunningham), Emma Harrold (Joanie Cunningham), Eddie Myles (Chachi Arcola), Jason Winter (Potsie Weber), Andrew Waldron (Ralph Malph) and Ray Gardner (Arnold), alongside Henry Davis, Sam Robinson, Charlie Allen, Lucy-Jane Adcock, Katie Monks, Edwin Ray and Grace Holdstock.

The production accommodates fans of the original series by including the popular Happy Days theme tune in its musical repertoire, but award-winning songwriter Paul Williams has created 21 entirely new songs for the rest of the score. The Hall of Famer composer/lyricist has formerly worked on musicals Bugsy Malone, Evergreen and Rainy Days and Mondays.

Happy Days – A New Musical premiered on Saturday 11th January 2014 at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. It plays there until 18th January, when it then continues on its tour of the UK by moving on to Brighton, followed by performances in Hull, Dublin, Southampton, Sheffield, Glasgow, Bristol, Norwich, Southend, Woking, Cambridge, Sunderland, Birmingham, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dartford, Canterbury, Plymouth, Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes and Salford, before finishing up the run in Nottingham between 30th June and 5th July 2014.

The musical is billed as ‘a hilarious feel-good musical that is guaranteed to have you rockin’ and rollin’ all week long!’ Audiences are invited to join the Happy Days gang as they battle to save their beloved diner Arnold’s from demolition. What kind of response is it likely to receive though? Happy Days is one of those classic television shows which built a loyal following and remains popular with many people today, but it had its heyday over thirty years ago now, so it remains to be seen if the musical can appeal to a new generation who have probably never seen a single episode. There is sure to be plenty of Happy Days fans coming along to see their favourite characters revived in this brand new stage adaption, but if I’m honest, I’m a little sceptical as to whether it can attract a wider audience. The musical does have its star cast members/creatives and that free publicity (courtesy of Channel 4) on its side, and there has been talk of a West End run after the tour. Perhaps the Happy Days musical can be the one which sets the precedent for television-to-stage productions?

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Content updated 7th October 2014

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