Take That! How Barlow, Kennedy wove pop sensibility into 'Finding Neverland’

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the principal cast and creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in an eight-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 3: Composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Next: Book writer and playwright James Graham.

‘Pop-Tart’ composers set out to create a big, heartfelt and emotional musical without irony or apology

By John Moore

For the DCPA NewsCenter

It might be surprising for Americans to learn just how popular Finding Neverland composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are in the United Kingdom, says the Broadway musical’s book writer, James Graham.

Kennedy has written No. 1 hits for Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Aretha Franklin and more. And Barlow was only voted the single greatest British songwriter of all time in a 2009 national survey. Yes, from a field that included a couple of Liverpool lads named John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney.

Barlow is both “furiously well-known and well-liked” in England, Graham said. He is the frontman of the enduring British pop group Take That – and while the group has only No. 1 song in the United States, Barlow and the boys have topped the charts 12 times in the U.K.

“Oh, my God, I was so nervous just before I met Gary because he’s just this massive star here,” said Graham. “My sister had posters of him on her bedroom wall when I was growing up. He can fill stadiums and arenas when he tours. We’re talking the stature of Elton John. He’s a national treasure in the U.K., for sure. And equally Eliot Kennedy, who is part of that tradition of British pop music writing that is just so impressive. He knows his stuff inside out.”

That success and notoriety in the rock world made Barlow and Kennedy unlikely candidates to pen the score for Finding Neverland, the stage adaptation of the Johnny Depp film about how J. M. Barrie brought Peter Pan to London life in 1904. But as part of a creative team filled with anachronistic artists from a variety of creative backgrounds, Kennedy and Eliot were the perfect choice for Director Diane Paulus and Producer Harvey Weinstein.

(Pictured above and right: Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme of the Original Broadway Cast of ‘Finding Neverland.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

Weinstein is one of the most famous film and theatre producers in the world. Except perhaps to Barlow, who bluffed his way through the initial call from Weinstein, then phoned Kennedy.

Barlow whispered to Kennedy: “Eliot … who’s Harvey Weinstein?”

Kennedy’s response: “Whatever he wants, tell him yes, we’ll do it. Because whatever he’s doing … it’ll be big.”

Kennedy knew Weinstein, all right. Kennedy had been nominated for a Grammy Award for co-writing a song for Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige in Weinstein’s film Bobby, about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. And what Weinstein wanted, Kennedy said, was a more youthful and unconventional approach to the Finding Neverland score, which was already under development by other songwriters.

Finding Neverland Gary Barlow QuoteWeinstein had a modest request: Just one song. “Yes, it started that innocently,” Kennedy said with a laugh.

“Now I’m going to be honest here,” Barlow added. “If Harvey would have called and said, ‘We need the whole score,’ I’d have told him I was too busy. Because I had been told how long the process of writing musicals can be, and I thought I was just too busy to dedicate four years of my life to writing a musical. Now I don’t know whether this was Harvey’s plan all along, but one song turned into two songs. And then, before you know it, we’ve replaced all the music for the whole musical.

“And of course the one thing I’ve learned getting involved with musicals is that once you enter that world, you become a part of that world. Once you’ve fallen in love with the piece, and you’ve fallen in love with the director and the choreographer and everyone else, then all of a sudden you’re like a responsible part of the musical body. So once we were in, we were in. There was no going back.”

That first song they wrote turned out to be the title tune. And it came to life with almost no labor pains.

“Both of us watched the movie. And the next morning I had an idea for the song,” Kennedy said. “I was just strumming along in a sort of folky way, wanting it to sound a little bit Celtic, what with J. M. Barrie being Scottish and all. And then on the way down to pick up Gary, I got a little idea for a chorus, and that turned out to be the duet “What You Mean to Me.” So by the time I got to Gary’s, I already had a couple of ideas. I sat at the piano and sang the chorus of “What You Mean to Me” to him, and Gary just went, ‘El, move over.’ So Gary sat down, and within 15 minutes, we had that song pretty much nailed. 

“Then I grabbed a guitar and sang him the chorus to “Neverland.” And, again, we just fired it off very quickly. Those were the first two demos straight out of the bag. Within 15 minutes of sending the songs to Harvey, he called back and said, ‘We’re going to need some more of these.’ And we just got so inspired by it all. We watched the movie again a couple of times, and from that point onward, all we were doing really was imagining writing a soundtrack to a film with a lot of songs in it.”

Fundamental to Barlow was that he and his partner not appreciably change their songwriting style to fit the Broadway genre. They are, after all, Kennedy said, “a couple pop tarts” –  and pop tarts they should want to stay.

“At the very start of the process, I said, ‘Look, if you want a Broadway musical, there’s thousands of people who do this every day. I don’t do that,” Barlow says he told Weinstein. ‘But what I can give you is my version of how I think it should sound. And it won’t sound like it’s from Broadway. It’ll sound like it’s from a pop album because that’s what I’ve done for 25 years. And if you want to employ me to do this, that’s what you’re going to get.’ ”

And what they got, as Barlow describes it, “is an entire score of these 3-minute, carefully crafted British pop songs.” And that was music to Paulus’ ears.

“In fact, there was only one song we wrote that we thought Diane would really love, because it sounded to us like really ‘musical theatre,’ ” Kennedy said. “But she hated it.  She just said, ‘Look, guys, don’t think about this too much – just do what you do.’ ”

So they produced a contemporary score that was ahead of its time to tell the story of an author whose mind, Barlow said, was a century ahead of its time.

“Listen, J. M. Barrie was such a visionary that if we can imagine being in his head – he wouldn’t be hearing this pompous 1904 music,” Barlow said. “He’d be hearing pop music. He’d be hearing what we’re all listening to right now. And so that was our excuse to go, ‘All right, we can make this feel modern. We can make it feel like part of the fabric of the world we are creating, even though it’s set 100 years ago.’ So we used conventional instruments like a piano and a guitar, and over the top of that we wove it all in with these magical, mysterious melodies you hear in everyday pop music.”

And that, Graham said, is the songwriters’ true strength.

“I think they’re some of the best melody writers in the world,” Graham said. “And you can hear it in every song of Finding Neverland. They have so much heart in their music. And I am certainly aware that there’s been a creeping incursion of what I would call ‘ironic’ or ‘insincere’ musicals in the U.K. I really embraced and enjoyed Diane’s and the boys’ commitment to unapologetically do this very heartfelt, big, emotional musical without irony or apology.”

Here’s more of DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s wide-ranging conversation with Eliot Kennedy and Gary Barlow:

John Moore: Your title song strikes me as evidence that a song can convey a magnitude of emotion just as powerfully if it is performed by a singer with a guitar, or by an ensemble with a full orchestra.

Eliot Kennedy: I really like that you said that, because that song has all the elements we love about classic singer-songwriters. There’s a folkiness to it. There’s a James Taylor quality that I really love. The songwriters I really admire are those who are able to just sit down with a guitar and make a song work. We needed songs in Finding Neverland that could do that. And it’s funny you say that because whenever Gary and I perform that song, we do it very much as you describe: Just a piano and an acoustic guitar and two harmonies, and it really works. I think that gives it a bit of a timeless quality, I hope. Let’s hope that never goes away.

 Gary Barlow: We’ve always had a theory that if a song can work well with just piano or guitar and voice, then it can work well with anything. I always think of “Yesterday,” by The Beatles. It couldn’t be more simple – and it’s probably the most perfect pop song ever written. You know a song is flawed if you can’t make it work with a piano and a voice. That’s how we wrote all of our songs for Finding Neverland. The title song works in a community center or a village hall with just someone sitting at a piano and singing it. Now, the thrill of hearing an orchestra on top of all that is just fantastic. But fundamentally, underneath it all, the foundation has to be a well-written, crafted song.

John Moore: What are your first recollections of encountering Peter Pan as a boy?

Eliot Kennedy: It’s almost like Peter Pan is in our DNA, and I wonder if that’s the reason it’s been so successful. It’s like we’re born already knowing the story. All those insecurities about growing up and getting older and wanting to hold onto your youth. It’s one of those incredibly human stories that we’ve all somehow experienced, no matter what whereabouts in life you’re from. That’s why I think this story really transcends.

 John Moore: I imagine that when you come from the rock world, you never want to grow up, either?

Gary Barlow: It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? When you’re younger, you want to be older. When you’re older, you want to be younger. It’s a strange thing. But it’s funny. I’m 45 now. I’ve got a group of friends and we’ve all decided that we’d actually be quite happy stopping time at the point where we are at now. So if I was in Neverland, I’d stop it at age 45. That would be absolutely great. That’s the perfect age.

John Moore: But isn’t not wanting to grow up an essential ingredient in both rock and roll and the story of Peter Pan?

Gary Barlow: I know, I know. Yeah, I think so, absolutely.

Eliot Kennedy: And I think that’s because this is such a young story. Even if it’s 100 years old. It’s about youth and young energy. And I think  pop music resonates with that, too. To use a Peter Pan-ism: That’s the cleverness of Harvey Weinstein. He was the one that got that, I think, when he chose us.

Gary Barlow: We have a very famous pop star here called Cliff Richard, and he’s called ‘The Peter Pan of Pop.’ I always think of him when I think of Peter Pan. He’s one of those people who’s never aged and never grown up.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: When you started to do your research and learn more about J. M. Barrie as a creator, did you relate to the conflict he felt as an artist who was trying to find his true voice?

Finding Neverland Gary Barlow QuoteGary Barlow: It’s every songwriter’s story. Forget that. It’s everyone’s story. Anyone who’s ever created. A creative lifetime is a very difficult one because you’re always constantly, every day, trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That’s the truth. Whether you’re a photographer or an artist or whatever. A creative life is tricky. It’s very blessed, of course, because we do amazing things and we see the fruits of our work come to light in incredible ways. But that doesn’t happen every year. For every one success, we have all these other things that perplex us and curse us. It’s a hard life. It really is. So as we all watch and learn about J. M. Barrie, we definitely can relate to him.

John Moore: Can you give me a sense of how you work together as a songwriting team?

Eliot Kennedy: Gary and I work very closely, but rather differently than other co-writers. We do the same things. We’re both lyricists and musicians and producers, and we both play. I’m either the guitarist or the keyboard player, depending whether Gary is in the room. Or the lyricist,  depending on who’s got the laptop on them. We tend to divide and conquer quite a lot. We’ll sit together and come up with four or five ideas. I’ll take two or three of them, and he’ll take two. And then halfway through the day we’ll swap ideas. By the end of the day, we’ve got five songs. A lot of that comes from the fact that we’ve known each other for 25 years. We know each other inside out. We trust each other implicitly, and we think the same way. Essentially, we approached Finding Neverland as if we were in a pop band, and I think that’s been one of the reasons it worked so well. 

 John Moore: I’m pretty sure Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t work that way.

Eliot Kennedy: I’m pretty positive they didn’t.

John Moore: How does your score evolve as the actual show progresses?

Finding Neverland Eliot Kennedy QuoteEliot Kennedy: I think that for the first 10 minutes, the music serves to set the whole thing up as a typical musical-theatre performance. Because you start with J. M. Barrie, and he’s frustrated that he is doing the same old thing. And then all of a sudden these kids and this woman turn up into his life, and everything changes. When we get to the point in the story when J. M. Barrie is in with the kids and Sylvia, it becomes a real emotional journey. I think it changes everything. So when the show gets to the song “Believe” onwards, I think it’s  just a magical moment where they are all in. And I think the songs become much more significant because we’ve really bought into Barrie and his journey. Literally everything changes. He dares to do things he never would do normally as a writer, or as a human being. He just puts himself out there. You know, when we look back on our lives, I’d like to think we don’t regret not doing that. Do you know what I’m saying? It would be really sad to get to the end of your life and kind of go, ‘Do you know what? I never just went for it. I never put myself out there. I never expressed myself.’ Because that’s what eventually led to the creation of Peter Pan.

John Moore: Does that in any way match your journeys in writing your first Broadway score?

Eliot Kennedy: One of the things I discovered in the writing of this thing is that just about anything that is really truly amazing was born out of an incredibly painful process. And a whole lot of heartache and a whole lot of upset. It’s an unfortunate human trait, but anything that’s been brilliant in this world usually has been born out of a great deal of pain and confusion and insecurity. That’s what makes this so triumphant: It’s the human spirit. I think that’s what this story represents more than anything. The odds were against J. M. Barrie. No one wanted his Peter Pan play. His producer didn’t want it.  His wife wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. Yet somehow, out of these children this inspiration came, and we have this incredible thing in the world as a result that everyone relates to. That should give you inspiration to keep going. These stories need to be told over and over again to remind people not to give up. I got a great deal out of that realization. 

John Moore: Gary, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Take That.

Gary Barlow: We’ve got a new record this Christmas, and we’re doing another big tour next year. It changes as people come and go, but those people have been a part of my life and my family for a quarter of a century now. Take That lives in me somewhere in a place that’s very safe. I feel like I have my brothers with me when I go up on stage. Finding Neverland Take ThatBut it’s also been a great experience to be free of being in a band to do the music for Finding Neverland. For someone who writes for the radio to write for the theatre, it’s almost like my keyboard has grown three times. I feel like I’ve had a kind of freedom I haven’t had for a long time. And it’s nice to use some of my training as well. There are some techniques I’ve used in this score which I’ve never been able to use in my pop music. So it’s been really nice to push the boundaries of my musical journey, especially at this place in my life. I never dreamed I’d be hitting 45 and opening a brand-new musical door. I thought those days were well behind me. So it’s been fabulous for all of that. I feel very blessed to have been involved in this whole thing.

Finding Neverland. Take That. John Moore: What did it mean for you to be voted the greatest British songwriter of all time?

Gary Barlow: I wrote that. Yeah – that’s my quote. 

 John Moore: Is there one Take That song that’s your favorite?

Gary Barlow: Well, the only hit we ever had in America was a song called “Back for Good” in 1995. That was the only record we ever had that was sort of like a semi-sort of big hit there. It’s funny. I come to America a lot, and I often hear that song on the radio still.

John Moore: What did your children think when they saw Finding Neverland for the first time?

Gary Barlow: Ah, well, I took my 11-year-old daughter with me to the very first read-through and she loved that. It was really interesting because Harvey wants perfection. And so he actually sat there talking to my daughter for half an hour after the reading, getting her take on who she thought was good, who wasn’t, and what she didn’t understand in the story. So she’s followed this whole thing right through and she still loves to go and see the show with me now. She knows every word.

Finding Neverland Eliot Kennedy: I have two teenagers, a 14- and an 18-year-old. Obviously they knew it was about the creation of Peter Pan, but it was just the best thing to be able to sit with them in the audience and say, ‘Check this out. This is what we did. This is why dad has been away so much.’ It was a highly emotional moment. I was in tears at the end, because all of Gary’s family was there with us, too. It was just magic. It was like, ‘Wow, we’ve really done something cool here – more than just making a great album or having a hit in the charts.’ It felt like this was going to be around for a long time, and that people are going to enjoy it for a long time.

John Moore: Diane Paulus has always been an unconventional director, which was again born out in her choices for the Finding Neverland creative team. How was she the right person to shepherd you through your first Broadway musical endeavor?

Finding Neverland Eliot Kennedy QuoteEliot Kennedy: She is a genius – and I have to say, I think that’s an overused word. But she is. She’s a genius – and not in the way that those dudes in an Apple shop are geniuses. She is a visionary. I learned a great deal from just sitting and watching her work things out, and then translating her ideas to people. That was inspiring. And I’ll be honest with you. Near the end of the musical, when the children perform their play in the bedroom for Sylvia, who is dying, I remember thinking at the time, ‘I don’t get this at all. I just don’t know what Diane is thinking.’ And then we got to the workshop, and I saw it all play out in front of me. All of a sudden it was just like, ‘Oh my God, how on Earth did she see this working this way?’ There were so many moments like that for me. And it’s not just because I was naive and new to musical theatre. It’s because she is just really clever. She interpreted our music in ways I never would have dreamed of. I mean, we had Harvey Weinstein and Diane Paulus. Talk about being spoiled. We had just an incredible creative team. And on top of that, we had Mia Michaels as our choreographer. Just ridiculous. The riches were absolutely amazing.

John Moore: So how do you think musicals like Finding Neverland and once are changing things for the next generation of theatregoers?

Eliot Kennedy: I would imagine that in any sort of changing circumstance, there’s a little bit of a pull away from what is traditional. Now there’s certainly a lot of traditional musical theatre out there. But I think Finding Neverland falls into a similar kind of place as once  – and then the extreme of that being Hamilton – where you’ve just got a different medium to help tell the story, and that medium being contemporary music. Now there have been a lot of musicals with contemporary writers and scores, but it does feel like there is a groundswell right now for more of a pop influence in musical theatre. Younger people are starting to relate to it. I think that can only be a good thing. Listen, if it brings kids to the theatre, then it’s got to be a brilliant thing, because we need to keep it alive, you know.

John Moore: So has this whole experience turned you into a musical-theatre fan?

Eliot Kennedy: Oh, God, Gary and I totally got the bug of it all. We’ve seen loads of shows, and we’ve written two more musicals since Finding Neverland. Yeah, we’re really into it. We’re really excited about the next thing we’re doing. We’re doing Around the World in 80 Days and another musical that’s starting in the West End soon which is called The Girls. It’s a musical based on the 2003 film Calendar Girls. It’s primarily Gary and the writer of the story, Tim Firth, although I wrote the main two songs with them for it. It was a fabulous thing to be a part of. So we’ve really got the bug. We love it now.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Finding Neverland: Ticket information
• Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
• Buell Theatre
• Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Finding Neverland
creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels
Diane Paulus on the rise of ‘adventure theatre’
Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center’s 2016-17 Broadway season

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