Updated: Thursday, 23rd November 2017 @ 12:04pm

'Simon and Garfunkel really were song writing pioneers': Theatre director chats to MM as hit show lands in Stockport

'Simon and Garfunkel really were song writing pioneers': Theatre director chats to MM as hit show lands in Stockport

| By Matthew Calderbank

Award-winning actor Dean Elliott boldly stepped away from the bright lights of the West End stage to pen his own musical masterpiece: The Simon and Garfunkel Story. 

In his time on the London stage, Elliott tackled some of the biggest roles in theatre, including an acclaimed performance as the bespectacled rocker Buddy Holly.

The celebrated writer, director and producer has now spoke to MM ahead of introducing his latest smash hit – based on Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – to music-loving Greater Manchester.

The musical celebrates 50 years since the release of the duo’s first hit single, The Sound of Silence, with a larger-than-life performance at Stockport Plaza on May 31.

The show brings the legendary folk-rockers faithfully to life with an epic concert of all their timeless songs, including Bridge Over Troubled Water, Mrs Robinson and Homeward Bound.

MM sat down in the director’s chair for a chat with Elliott about his latest West End success and his new-found fondness for life behind the curtains.

One of the touch stones of Elliott’s stagecraft is authenticity. As Buddy, he magnificently resurrected the American rock ‘n’ roll star to widespread critical acclaim.

As writer, producer and director of The Simon and Garfunkel Story, he has delivered a similarly deep and sincere rendering of the iconic 60s songwriters, their music and personal journey.

During the initial run of the show in 2014/5, Elliott himself assumed the role of his musical idol, Simon. But the runaway success of the show has meant a never-ending continuum of tours, taking in all four corners of the world.

Incredibly, the show has now been seen by over a quarter of a million people.

Due to the demands of touring and with other projects constantly percolating in his brain, Elliott decided to step away from the stage and pass the torch onto a new generation.

To realise this, Elliott set out to discover two rare talents who could do the parts justice. They needed not only to act, sing and play guitar but also bare a passing resemblance to the folk superstars they honour.

Not asking for much then?

He explained: “We did some amazing auditions at the start of the year to find this year’s Simon and Garfunkel. But the instant we saw Sam and Charles sing, we knew we had our guys.

“After their auditions, there was never any doubts about who we wanted to step into Simon and Garfunkel’s shoes.”

His young stars boast impressive credentials. Sam O’Hanlon (Simon) trained at the prestigious Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, whilst co-star Charles Blyth (Garfunkel) honed his craft at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Art, the world’s oldest theatre arts training school.

Elliott is effusive in his praise for the two rising stars and he is confident that audiences will be awestruck by their eerie resemblance to the real Simon and Garfunkel, both in look and sound.

He said: “The performances are uncanny. Seeing Charles Blyth sing Bridge Over Troubled Water raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s worth the ticket price alone.”

Elliott doesn’t appear to have any regrets about stepping away from the spotlight. He appears comfortable and assured in the director’s chair.

The Simon and Garfunkel Story is in every conceivable way the culmination of his individual artistic vision. From concept to creation to standing ovations, this is his baby.

“Running a show is like having a child I guess. You nurse it to begin with and you are very protective of it. You then watch it grow and take form and it becomes its own thing,” he revealed.

“Sometimes you have to let it go and that’s exactly how I felt about The Story. It’s my child. However, I’m always there to protect it, if anything was to go wrong, god forbid!

“I really do love performing but I’m far prouder of the show than I was of my own particular performance.

“When the show opens on the West End on the 4th OF September at the Lyric Theatre, I’ll be sat there in the audience watching in the shadows and that will mean more to me than being on stage.”

The real Simon and Garfunkel split acrimoniously in 1970 due to artistic differences and they have maintained a rocky relationship ever since.

They’re one-and-only reunion show was 1981’s legendary Concert in Central Park, where they performed before half-a-million fans in New York City, a scene that is brought rousingly to life during the closing 20 minutes of the show.

MM pressed Elliott on whether he was concerned that his obsessive quest for authenticity might lead to a case of art imitating life and risk a blow-up between his lead stars.

“No way!,” he argued.

“Unfortunately, the bitter feuding that drove Simon and Garfunkel apart is such a well-documented chapter in The Simon and Garfunkel Story.

“But I can happily confirm that this is where we take a departure from reality and stay committed to our art and not our ego.

“In fact, it’s kind of amazing how well our Simon and Garfunkel get along. Sam and Charles are really good mates. In fact, Simon and Garfunkel could learn a thing or two!”

The Simon and Garfunkel Story is in the midst of a marathon world tour that will perform in a different city nearly every night of the year until a well-deserved respite at Christmas.

Elliott is noticeably excited about the prospect of taking the show and his fledgling stars on the long, open road.

“We are literally in Israel one night and Dunstable the next. We’re taking this thing all over - from Stockport to Singapore!”

The non-stop tour sweeps across the UK whilst taking significant detours to New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Israel and Europe before landing in North America next year.

Elliott is eager to share with MM the secret to a successful world tour.

He said: “The secret is getting the right cast and crew and making the experience as fun as possible.

“We’ve been doing this show for four years now and because of sheer demand and the universal appeal of Simon and Garfunkel, we want to bring it to as many people as possible.

“This means a lot of time away from home and a lot of time on the road. You have to embrace it otherwise it becomes laborious and you won’t do the material justice.

“A lot of the guys are in their twenties and it’s an adventure for them. We’re a close-knit group and we all get on really well and enjoy each other’s company.

“I think you can see a deep love and respect for the source material reflected in their incredible performance on stage, night-in, night-out, whether in Perth, Scotland or Perth, Australia.”

After finishing his acclaimed three-year run as Buddy on the West End in 2010, Elliott turned his abundant energy and zealous creativity to writing and producing his own musical.

He directed his attention to the 1960s because of the decade’s rich tapestry of new musical and artistic forms amid a frenzied backdrop of political and social change.

“In many ways, this show is the definitive story of the 1960s in America as well as the Simon and Garfunkel story,” he explained.

“The decade provides a wonderfully informed context to these two young lads from New York, busy cultivating their songcraft at the same time as JFK, the moon landing, the ‘Summer of Love’, Vietnam, the birth of teen culture and so much more.”

Elliott employs a giant state-of-the-art video projection screen to broadcast original photographs and film footage of the iconic events of those tumultuous years and this provides the literal stage backdrop to The Simon and Garfunkel Story.

Elliott knew he wanted to make a musical and it didn’t take him long to decide which artists to turn to for inspiration.

"We were doing Buddy and we decided we wanted to do a biopic show similar to Buddy but a little more inclusive," he explained.

“A group of friends and I got together and decided that the story of Simon and Garfunkel was one of friendship and the 1960s.

"Their career together stretched the whole of the 1960s, so we wanted a show that really had a sense of time and place. It wasn’t just a band on stage playing the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. We wanted to give them a relevance.”

Elliott was already a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel as well as an accomplished singer and musician himself. His musical ear knew that the pairs songs would translate well to a theatre audience.

“The main reason I love Simon and Garfunkel is because their voices sound amazing together. I love the harmonies and how their voices come sweetly together,” he added.

“Also, their song writing is incredible. Like a lot of artists and musicians in the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel were pushing boundaries and experimenting with different modes of composition and song structure.

“They really were song writing pioneers. In the early 60s, the Beatles were still singing ‘I wanna’ hold your hand’, whereas Simon and Garfunkel were writing more complex lyrical melodies. It’s like poetry.

“It was certainly a case of them being ahead of their time artistically as well as creating something simply beautiful to listen to.”

MM was curious whether Elliott had ever received any acknowledgement from the famously private pair regarding his authentically executed homage to their career.

He revealed: “I think it’s different when the story is about two famous individuals and their personal and artistic relationship. They’re not friends at the moment, so it’s complicated.

“After all these years, they’re still not talking to each other, so I imagine it’s difficult for them to comment on this show that joyously celebrates their musical partnership.

“But we’d love for them to come along to the show. It’s an open invitation. Maybe when we take The Story homeward-bound to New York in 2018?”

The show’s success is testament to the enduring appeal of Simon and Garfunkel and the celebration of 60s culture will be welcomed by a mature audience who remember fondly those heady days of youth and optimism.

With The Simon and Garfunkel Story, Elliott has delivered an authentic and energising show that serves as a fitting tribute to one of the most popular and influential musical acts of the 20th century.

The Simon and Garfunkel Story comes to Stockport Plaza on Wednesday, May 31. You can purchase tickets HERE.