Nearly two and a half years ago, Paul O’Donnell debuted We’ve Got Each Other, a one man all-singing, all-dancing Bon Jovi musical spectacular. Without a lavish set, costumes, or dancers, O’Donnell has been creating this musical using nothing but the power of your imagination. He has toured the show across Europe, and is bringing the show to Ontario this March, with a stop at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on Thursday, March 12. We had the opportunity to talk with O’Donnell prior to the show.
So it’s been two and a half years since We’ve Got Each Other debuted, but I assume it’s safe to understand that this musical goes so much further back than that. How did you develop the concept for the show?
Was it always intention to turn the genre on its head intentional from the beginning? It started as a show called Beautiful. The concept of that show was me attempting to create a show that could be described as beautiful without having anything to actually look at. Somewhere in the journey of exploring that, I found an instrumental trombone version of “Livin’ On A Prayer” which, as soon as I listened to it, I knew would make a perfect musical overture. As I listened, I began to dream up what would be happening on stage as this music played, then thought “how do I get an audience to imagine this with me…”. Everything spiraled from there really. It’s allowed me to create a loving parody of the extravagance of the musical theatre genre (which I love) on little more than ‘a prayer’. I didn’t know I was making this show at the beginning, but I’m really proud of what it has transformed into.
From what I’ve read, it’s the show’s excellent writing that really makes it succeed. When did you first start writing and work-shopping it and what was that process like?
I think there’s a lot of things that come together to make this show succeed. Part of it hopefully is the writing and performance, but there’s also a bit of a technical light display which helps tell the story, as well as the music, the comedy, and of course… the audience. I’ve toured the show quite a lot across the UK and beyond, and every single time the audience brings a different energy which gives the show its ever changing drive and helps the show to succeed. Can’t do it without ya.
I started creating the show around August 2017, and it actually felt quite straight forward and easy to make – the musical theatre genre has very specific formula’s to make them work. As soon as I got under the skin of what those were and the tropes of the genre, I then just had to work out how to create those effects on a budget of next to nothing and with a cast of only one.
It was quite simple to build the fully formed show… but, I’m still to this day editing it. I don’t think it will ever be ‘finished’.
Did everything turn out the way you expected when you first started working on it?
I’m not sure at the beginning of a process I have any real expectation, I like the journey of working it out as it is created. Discovering what the show is about and does through playing with a concept is what excites me. I don’t think I could possibly have expected to make the show as it is now at the start, but believe it still remains true to the initial concept.
With that in mind, how have you seen the production change since you started performing it?
It is always being edited and changed… the punch lines refined. It’s certainly gotten a lot sharper.
I went through the whole of an Edinburgh run, doing the show for 26 days in a row every night… on the 24th day a friend came to see the show and said “I thought this was where you were going with that punch-line” and I thought… “Oh my goodness, how have I never thought of that”. I made an edit to the text after she said that, and found a new punch line out of it… the next day it got the hugest laugh of the entire show. I keep making little edits until it is as close to perfect as I possibly can make it… knowing that I will never fully succeed.
I saw that you have roughly 180 lighting cues, and from watching the available videos, it seems like rehearsing this would be a lot of work, and quite intense. How did you go about rehearsals for this production?
Yes, the technical rehearsals are usually a little intense. On stage I’ll be very calm cool and collected, but know that just about 30 minutes before we start, one light will have done something irritating like not come on when it was supposed to, and I’ll have been stressing across the stage going aggggghhhh… then it will get resolved and we will carry on and all will be fine.
The lights are a really important part of telling the story, it shows you where imaginary people are standing on stage as well as creating the sense of the full spectacle, making it easier on your imagination. I like to be really particular with the lighting effects we create because I know how embedded in the text they are.
It made it a little tricky when creating the show, as I was still refining the text and story, which meant it was difficult to fully plan lighting cues. But now that the show is pretty set in stone I have a really clear idea as to what the lights need to do, and when.
Prior to We’ve Got Each Other, you created the Beautiful: Not the Carole King Musical. Aside from the obvious 26 members to one, how did that show differ and what elements were the same? Are there things that you took from that production into We’ve Got Each Other?
Both were created around the same time, this being back when We’ve Got Each Other was called Beautiful. Both Beautiful and Beautiful: Not the Carole King Musical fed each other in their developments.
Beautiful: Not the Carole King Musical started when somebody from Arcola Theatre in London saw a very early work in progress version of We’ve Got Each Other and commissioned me to create that Bon Jovi musical, but with their Over 50’s Community Group as the cast. So, instead of having a cast of none, this time I had a full cast of 26 people – only they were not quite the Broadway Star studded cast you might expect. Instead, they were a group of 26 gloriously hilarious 50-90-year-olds tap dancing, singing, acting out Gina working in the diner etc. It was my favourite process to date, and they were all a joy to work with. The show gave this community group a chance to be stupid and silly and ridiculous and pretend for a week at least that they were on Broadway.
In many ways the two shows are the same, I guess the ask of the audience and the way we told this story across the two performances is where it is very different. They are both equally joyful and heartwarming shows, just in very different ways.
From watching the trailer and a few clips I could find, I noticed that the musical is mostly based on the audiences participation. Have you ever experienced a moment when the audience didn’t ‘buy in’ and help move the show along?
It’s ‘audience participation’ in a loose sense, don’t worry I don’t get you up on stage etc. But it is a show that is very dependent on an audience buying in. To date I haven’t had an audience who hasn’t. There are of course levels, and an energy from an audience really pushes the show along. So, if you happen to join us, all I’d encourage you to do is throw yourself into the make-believe of it all. Gasp, whoop, cheer, cry, call out even when I haven’t asked you to do any of that. You have permission in the show to be live and spontaneous as an audience, and as long as you’re thrusting yourself into believing it all, I can promise that we will have a BonJovial night together at the theatre.
Are you personally a fan of Bon Jovi and is this your ode to him? Are you a fan of the jukebox musical or are you parodying the form because you distaste them?
I am a fan of Bon Jovi, I am also a musical fan. This show is a little bit of an ode to both of them as well as a little ode to us.
It’s a loving parody. If you love jukebox musicals, like I do, you can come and enjoy all of the humour coming out of the genre and some references to that school show you did back in 1998 or that musical you saw with niche references. And if you absolutely hate musicals you will still enjoy this show because it finds a lot of fun in just how ridiculous the genre is. It’s complex to describe, but both lovers and haters of jukebox musicals can equally enjoy this show for different reasons. Either way you come out of the theatre with what I describe as “the musical theatre glow” feeling a little bit more loved, a little bit more positive… and as if you want to burst into unrehearsed song.
Will this be the first time for you in Canada? Or the first time touring something outside of Europe? Is there anything you’re particularly excited for?
I have been to Canada only once before… for 20 minutes. I was seeing Niagara Falls on the USA side and with a couple of friends we decided to dash across the bridge to say ‘we made it to Canada’ before our coach was setting off again. We only had 20 minutes, and we just had to because I thought I might never make it back to Canada again.
So, I’m very excited about returning to Canada, this time for much longer than 20 minutes. The tour of this show is great because it has some space between the dates where I can be a real tourist and I plan to make as much of a holiday out of it as I possibly can. I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing Niagara by night this time the day before the show.
As for the show, it has toured to Philadelphia before, and across Europe, but yes this is its first visit to Canada. I look forward to introducing We’ve Got Each Other to the people of Ontario and exploring the province in the time in between.