Talking Theatre: Robert Willis Discusses Cilla - The Musical

Talking Theatre: Robert Willis Discusses Cilla - The Musical

Cilla - The Musical, an adaptation of the critically acclaimed ITV mini-series based on the early life of Cilla Black, by BAFTA award winner, Jeff Pope plays Cardiff's New Theatre from October 31 to November 4.

The musical, which opened in Cilla’s hometown at the Liverpool Empire in early September stars Kara Lilly Hayworth as Cilla. 

Produced by Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield, alongside Executive Producer (and Cilla's son) Robert Willis, the story follows the extraordinary life of the ordinary teenage girl from Liverpool, Priscilla White, and her rocky, yet incredible, rise to fame. By the age of just 25 she was recognised as international singing star Cilla Black. By the age of 30 she had become Britain’s favourite television entertainers.

The Cast of Cilla - The Musical will play Cardiff's New Theatre - Photo By Matt Martin

The Cast of Cilla - The Musical will play Cardiff's New Theatre - Photo By Matt Martin

The stage musical had been envisaged as far back as three years ago when the TV series which starred Sheridan Smith as Cilla became a resounding success.

“Jeff (Pope) had never done a stage show,” executive producer Robert Willis tells Andy Howells. “There were performances that married up with the drama and we had a chat with my mum. She was still alive at that time and was very excited about it.

“She’d had reservations about the TV drama until she saw the script and when she saw the show she loved it. The reservations you would have naturally when your life has been covered, she didn’t have those about the stage show.”

“We took it to the great Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield, it was one of those great meetings. He (Bill) totally loved the drama, it certainly resonates with him and it has become a passion project. We’d hoped Bill would embrace it and get immersed in it and he has done!

Pete Price, Robert Willis and Jeff Pope at Cilla The Musical Gala Night at the Liverpool Empire Picture by David Munn

Pete Price, Robert Willis and Jeff Pope at Cilla The Musical Gala Night at the Liverpool Empire Picture by David Munn

The stage show which as well as depicting Cilla’s rise to fame also depicts her relationship with her boyfriend Bobby Willis (played by Carl Au) and her manager, Beatles Svengali, Brian Epstein (played by Andrew Lancel). As Cilla and Bobby were also Roberts parents, it was essential that something of their magic came through in the show. 

Robert continues “It’s a fantastic feeling to have captured something what my parents were about and captures their spirit and energy. You see that kind of living on in the show and how the show touches people.

“I definitely felt that when we left Liverpool we hadn’t let them down and we’d done their story justice. it was kind of a sense that their spirit lives on in the show and that made me feel really happy and humbled that we got it right.”

Jeff Pope (Cilla - Writer) , Carl Au (Bobby Willis), Kara Lily Hayworth (Cilla Black) and Robert Willis (Cilla Executive Producer) at the Cilla The Musical Gala Night at Liverpool Empire. Picture: David Munn

Jeff Pope (Cilla - Writer) , Carl Au (Bobby Willis), Kara Lily Hayworth (Cilla Black) and Robert Willis (Cilla Executive Producer) at the Cilla The Musical Gala Night at Liverpool Empire. Picture: David Munn

Part of Cilla The Musical’s success is undoubtedly that it is grounded in reality.

“It’s not rose-tinted by any stretch,” continues Robert, “We want it to have that authenticity and that’s what we strived for. its got to move people emotionally and you get the full range. There’s a lots of humour in the show, that’s what you expect. its not Ibsen, but there is music and there’s some great Blood Brothers-esque drama.”

The musical score is the ultimate soundtrack to the 60’s including Cilla’s greatest hits, many of which haven’t been performed live since the 1960s.

“In terms of Cilla’s music, Anyone Who Had a Heart, Alfie and You’re My World you forget how powerful they are live,” says Robert, “When you see them live, there’s something about it that rather touches you, and Kara gets it. 

(Left to right) Christopher Weeks, Alex Harford, Jay Osbourne, Gemma Brodrick-Bower (Pauline) in Cilla The Musical which is set to play Cardiff;s New Theatre. Photo By Matt Martin

(Left to right) Christopher Weeks, Alex Harford, Jay Osbourne, Gemma Brodrick-Bower (Pauline) in Cilla The Musical which is set to play Cardiff;s New Theatre. Photo By Matt Martin

“The thing about Kara is there’s a physical similarity with my mum. There are certain nuances and inflections she studied, and she brings to the performance that you get moments which are “wow!”. Pat, who was my mums best friend and came over from Los Angeles to see it and Paul O Grady were in floods of tears because it was evoking a lot of memories.

Anyone Who had a Heart brings the house down and Alfie’s beautiful. With Liverpool Lullaby, I always get a little choked at that because (Mum) always used to sing that to us when we were kids. it was the last song she ever performed live because she did it on The One and Only, 

Cilla is a musical, according to Robert that will “move you, make you laugh and make you cry. I’m just thrilled that we are able to do that.”

  • To listen to Andy Howells' interview with Robert Willis, listen to The Stage Door podcast below.

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