Why Paul McCartney’s It’s a Wonderful Life musical is going to be terrible

Stuart Jeffries
Composite: Getty Images/RKO Allstar

It’s easy to be sceptical about Paul McCartney’s announcement that he’s written a musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but that won’t stop me. The nightmare scenario is that he has brought to the musical table not the genius of Hey Jude, Here, There and Everywhere and Norwegian Wood, but the creative acumen responsible for the Frog Chorus, Mull of Kintyre and, there’s no easy way to say this, Wonderful Christmastime – the very acumen that, on a personal note, in December 1979 made me contemplate disowning British citizenship and living in Vanuatu.

The paying public may yet compel me to put my scepticism where the sun doesn’t shine

The worry is that, even if the musical proves as dismal as I fear, it will join that diverting list headed Oh No! They Didn’t? Yes, I’m Afraid They Did!, that includes the sing-song version of Stephen King’s Carrie (closed after five performances), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (closed after three years without recouping its $75m outlay), Doctor Zhivago (closed after 23 performances) and Lestat, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s attempt to adapt Anne Rice’s vampire novels for the musical stage (closed after 39 performances). The good news for Sir Paul is that, say what you want about any of these flops, I’d rather spend an evening with any one of them than watch Phantom of the Opera again.

Writing musical theatre is hard and the cutting room of history is littered with unrealised projects. Whatever happened to Asian Dub Foundation’s opera Gaddafi? Like Larry David’s music-theatre depiction of Salman Rushdie’s years on the run, Fatwa!, it was never realised on stage, though in the latter case, at least, there were enough tunes teased on Curb Your Enthusiasm to warrant an off-Broadway run, though probably not one in Tehran. And even works that entered the repertory can still ruin the careers of talented creatives. Take the improbable subject of PLO terrorists holding a Jewish cruise party hostage. The 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer damaged the composer John Adams’ fortunes but obliterated those of the talented poet Alice Goodman, who never wrote for the stage again.

There are some things in music that should not happen: Jimmy Page playing classical guitar, the Police doing reggae, Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling, Robin Thicke. I’m not saying that Sir Paul’s first musical is of such all-round uselessness (that remains to be heard) but his 1993 Liverpool Oratorio, though a commendable monument to civic pride, was called “lacklustre” and “embarrassing” by the Guardian’s critic.

But what do critics, those creative eunuchs, know? The Only Fools and Horses musical is still on despite lukewarm reviews, and Hugh Jackman’s film The Greatest Showman has been a popular success after getting a critical shanking. What’s the moral? The paying public have no taste, obviously. And yet, they may compel me to put my scepticism where the sun doesn’t shine.

‘But what do critics, those creative eunuchs, know? The Only Fools and Horses musical is still on despite lukewarm reviews.’ Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for Neil Reading PR

It may not be woeful, not least because the ex-Beatle has been working with Lee Hall, who wrote both the film Billy Elliot and its musical adaptation. What’s more, the project comes with the imprimatur of fellow Liverpudlian and theatre producer Bill Kenwright. Maybe McCartney’s It’s a Wonderful Life and another looming musical by a Liverpudlian troubadour, Elvis Costello’s A Face in the Crowd (based on a story by On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg), will be triumphs. Let both prove me wrong.

All that said, Sir Paul, if you still need a lyricist to tweak your musical, I’d be honoured to be the Bernie Taupin to your Sir Elton. Already I’ve sketched a few possible numbers. The evil Bedford Falls oligarch Mr Potter’s Nobody Likes Me I Don’t Care will have audiences hissing from the dress circle, especially if it’s sung, as I hope it will be, by the disgraced Radio 5 presenter and Millwall fan Danny Baker. I’ve given the love duet Buffalo Gals a grime makeover, which must be sung by Neneh Cherry and Stormzy. (That’s right, Neneh takes Donna Reed’s role and Stormzy James Stewart’s. Deal with it.) When Stormzy finds something in his pocket and raises it to the spotlight to sing the showstopper Zuzu’s Petals (“Oh, my darling daughter/ What can I say? I’ve been a total plonker”), you won’t know whether to laugh, cry or ask for your money back (good luck with the last of these).

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McCartney rightly says that Capra’s film tells “a universal story we can all relate to” and that he was drawn to it as a result. While that explains why he didn’t adapt David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it is not a good enough reason: if it were, he could just as easily have written Pingu: The Musical or an all singing, all dancing version of Murder on the Orient Express in which Donald Trump is stabbed by every passenger. Both of which I’d rather see.

While I applaud him for writing his first musical aged 77, and thereby showing a forbearance that the Who’s Pete Townshend would have done well to share (oh, come on: who listens to Tommy or Quadrophenia in 2019?), I wish he’d written something nearer to home. I would have loved a musical about the Beatles’ breakup, provisionally entitled How Do You Sleep?, or an adaptation of Terence Davies’ heartbreaker Distant Voices, Still Lives, set in the 50s Liverpool that McCartney knew before he became famous. Again, I’m quite prepared to sketch out a few numbers for either, Sir Paul, if you’d fancy.

• Stuart Jeffries is a feature writer