The results of both men's relationship with song have led to The Choir, a brand new musical play written by the pair which opens in a major production this week at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in co-production with commercial producers, Ambassadors Theatre Group. As the first fruits of an initiative designed to nurture and develop new musicals by homegrown writers and composers, The Choir somewhat fittingly tells the story of how a community choir in Wishaw gradually comes together, overcoming numerous tensions within the group, The Choir has become something of a long-term labour of love for both men ever since Ross posited the idea of doing a musical “where the characters really sang.”
What he meant by this was doing something other than showtunes.
“People had always suggested to me that I do a musical,” Ross says, “but I always had problems in a way that I don't anymore about traditional musicals, where chimney sweeps suddenly burst into song and I didn't know why. I quite like that as well, but I wasn't sure I could write it.
“I always loved that idea in Cabaret where you had the Kit Kat Club, and every night people had this reason to perform these songs as a kind of reflection or a reaction to what was going on. I asked Paul what that was called, and he said it was diagetic, where characters know that they're singing and there's a reason for a song to happen. That all made sense in terms of what I think we're trying to do.”
With the idea of basing a play around a community choir, Higgins began writing.
“I had this idea that we would start from scratch,” he says, “from the choir beginning in this really ropey way, where there's only two or three people there and they're not singing very well. The beinning of the play is these one or two people trying to get their partners to join until they've got all twelve characters in it, but it takes a while.”
While best known as an actor, Higgins has previously written a stage play, Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, directed by John Tiffany at the Traverse Theatre in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. Ross and his partner, actress and fellow Deacon Blue vocalist Lorraine McIintosh sat in front of Higgins on the opening night of Nobody Will Ever Figure Us. Hill had just taken over as artistic director of the Traverse, and it was here that the first conversation about a collaboration took place.
With a protracted working process while the pair pursued other projects, including a film just seen at the London Film Festival, Couple in A Hole, for Higgins, and radio shows and assorted writing projects for Ross, the pair regrouped occasionally to develop their ideas. One of these was the decision that, even though the songs are new to the audience, in the play they already exist.
“The guy who runs the choir says to these people to bring the song that's most important to them, and then they say why they chose it,” Higgins explains. “So you hear about peoples lives through a song that sounds like its from the fifties or the eighties, but all of the songs are actually all original.”
One of the development periods coincided with Ross being asked to become a patron of a real life community choir in the Gorbals, and with the idea for the play brewing, Higgins and Ross visited it.
“Thinking back to that night, says Ross, it's pretty similar in make up to our choir. There was a community thing there. It's about diversity, and all these people coming together to do this one thing that they have in common. Of course, that means that they come from so many different places and have so many different ideas, so you have to find a song that sounds like its them, but which can also be done by the choir.”
Of this conceit, Higgins points out that “When somebody brings along a song that means the most to them and talks about that, that can put them in a very vulnerable position, making public something that's quite personal. In a group of people that can go wrong. Someone can say the wrong thing. Someone can find a song that they like, but which they don't realise is political. They just thought it was nice, but someone else hears that song and resents where it comes from. It's all about the music, and how people reveal themselves through song.”
Higgins and Ross have very different personal experiences with choirs. Ross “ran a mile from them. In primary school you had to be in the choir, and it wasn't just a choir. It was a choir that won things. But my mum had a choir at church, and I would go and sit at the back while she was rehearsing, and I remember thinking it was a lovely sound, but I also thought choirs were really naff. Then a guy who was in the first band I was in said he loved choirs, and I thought, well, yeah, I suppose it is a lovely sound.”
Even then, Ross had no intentions of ever becoming a performer.
“All I wanted to do,” he says, “was write songs. My friend Michael Marra always said all he wanted was his name in brackets. I knew exactly what he meant. To me the loveliest credit you could ever have was that bit on the record with your name in brackets as a writer.”
For Higgins, “Training to be a priest, our whole school was a choir, and we learnt the Missa Luba and performed at civic events in Coatbridge, but itwasn't really like a choir. It was just normal life. We went to mass every day, and we sang every day. It wasn't like in the play, where people make an effort to go somewhere and stick their neck out. The one thing about everyone in the play is that they're sticking their neck out. They don't know who they're going to meet, so it's a bit risky, and that's why some of the characters are a bit reluctant to join.”
It was through singing that Higgins became an actor. After he left the seminary, he went to “a normal high school” in Motherwell, and, having applied to university too late for that yeasr despite having the grades, took a year out. During this time he joined a youth theatre because he knew they did musicals.
“I liked to sing,” he says, “but because I wasn't an actor they kept taking lines off me. I played John the Baptist in Godspell and they took all the lines off me, and that was absolutely fine by me. I had no interest in being an actor, and I didn't think I was any good.”
Higgins worked with a professional director on youth theatre summer school, where Higgins realised he actually was quite good at it. The director told him he should be an actor, he applied for drama school, and got in.
“That all came from singing,” he says.
Choirs are everywhere just now, from numerous TV reality shows to a rise in community choirs which in some way reflect Higgins and Ross' observations. Onstage too, several plays, including The Events, written by David Greig, have put locally sourced choirs onstage, while Lee Hall's smash hit adaptation of Alan Warner's novel, The Sopranos, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, focused on the teenage adventures of a schoolgirl choir, complete with Electric Light Orchestra numbers. Give that the idea of an onstage chorus dates back to the Greek roots of drama, this should come as no surprise, though this resurgence perhaps reflects a very twenty-first century need for community that is the crux of The Choir.
“I went to a memorial service recently for a friend of mine who sadly died,” says Higgins, “and the minute it got to the hyms and we started singing together, it just transformed the atmosphere for everyone, Because of the occasion you wanted to sing as well as you could, and there was no self-consciousness. I think singing is about the most beautiful thing people can do together.”
Ross had a very different experience recently at a humanist funeral.
“It was so sad,” he says, “not because it was humanist, but because there was no music. People needed some kind of outlet. That's why people sing at football matches, because they're happy or because they're angry.”
Higgins points out how “people sing in the shower and they sing at football games. There's a character in the play who doesn't want to be part of the choir because he thinks it's sissy, but he sings all the way through the match, yet doesn't associate that with any kind of choir. We're funny about singing.”
In terms of The Choir being the first show out of the traps as part of the Citz/ATG partnership, Ross jokes that “In a way we've nothing going for us. Nearly every musical that's running has been a film, or has familiar songs. Once was a film. Close To You has all these hits by Burt Bacharach, so we're facing an uphill struggle from the start, but someone needs to do something new at some point, and with what we've done with The Choir, I think there's a lovely human story to it.
“The older I get, the more I get moved by people making things work, even though they might disagree about things. Watching people get on with the mundane, I find increasingly the most moving thing about being alive.”
For Higgins, The Choir is a story that is “not about not arguing. It's about being able to express strong views and being able to disagree, and to be able to disagree in a way that's okay.”
The Choir, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, October 24-November 14. Ricky Ross performs on Thursday night at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow before opening his Lyric Book Live solo tour of Ireland, Scotland and England in New Galloway on November 1st.
A version of this appeared in The Herald, October 20th 2015