Interview: Everybody's Talking About Jamie Is a Labor of Love for Tom MacRae

MacRae is the co-writer of the much-loved musical, which is now a sparkly new film.

Since it first hit the stage in 2017, everyone on both sides of the Pond has being talking about the delightful musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie, a fantasia inspired by the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, about an English schoolboy who achieves his dream of doing drag and being accepted by both his mom and his community.

While the musical won't come to American shores until January 2022, when it debuts at LA's Ahmanson Theatre, a big-screen adaptation will hit theaters and Amazon Prime on September 17, helmed by the same creative team as the show's: director Jonathan Butterell, composer Dan Gillespie Sills, and librettist Tom MacRae, who has written for such British TV shows as Doctor Who and Threesome.

TheaterMania recently spoke to MacRae about working on the show and the movie, the casting of the film's stars Max Harwood and Richard E. Grant, and what the future has in store.

Tom MacRae
Tom MacRae
(© Nica Burns)

How did you first become aware of the documentary about the real Jamie?
Jonathan caught it by accident and thought it was a great idea for a musical. And then Dan and I ended up meeting Jonathan through an incredible coincidence and he already had this story in mind. Then we all watched the documentary together, which is only 40 minutes long, and we knew to make it work onstage we had to build it out and include the father who abandons him and a lot of the other schoolkids. We didn't talk to the real Jamie or his mother Margaret at first, but after we did, Margaret said to me, "You must have been in my head."

Was the idea of having the dad who rejects his gay son personal for you or any of your collaborators?
Luckily, none of us had the issue of being rejected by our dads. But it's what I imagined happened to Jamie, and it did. I know it's a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's true for so many people. And what I love is hearing from people who have seen the show and who don't have parental support is they tell me the story gives them help to navigate their lives. I really wanted the character of Jamie to not only win in the end, but win big, although giving a happy ending to this kind of character might seem controversial to some people.

What were your biggest challenges in musicalizing the material?
Not only had I never written a musical, I had never written for theater. So just writing a show like this for first time seemed impossible. I knew it was very easy to get wrong, and I still don't really know why this one works. But Jonathan had done a lot of musicals before this one, and his wisdom was invaluable. I read both of Stephen Sondheim's books, which is the most education I've had about musical theater. Also, Dan and I talked about how we liked the eras when musical theater was like pop; the songs could work as standalone numbers and can also make sense in the show. That formula is what worked for us.

How important was it for you to write the screenplay for the film?
I think it was vital that Jonathan, Dan and I were all deeply involved in the movie. For the most part, I was on the set every single day. The advantage of adapting your own work is that you really understand how things need to be changed from one medium to the other. We were not afraid to cut songs or scenes. One of things I learned from reading Sondheim is sometimes you only need a close-up, not an entire song. Admittedly, whole chunks of dialogue were taken directly from the stage; while other scenes were completely new, as are a couple of the songs. We worked really hard to open up Jamie's world organically, even though there were some tough moments we had to lose in the process.

Is it true you found the movie's Jamie, Max Harwood, through an open casting call?
Yes. Jamie was a really hard role to cast. He has to have a certain kind of look — a bit of an awkward boy but so glamorous as a girl. And whoever plays him, onstage or onscreen, really has to be able to act and sing well. It's a lot to ask of anybody! We saw a lot of people before we chose Max. And the funny thing is he was still in school and wasn't even sure he wanted to do the movie. But we asked him to put himself on tape. And we are so happy he said yes! And after filming, he went back to school.

Can we talk about the brilliant casting of Richard E. Grant as Jamie's drag queen mentor, Hugo?
It's the first time he's ever played a drag queen and he wasn't sure he could do it. But ultimately, he had a great time putting his look together; he even named his own wig. We built up his part enormously — he gets more scenes and different ones from the play. Gay kids don't have gay parents, so they often don't know about the past. That's why in the film, unlike the show, we take some time for Hugo to give Jamie and the audience a history lesson about gay life and death in the 1980s and 1990s. That was really an honor for all of us.

What's next for you career-wise?
I'm at work on a lot of other musicals with Dan, some for film, some for stage. These are all original stories, which is what appeals to me the most. But I also have to concentrate on Jamie's American production, the world tours, and a school edition of the show, which will obviously require the most work.