Roy Orbison musical from & Juliet creators to open at Leeds Playhouse

<span>Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns</span>
Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

A new musical using the songs of Roy Orbison, created by the duo behind the West End hit & Juliet, is to open in Leeds next year.

In Dreams will feature tunes from throughout the career of the US musician known as “the Big O” but the jukebox musical, which premieres at Leeds Playhouse, does not tell his life story. Instead, writer David West Read said he would use the “pain and joy that is inherent in his songs” to tell the modern-day story of a female singer who has reassembled her old bandmates for a party at a Mexican restaurant. The show will explore love and loss “through an optimistic lens” he added, with an account of “friendship and the power of music to bring people together and help them through difficult times”.

About 20 Orbison songs, including some by his group the Traveling Wilburys, will be heard in the show, which is directed by & Juliet’s Luke Sheppard and has the backing of Orbison’s sons. Some of the tunes will be played as if directly by the characters in the fictional band while others will be used to reflect on the story, said Read, whose other credits include the TV show Schitt’s Creek.

The idea of a straight biographical musical was floated but Read said he “didn’t want to see someone doing their best Roy Orbison impression” on stage. Instead, he hopes audiences will find a new appreciation for the songs, performed by a rich variety of voices, as in the recent Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country.

I always try to let the lyrics of the songs lead the story

David West Read, writer

Jukebox musicals tend to receive huge audiences around the UK, often with actors cast as the singers themselves, such as in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Jersey Boys, about the Four Seasons. But like Mamma Mia!, which utilises the back catalogue of Abba, In Dreams will weave a fictional plot from the songs. “In some jukebox musicals the lyrics are not intrinsic to the story – they provide a break,” explained Read. “I always try to let the lyrics of the songs lead the story.”

& Juliet, which opened in London in 2019 and closes next spring, has just begun a run on Broadway. The show imagines a different future for Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and uses pop anthems written by Max Martin including I Want It That Way and …Baby One More Time. Martin has penned so many hits – for acts such as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Katy Perry – that you could make multiple musicals out of his CV, said Read. “You have to kill your darlings – let go of wonderful songs if they’re not telling your story.” Tracks written by Martin and sung by Adele and Taylor Swift were among those that Read tried out but cut from & Juliet.

One challenge posed by Orbison’s oeuvre is the number of ballads, said Read. “Max Martin’s catalogue is the opposite as he has so many fun party songs. Roy Orbison is known for heartbreaking, soaring epic ballads.” Finding the right balance by adding some of his rockier numbers had been part of the process but Read knew his source material inside out already. “I grew up with the music of Roy Orbison playing constantly in my household – both of my parents were huge fans.” Now, the inherent drama of those songs will power a story that Read says asks a fundamental human question: “How do you want to spend your time on Earth and who do you want to spend it with?”

In Dreams is at Leeds Playhouse from 1 July to 5 August. Other productions in the theatre’s spring/summer season include a new staging of A Passionate Woman by Leeds playwright Kay Mellor, who died earlier this year, and adaptations of Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men.