Craige Els and Luke Sheppard on bringing Live Aid musical 'Just For One Day' to the stage
Performer Craige Els and director Luke Sheppard discuss bringing the iconic 1985 Live Aid concert to life onstage in Just For One Day at London's Old Vic.
There are jukebox musicals and then there’s Just For One Day, which looks back on Live Aid, the 1985 multi-venue charity concert on behalf of famine relief in Ethiopia. Held simultaneously in London and Philadephia, the event brought together a host of music world icons – Elton John, Paul McCartney, Sade, The Police, amongst many others – all in support of a humanitarian goal.
Representing a fusion of music- making and fundraising on a truly global scale, the benefit concert has now spawned a musical boasting a cast of 26 performers. Craige Els leads the company as Bob Geldof, the Irish singer-songwriter of Boomtown Rats fame whose activism sparked Live Aid around the world. Writer John O’Farrell’s credits include Mrs. Doubtfire and Something Rotten, and Luke Sheppard directs, following his success with & Juliet. He also directed The Little Big Things, the musical adaptation now in an extended run @sohoplace through 2 March.
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London Theatre Magazine spoke with Sheppard and Els about reclaiming a seismic cultural moment from the past so that it speaks volubly and powerfully to the present.
Were you aware of Live Aid at the time?
Craige Els: I was 7 or 8 back then and living in Liverpool, and I do remember the national feeling when everything stopped and an entire community came together to stand still for something.
Luke Sheppard: I wasn’t alive in 1985, but my mum talks about that day as one of the most extraordinary days in her life – probably how it felt when we hosted the Olympics in the UK in 2012. That opening ceremony was amazing but it was also part of something greater – a united moment – and I suspect the sheer uplift of Live Aid was much the same.
Bob Geldof is involved with the show. What is it like to work with him?
Els: I play Bob in the show, which is extraordinary because he’s so iconic. He’s such a part of our social history, especially at that time. So it’s a huge honour but with that comes a huge responsibility. Bob was in the room with us yesterday in rehearsals and it’s incredible to be midway through a scene about something that actually happened and for him to offer up the exact facts. He’s an incredible resource.
Sheppard: The truth is that Live Aid wouldn’t have happened without Bob, and he’s provided huge input [to the show] as far as research and resources. But it would be fair to say that Bob did need persuading about this musical and part of my job was to convince him – to show him that I could take on this extraordinary moment in history that was also a big part of his life while always being very clear that we’re not here to tell the Bob Geldof story.
How did you decide what songs to include?
Sheppard: There’s a power to these sorts of shows that comes with restraint. It would be very easy to put in every song from Live Aid, but if you’ve got too many diamond-status songs, then it becomes less special. It’s about how you let the right number of songs deliver these emotional beats without turning it into a constant hit parade.
The term ‘jukebox musical’ gets bandied about a lot but where does Just For One Day fall on that spectrum?
Els: In a way this is the ultimate jukebox musical in that the songs from Live Aid are so imprinted on our souls. The difference is that these sorts of shows depend upon an element of frivolity and frippery and fun whereas the creative team this time round is offering something different.
Sheppard: The word ‘jukebox’ sometimes gets weaponised in a theatrical context: there’s often a kind of snobbery toward the form which is why with & Juliet we really wanted to own the phrase so that the first thing you see onstage is a jukebox. What distinguishes Just For One Day is that the songs all have that unified moment of coming together at a place in history: the music is united by a period and a sense of purpose.
How does it feel to be opening this in so time-honoured auditorium as the Old Vic?
Els: It’s extraordinary to find yourself in a theatre so steeped in history and to know that Peter O’Toole and Vivien Leigh, amongst many others, have walked on that stage. I was part of several workshops of the show where we had no idea it would happen so soon and then the next minute it was, boom and we were at the Old Vic.
Sheppard: What the Old Vic does so brilliantly is offer both intimacy and the epic. For me, this is the absolute dream theatre in that you can go big and you can also be in the hands of one character onstage. And having worked for so long with [Old Vic artistic director] Matthew Warchus on Matilda, it’s really exciting to go back to him with a project and say,‘Will you take a look at this?’
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Els: Some people may be on an absolute high from hearing that music again, but I also think that it will be one of those shows that makes you feel and that connects audiences to something truly timeless.
Sheppard: I like to think that our show is about reminding people that theatre can matter. The majority of our company wasn’t alive in 1985 so this is about understanding how the ripples of something from 40 years ago can still influence the world we live in now.
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Photo credits: rehearsal shots for Just For One Day. (Photos courtesy of production)
This interview first appeared in the January 2024 issue of London Theatre Magazine.
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