'Leith' uses 21 songs by Scottish hitmakers

EDINBURGH — With exquisite timing, a U.K. theater is premiering a musical based on the songs of a cult pop group only weeks after one of its iconic tunes has topped the British charts.

Thanks to a new version of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” recorded for the Comic Relief charity by comedians Peter Kay and Matt Lucas, the Proclaimers are back in the spotlight, having hit No. 1 in Britain at the end of March. The success of the song, originally released in 1988 and later given an international platform on the soundtrack of “Benny & Joon,” will only bolster the band’s following in their native Scotland. It also stands to increase the chances of an extended life after its initial seven-week tour by Dundee Rep for the tuner “Sunshine on Leith: A Musical,” which takes its name from the Proclaimers’ second album.

Following the pattern established by hit musicals such as “Mamma Mia!” and “We Will Rock You,” which built original stories around the songs of Abba and Queen, “Sunshine on Leith” uses 21 compositions by the band’s identical twins Craig and Charlie Reid to tell the story of two soldiers returning home after duty in Afghanistan. Songs used in the musical include “Letter From America,” “Let’s Get Married” and “I’m on My Way,” featured on the “Shrek” soundtrack.

Although not directly involved, the Proclaimers have given the legit production their blessing.

“We’re looking forward to hearing our songs from the back of a hall for a change,” the Reid brothers said recently in a statement. In their 20-year career, the distinctly Scottish-sounding duo has amassed sales of more than a million units in the U.S. and Canada. “Sunshine on Leith” (1988) sold 2 million worldwide, going platinum in the U.K., Canada and New Zealand, and triple platinum in Australia.

The show is one of the biggest in the history of Dundee Rep, which has the U.K.’s only permanent ensemble of actors outside the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Fielding a cast of 15 and a nine-strong band, helmer James Brining has been developing the project for two years, including an eight-week rehearsal period. He is spending £70,000 ($138,000) on musicians for the show, compared with a typical annual budget of $29,000, and already has attracted the attention of at least one Gotham producer.

“I’ve had emails from people in North America saying they’re going to book their vacation around it,” says Brining, who expects the show to sell out before its April 18 opening. “If it succeeds here, there’s potential in Canada, America and Australia.”

The book is the work of playwright and TV writer Stephen Greenhorn, creator of BBC Scotland soap “River City.” He was determined to use only songs that could forward the story, even if it meant sacrificing some of the better known numbers.

“Songs have to earn their right to be in a musical,” Greenhorn says. “I didn’t worry about having to include all the hits. I chose the songs that could work onstage.”

Brining reckons the breadth of the duo’s subject matter will help set this show above the standard of the average jukebox tuner.

“The style of the show is determined by the Proclaimers’ music, which is funny, angry, moving, poignant and barnstorming,” says the director.

After its Dundee Rep run through May 12, the show tours Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow.

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