The cast of ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.’ (Photo: Alastair Muir)
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Move over Alexander Hamilton, there’s a new force to be reckoned with on London’s West End named Jamie New. The title character in the new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is as scrappy as our now famous forefather. Both shows are adapted from existing source material: Hamilton from Rob Chernow’s renowned biography, and Jamie from a little-known documentary titled Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. What is so brilliant about is that both stories—juxtaposed by centuries and cultural differences—co-exist this season on the London stage, drawing international audiences into a theater community that in many ways fosters developmental works like Jamie far more than its Broadway sibling across the ocean.
Jamie has been nominated for five Olivier Awards (the West End’s version of the Tonys), including nods for its two leading players John McCrea and Josie Walker, as well as vying for the title of Best New Musical. It’s fierce competition, with Hamilton earning a record-breaking 13 nominations and riding the wave of its 11 Tony Award wins. Putting accolades (and comparisons) aside, Jamie is a palpable new work that celebrates diversity, resilience and acceptance, packaged in a real-life story that is bound to elicit a heart-pounding reaction by those fortunate enough to snag a seat at the Apollo Theatre.
Jamie New (McCrea) is about to turn 16 and has but one wish: to wear drag to the school prom. Living with his mum Margaret (Walker) on limited means in the historically industrial town of Sheffield, England, prospects don’t look good for Jamie. His estranged father (Ken Christiansen) wants nothing to do with him; his teacher Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll) has no interest in his unconventional demeanor; and the dimwitted school thug Dean Paxton (Luke Baker) sees Jamie as a punching bag for his own unexpressed inadequacies. Jamie’s bestie, Pritti Pasha (Lucie Shorthouse) accepts Jamie for all of his long-legged glory, and together, the pair manages to navigate the halls of Mayfield School.
Margaret, desperate to hide her ex-husband’s narrow-minded and hateful actions, buys Jamie a pair of red stiletto heels for his birthday, which sets off a quest for his ultimate prom drag outfit and a visit to Victor’s Secret, a drag shop where he meets Hugo Battersby (Phil Nichol) aka the semi-retired drag star Loco Chanelle. Jamie acquires his dream dress, takes to the stage at Legs Eleven, “a fun—if not massively sophisticated looking—drag club,” where he’s joined by a trio of drag queens that feels like a RuPaul’s Drag Race version of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
Jamie, after the wildly successful evening, heads to his dad’s house to thank him for his support, only to realize that it was his mother’s fabrication. The news devastates him, and we finally see the hurt and vulnerability underneath Jamie’s sparkly exterior. With the support of his mum and Pritti, Jamie dons a frock and attends prom not as his drag persona Mimi Me, but as Jamie New: reclaiming his true identity in all of its diva fabulousness.
It was director and co-writer Jonathan Butterell who set the wheels in motion for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but it takes a village—and a talented one at that—to create a new musical. Meanwhile, actor Michael Ball (Kiss Me Kate, Hairspray, Les Misérables, Aspects of Love) had met the songwriting team of Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae and was intrigued by their work, but the writers needed a project. Ball knew Butterell, an introduction was made, and the troupe converged upon Sheffield Crucible’s artistic director Daniel Evans, who requested a plot outline. The newly formed team set up camp in the theatre’s wig room and within hours, had mapped out the show. Call it divine intervention… or a good hair day.
Producer Nica Burns saw Everybody’s Talking About Jamie during its initial 19-performance run at Sheffield Crucible. She fell in love with it and championed its move to the West End. “It’s fresh and contemporary… and has enormous heart,” says Burns. “It catches so much about life today: the ups and the downs, the celebration of acceptance and belonging and how good life is when everybody is the best they can be.”
The beating of that heart resides in McCrea’s performance as Jamie’s unconventional leading man. Bleach blond and with legs that give the Hadid sisters a run for their money, McCrea intuitively captures what it’s like to be a gay teenager (well at least this teenager) in the 21st century. Tom MacRae’s book fuels the character with refreshing self-awareness. Jamie knows who he is and what he wants, and although plot points pit him against obligatory antagonists, his greatest battles are those fought within. Providing an earthy, accessible counterpoint, Walker as Jamie’s mum is breathtaking in her working-class simplicity. And while McCrea has plenty of scene-stealing moments thanks to a melodic pop score and dance-while-nobody-is-watching choreography by Kate Prince, it’s Walker’s Act II solo “He’s My Boy” that unhinges into a tissue-worthy power ballad and gives the musical even greater depth.
Ultimately, Jamie refuses to be victimized, whether by his father or society at large. But many in our global queer community have met a different fate. The Independent reported last fall that attacks on LGBTQ people in the UK have surged almost 80 percent over the past four years. Frighteningly, the U.S.’s National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported an 86 percent increase in hate violence homicides of LGBTQ people in 2017.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie subtly stirs the pot regarding LGBTQ violence, prejudice, and empowerment. Packaged in glitter and high heels with an ensemble of beautifully diverse young actors embodying Jamie’s quickly shifting world, the message is clear, said so simply as Jamie prepares to go to prom on his terms:
“I’m not a super-hero. I’m just a boy in a dress.”
Yes, Jamie. You are.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Shaftesbury Ave., London
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.