From the Wicked Witch of the West to Sister Wendy, these days no life story is immune from the musical treatment. Next in line for an all-singing, all-dancing biographical treatment is Christine Keeler, the 19-year-old model at the heart of the notorious Profumo affair which rocked the Conservative government in 1963. While the heady mix of sex, politics and spies was made into a film, Scandal, in 1989 starring Joanne Whalley as Keeler and Ian McKellen as John Profumo, A Model Girl will be its first musical outing.
As the first modern political sex scandal, the Profumo affair paved the way for countless tawdry tales about the private lives of politicians. From David Mellor and John Major, to David Blunkett and John Prescott, not to mention the Liberal Democrats, affairs of the heart have often eclipsed home affairs in the House of Commons. But in 40 years nothing has come close to the glamour and drama of the Profumo affair, immortalised by Lewis Morley's nude photograph of Keeler astride the sensual curves of an Arne Jacobsen chair.
The young showgirl was introduced to the upper echelons of society by the osteopath Stephen Ward at Lord Astor's country estate, Cliveden, in 1961. She went on to have affairs with Profumo, then Secretary of State for War and, at the same time, Evgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché. The tangled web ended in Keeler's imprisonment, Ward's suicide and Profumo's resignation, and heralded the beginning of the end for Harold Macmillan's government. It also ushered in a whole new era of sexual permissiveness and miniskirts, the birth of pop music and Beatlemania and new rules of engagement for the media as private lives were made public property for the first time.
"Great musicals are often set against the backdrop of historic watersheds," says Richard Alexander, the writer of A Model Girl. The story of a politician censured for lying about his affair provides a "useful contrast" with the current trend for spin and deception, while the media coverage at the time planted the seeds for today's pervasive and invasive celebrity culture. "If this happened today," says Alexander, "Christine would be in the Big Brother house."
Alexander has been working on the script for five years, attempting to establish some truths amid myriad reports on the scandal. "Everybody's autobiography differs. Christine - who has written three - differs with herself," he says. Of the main players, only Profumo, who died in March last year, maintained his silence. Alexander delayed the completion of his play until a biography written by the disgraced politician's son, David, was published in September. "[Profumo] never commented but I felt he might have told David. In fact he remained his totally charming, inscrutable self and told his son nothing."
Alexander's "investigative crusade" took him to the National Archives Office and forced him to navigate the vagaries of the Freedom of Information Act. He discovered that records pertaining to Stephen Ward's trial would not be released until 2045, and MI5 notes on the case were still heavily redacted, regarded as "too sensitive" to this day.
As news of his quest spread, however, he began to "get calls at strange hours of the night" from eye-witnesses. From these he has pieced together a new version of events which promises to raise some intriguing questions. Why was Ward investigated by more than 50 police for the relatively minor offence of living off immoral earnings? What happened to Ivanov?
The action will unfold via a swinging soundtrack of flugel horns and Hammond organs, composed by Marek Rymaszewski. The title song, "A Model Girl", has Ward crooning to his new protégée, "There's no one in Who's Who, who won't fall for you", over a breathy, doo-wop chorus of "ooh my baby".
In the role of Keeler, director Ruth Carney has cast Emma Williams, previously known to musical lovers for her squeaky-clean Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "She brings the innocence that Keeler has to have," says Carney. "Audiences will see how that innocence has matured since she was 19 and playing Truly Scrumptious, in the same way that Keeler matures throughout the piece."
Williams isn't fazed by her move into a raunchier role. "It's not all about sex," she protests. "A lot of it is having to establish what was acceptable and what wasn't and to understand that women were not really allowed to enjoy sex. She was the first of a new generation."
The 23-year-old actress has read biographies but has been unable to run her interpretation by the woman in question. "She hasn't been forthcoming and I have to respect that and step away," she says. "I hope that she might come and see the show and she will find my interpretation respectful and truthful." Keeler, now 64 and living in London under an assumed name, has been sent drafts of the script, but to no avail. "She made some attempts via her lawyers to say Profumo was her copyright," says Alexander. "But you can't copyright history."
Just two weeks after A Model Girl opens in Greenwich, Keeler opens in Highgate, with Alice Coulthard in the title role. Unlike the musical, this project has Keeler's full approval, being based on her 2001 autobiography, The Truth at Last. The actor Paul Nicholas, business partner of producer David Ian, bought the rights to the book, having spotted its theatrical potential. "I think Christine just wants to put it out there and let it lay to rest. She's had to live with being Christine Keeler for a long time and it's not easy," he says.
Although Keeler will feature an early 1960s soundtrack of Shirley Bassey, Adam Faith, The Platters and Ritchie Valens, it is a straight play written by Gill Adams, who spent many hours consulting Keeler. "I wanted to get under the skin of the woman - we'd talk about make-up, how she felt when she wore certain clothes, the sexuality of a young girl realising she is beautiful and growing up during such an exciting period." Adams "felt like a detective" as she wrote and her script promises revelations of its own. "The relationship between Ward and Keeler will be the surprise more than anything else."
It is, to all intents and purposes, Keeler's play. "She drives the story right from the start. It wasn't easy for me - she approved every single word, down to the last letter," says Adams.
With not one but two plays dedicated to her story, Keeler's theatrical hour has finally arrived. As for Lembit: the Musical! with songs by the Cheeky Girls - it can only be a matter of time.
'A Model Girl', 30 Jan-24 Feb, Greenwich Theatre (020-8858 7755) 'Keeler', 14 Feb-18 Mar, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London (020-8340 3488)Reuse content