When the Spice Girls closed the Olympic Games, tumbling out of their glittery taxis in short skirts and too-high heels like the kind of hen party you might cross the road to avoid, they instantly stole the show. Their appearance provoked 116,000 tweets per minute, more than Usain Bolt winning the 100m final, more than Andy Murray’s first gold medal, more in fact, than any sporting moment of the previous fortnight.
They always were terrible attention-seekers. And with one five-minute medley – noisy, brash, a little wobbly (Victoria nearly fell off her cab) but most of all fun – the Spice Girls proved that they still know how to put on a show. And that when they do, people still watch – in their millions.
That’s what the cast and crew of Viva Forever!, a new West End musical inspired by the girl group, are banking on as they prepare for opening night next week. In a theatre scene saturated by jukebox musicals, this is the big one, produced by Judy Craymer, the brains behind the global juggernaut in spandex that is Mamma Mia!. Not a single zig-a-zig-ah has been harmonised but it has already taken £4m at the box office.
Sixteen years on from “Wannabe”, the Spice Girls are back. In truth, for those of us who grew up in the Nineties, along with Ross and Rachel, the Trainspotting soundtrack and Alan Partridge catchphrases, they never really went away. I was 14 years old when they stomped on to the scene in their Buffalo platforms and my schooldays were soundtracked by Spice – from “Wannabe” at house parties to “Goodbye”, which became our unofficial post A-levels anthem. I still know the dance routines to “Spice Up Your Life” and “Stop”. Thanks to Posh, I held a pinstripe bustier to be the height of sophistication for far too many years. And to this day, the Christmas season hasn’t truly begun until I’ve heard “2 Become 1” on the radio. So you could say that they left their mark.
Whether you agreed with the notion of Girl Power or not – it’s still, surely, a far better thing to have than the X Factor – the Spice Girls had it in heaps. Their debut single, “Wannabe”, went to No 1 in 30 countries and they went on to sell 80 million records worldwide, making $800m over the course of their careers (so far). They were – still are – the biggest girl band in the world. Everyone who has followed since is but a pale imitation. Girls Aloud? Too homogenous, too glossy. The Saturdays? I can’t name a single one, let alone be bothered to give them nicknames. As for Little Mix, the latest pretenders, their attempt at the Girls’ eclectic blend is more insipid korma than Spicy madras.
The Spice Girls were trailblazers, a manufactured girl band, yes, but one where you could still see the joins. They performed like pros but were never too slick – always singing and talking over one another, often falling out of their clothes and with each other. They didn’t even come up with their own nicknames – that was Top of the Pops magazine – but they were the key to their success. Attainable archetypes with their regional accents and ready laughs, you could almost be any of one them, Sporty one day, Baby the next. Even Posh wasn’t really posh: she just wore black and didn’t smile very much. They were silly, sexy (in an end-of-the-pier, pinching-Prince-Charles’-bottom way) and sassy. They were also nakedly ambitious and greedy for success, selling their brand to everyone from Asda to Walkers Crisps. But even as they raked in the millions, they remained down to earth. It was Victoria who best summed up their girl-next-door take on fame and fortune when she declared, “We want to be a household name. We want to be a Fairy Liquid or Ajax.”
Then there were the songs – “Wannabe”, “Mama” and “Say You’ll Be There” – many of them pop classics. Can they power a whole musical? If anyone can make it work, Craymer can. Mamma Mia!, now in its 14th year, has played to over 50 million people across the globe and taken $2bn at the box office – not to mention a further $600million at the cinema and five million DVDs sold in the UK alone. The idea for Viva Forever! first occurred to the producer when she met Simon Fuller at a dinner nine years ago and, stuck for something to say, asked him whether he’d ever considered a Spice Girls show. It wasn’t until Geri, always the powerhouse of the band, sent her a “sweet” note requesting a meeting five years later that the project took shape.
“Who wouldn’t want to have tea with a Spice?” says Craymer. From the off, she rejected a show about the Girls themselves. “I didn’t think there was anything interesting in it. There was never going to be a story in that – one married a famous footballer, one was blonde with bunches... No. If they’d asked for that, I wouldn’t have done it.” Instead, she set out her vision to Geri and Emma by sending them DVDs of Cover Girl and All About Eve, female-led Hollywood classics about chorus-line rivalries and the dark side of fame. Meanwhile, she drafted in Jennifer Saunders to write a script, which like Mamma Mia! would draw inspiration from the band and its songs.
The result is Viva Forever!, a rags-to-riches tale of Viva and her three friends who upload a song-and-dance routine to YouTube and are subsequently scouted by a television talent show. As Viva is cherry-picked for stardom, she is forced to choose between friends and fame, while her relationship with her adopted mother is tested too. It doesn’t take a genius to see where songs like “Wannabe” or “Mama” might kick in.
For Saunders, the strong lyrics of the original songs helped to shape the script – “They have their own narrative, which makes it easier to narrate around. There were certain themes – here’s me and my mates, don’t mess with me and my mates, let’s misbehave…” There is also a humour to them that sits well with musical theatre, says Craymer. “What I loved was their fun and their strong sense of irony and self-deprecation. They don’t take themselves too seriously and you can make comedy out of their songs. You could do that with Abba but you couldn’t do that with Led Zep, or even Elton John songs.”
As is traditional with musicals, there is an uplifting moral, too. “Keep true to yourself, keep your feet on the ground and remember what’s important in life. Don’t get caught up and lose yourself,” explains Hannah John-Kamen, 23, who will make her West End debut as Viva. One year out of Central drama school and currently starring as Rosa Maria Ramirez in The Hour, she grew up singing Spice Girls songs into her hairbrush. Thanks to Martin Koch’s sweeping orchestral arrangements, though, she has had to relearn them all from scratch. “I’ve had to put all of what I know about how a Spice Girls song goes away,” she says. “There’s a wonderful mash-up of ‘Goodbye’, ‘Headlines’ and ‘Mama’, which is a big moment for me. It's very emotional, and very clever.” When she and the cast performed the score for the Spice Girls – “Well, for Geri, Mel C and Emma…” – Geri admitted that they sang the hits better than the band ever did.
While the songs sound different and the characters are not based on the Spice Girls – there are only four leads for a start (“You could say the Mum was the fifth Spice,” says Craymer), there are clear parallels between Viva Forever! and the band’s story. Like Viva and her friends, they were a bunch of nobodies who were thrust into the limelight. “It’s about today’s obsession with fame and celebrity culture,” says Craymer. “The Spice Girls predated the Kardashians and reality television. I don’t know whether they would make it in today’s world of talent shows. They’re so cheeky, they wouldn’t have conformed to coming back next week and doing it better for votes…”
There are echoes too of the fractious friendships in the band. Geri, who famously left at the height of their fame, encouraged Saunders to write more cat-fights in to her script. Craymer keeps a set of Spice Girls dolls in her office, which, it is said, she rearranges according to who is on speaking terms (or not) at any one time. At least, she says, they are all equally supportive of the musical: small wonder, with tickets priced up to £67.50, it could make each of them £5m in royalties.
“They’re like squabbling sisters but they are very protective of each other,” says Craymer. “I say ‘I want to do this’ and then leave it to them to sort it out among themselves. When you get them all together in a room, it is quite powerful, if not overpowering. You can feel a chemical excitement coming off them.” Whether that chemistry transfers to the stage next week is another matter. The 14-year old Wannabe in me will be hoping that it does.
‘Viva Forever!’, Piccadilly Theatre, London W1 (0844 871 3055; VivaForeverTheMusical.com) to 1 June