The tale of the Salford tenor who suffered two near fatal brain tumours at the peak of his powers isn’t lacking in drama. Now Russell Watson will sing the story of his life in the latest stage project from the French composers who created the all-conquering Les Misérables.
Songwriter Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil’s credits include the West End hits Miss Saigon and Les Misérables, the Victor Hugo adaptation turned into an Oscar-winning film.
The pair had never written songs for an individual singer until they met Watson, the “People’s tenor”, who was discovered singing “Nessun Dorma” in a Lancashire working men’s club.
Watson enjoyed chart-topping albums in the UK and the US, sold millions of records and performed for the Pope. But his career was halted by the discovery of a benign pituitary tumour in 2006 which required emergency surgery after it began bleeding into his brain.
Watson, 46, still requires daily medication to assist his recovery from brain cancer. He had become disillusioned with the music business until a meeting with Schönberg.
“I felt my career was stagnating,” Watson told The Independent. “I met Claude-Michel but he told me ‘I don’t write for artists’. I told him my story, from start to finish, the illnesses, everything. When I finished he said ‘I like your story. I’m going to write for you.’”
Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil wrote songs, with titles including "Tell Me" and "I Am Only One Man", which Watson said reflected his life, from working in a factory after leaving school with no qualifications, his sudden rise to international fame, the cancer diagnosis and the elation he now finds singing in front of an audience.
With assistance from Claude-Michel’s son, a West End producer, Watson’s eventful life will be turned into a show.
“We are going to construct a specific show around this music,” Watson said. “It’s going to run like a narrative story and I’m going to sing the songs. It’s my life story in words and in music.” The show will tour the UK next year, following the release of an album in November featuring Watson singing the French duo’s songs.
Claude-Michel Schönberg said: “When we knew his story, we realised that every step of Russell’s life could be reflected in the subject matter of our songs. The show will be very theatrical, telling the story of his life. At the end of the day we are always telling stories.”
Schönberg, 69, and Boublil, 72, are revelling in the blockbuster success of the Les Misérables film, which has grossed $500 million. “It has given a new lease of life to all our shows. We are busier than we were in the ‘80s,” said Boublil.
Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh is bringing Miss Saigon back to the West End next Spring, marking the 25th anniversary of the musical love story set during the Vietnam War.
“There will be a new song in Saigon, called 'Maybe', which has never been heard before,” promised Schönberg. The composers believe that the story of an American GI’s doomed affair with a Vietnamese bar girl, based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, has more resonance today following Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Maybe it’s the right time for a war musical,” said Boublil. “When we first wrote it people in America said it was offensive because the wounds were so deep. Now it is timeless.”
For Watson, collaborating with the Frenchmen has renewed his passion for music. “I wasn’t in a good place at the end of 2012. I’d been singing the same songs over and over and I didn’t feel I was going anywhere,” he said.
“Claude-Michel and Alain gave me access to their whole catalogue, including songs that hadn’t been heard for 30 years. The songs seemed to reflect every facet of my life.”
“There’s a song 'Without You', which goes ‘Without you I’d be nothing at all’. It’s a singer speaking to his audience and all the people who supported him through good times and bad. It’s a beautiful, uplifting song and when I sang it, I made a real personal association.”