Much has been made in the press recently of homophobic comments.

Whether it’s James Arthur’s lyrics, James Arthur’s apology, James Arthur’s tirade at Lucy Spraggan or, well.. it’s mainly been James Arthur. But, hidden amongst this is a little storm that blew up around Happy Days the Musical producer Amy Anzel following a Channel 4 documentary, The Sound of Musicals.

Steven Hardcastle was auditioning for Happy Days, based on the popular TV series set in 1950’s America. This was not a time for overt, or even hidden, displays of gay behaviour, and so Amy suggested to one of the dancers that he “strip away the gay” to fit in with his character. When he didn’t react, Anzel wondered if she was mistaken. “You are gay, right?” she enquired, to which she received a positive response. “That’s fine,” continued Amy, “I love my gays!”

Never one to miss a publicity opportunity, John Barrowman immediately baited his Twitter followers with ”Holly Shit! Did Amy Anzul [Sic] actually say that about Gay’s “I love my Gays, Strip away the Gay” #soundofmusicals jb”

Amy has since been branded homophobic. Knowing this not to be true, I caught up with her to ask how she feels about the whirlwind her comments caused. I also asked where she got that amazing “lion” hairdo, because that’s what we all really want to know, right? RIGHT.
Happy Days looks fantastic. How did it come about?

“I acted in the developmental workshops in LA about 10 years ago when Garry Marshall (Happy Days creator) was turning the TV show into a musical, which was always his dream. I loved being a part of the show and the process. When I moved to London in 2009, 1950’s Americana was doing really well in the West End with Jersey Boys, Grease and Hairspray, and it seemed the British would really love it, so I optioned the rights to shop it around and see what I could do. The show came together and fell apart a few times, but here we are now. Happy Days finally came together with the right team behind it and it took almost five years. Everything takes time.

I have a co-producer on board who comes from a financial services background, and he had this brilliant idea. Normally, theatre investment has been reserved for the really wealthy because, if you want to put money into a show, you have to put in £10-20,000. There are a lot of people who are supporters of the arts, lovers of theatre and lovers of Happy Days that want to support the show but might not have £10,000, so we let them put in as little as £10 and they still get a profit if the show makes one. We already have over 230 investors and all those people will talk about the show and own a piece of it.”

How is the UK production different from the US one?

“Garry’s making changes to the script – not making it British but some words and references don’t translate. Two songs have been added and, of course, the direction and the design can make or break a show it. To me, the American production just took the TV show and plopped it on stage. We have tremendous ideas how to really make it slightly larger than life but still be truthful and real, and pay homage to the TV show. We have a lot of big plans for it. There will definitely be a wow factor. There might even be a moment where Cheryl Baker rips off her skirt. You’ve got to give the audience what they want. I don’t think you can have her in a show without doing that.”

You have an excellent cast. How did Cheryl Baker get involved?

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“We love Cheryl Baker. We’re so thrilled, and on tonight’s episode of The Sound of Musicals you’ll see her audition. We had seen a few other stars and she walked in and just was Mrs Cunningham. She was maternal, warm, lovely, sweet and kind, and then she sang and wowed us. She could not be a more perfect Mrs Cunningham.

People also know Heidi Range as a singer (Atomic Kitten and Sugababes), but not everyone knows that she is a really good actress. People won’t know it until she steps onto stage.”

And the rather delicious Ben Freeman as The Fonz!

“I thought The Fonz would be easier to cast. It’s an iconic role so there are big shoes to fill. We saw a lot of star names once again and either they were not triple threats or they were just not cool. It’s hard to really want a role and still be laid back, and Ben just was. Fonzie was the only role we had to get approval for so we sent his audition to the creators. They love him and think he did a fantastic job. We start rehearsals soon, and Henry Winkler is coming in once a week to work with the cast.”

Why did Craig Revel Horwood leave?

“Craig’s a very busy man and wanted us to push our dates back. We have a January opening but, because he has so many commitments that need his time, he felt that an April opening would better suit his schedule. Obviously we can’t cancel half the tour, because we have a great tour booked.”

As a producer and an actress, what is the best way for you to give or receive criticism?

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“I’ve always embraced constructive criticism. I don’t think you can grow as a person without being able to accept and absorb it. Usually it’s helpful and the more it stings, the more it probably needs to be dealt with. Maybe, being a performer since I was a child, I’ve always been used to it so, when I give it, I don’t always think twice that perhaps someone’s quite sensitive. I do think that it’s important in this industry – if someone says your dancing isn’t good enough, go take some dance classes. I think, in terms of constructive criticism, just accept it.”

You received a fair bit of criticism yourself recently for what you said to Steven Hardcastle. Is there anything you’d like to say to those who took offence?

“I just wish John Barrowman spelled my name right!

Seriously, I don’t understand, I was just asking him “You are gay?” that’s not approving or disapproving. I don’t necessarily agree with defending myself but I’m happy to explain.

I would have said to a straight person auditioning for a gay role to strip away the straight and be more gay. It goes both ways. Everyone in the room signed a release and understood that their audition and any conversation could be captured, so everything in that room might be on Channel 4. It’s not like people were standing around in a semi-circle watching that interaction. I was having a quiet word with him away from the group but the cameras were there. He knew it and I knew it. Channel 4 has a legal team that reviewed all this material before it was broadcast.

Steven’s second performance was really good, and he would have had a really good chance. Unfortunately, by the time we cast the show, he had committed to another project.

I was surprised that people got so upset and took it so personally, but people don’t know me and my background. In January 2012, I was on the cover of Boyz magazine and I did three gay shows in a row. Almost my entire creative team is gay. I got this email from one of them who doesn’t want to be named so he doesn’t get drawn into this: “You, Amy Anzel, are about as homophobic as a rainbow.”

How was it patronising? I don’t understand that? How is asking someone if they’re gay patronising? Someone asked me yesterday “Are you Jewish?” and I said “Yes!” I wasn’t offended at all! Did the dancer feel offended? Ask him. Ask him on Twitter!”

Steven’s Twitter feed clearly shows he thinks it’s hilarious and did not feel at all patronised. He also suggests we start a #LoveMyGays hashtag!

My feeling is that we can safely put the upset to bed and look forward to Happy Days the Musical, safe in the knowledge that the producer really does love her gays. And this gay loves her right back.

The next episode of Sound of Musicals (featuring Cheryl Baker’s audition) is on Channel 4 tonight (Tuesday 26 November) at 9:00pm. Happy Days the Musical tours the UK from January 2014. Watch this space for an exciting Happy Days giveaway coming soon!
Oh, and the hair was at John Frieda.