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‘The Great British Bake Off’ as a musical? Now that takes the cake.

ByTeam BB

Apr 20, 2023

LONDON — The new West End musical version of “The Great British Bake Off” began to rise in director Rachel Kavanaugh’s own kitchen.

The musical’s producers — including Love Productions, owners of the madly popular television series in which everyday contestants rustle up strudels and rye buns and cherry jam roly-polys — tried several songwriters. But no one was able to nail the sensibility they were looking for — until, that is, composer Pippa Cleary and book writer Jake Brunger joined Kavanaugh in her kitchen.

Her kitchen, Kavanaugh explained recently in the royal lounge at the Noel Coward Theatre, is where she keeps her piano. And where Cleary and Brunger began three years ago to whip up the score for “The Great British Bake Off Musical” — now running at the Noel Coward — as if each note were a spot of strawberry jam being added to a Victoria sponge. (If you don’t know what that yummy dessert is, well, sorry for you, mate!)

“They literally get up, and Pippa will just start playing and Jake will start singing and they’ll sing a bit of a lyric and then they’ll sing a of bit something, something, something, and then they’ll do a bit more and they’ll record every little bit,” Kavanaugh recalled. “And they say, ‘Okay, give us two days,’ and then they’ll send me a voice memo of a song.”

Brunger, Cleary and Kavanaugh created a musical during the pandemic that sought to ride the apron strings of a beloved baking competition with global reach. Workshops followed, and now the Noel Coward, in the heart of London’s West End, is a kind of final test kitchen for “The Great British Bake Off Musical.” With a perky original song list including “Slap It Like That” and “The Perfect Petits Fours,” the production has a three-month engagement that ends May 13, after which the inevitable question will be: What’s the musical’s next challenge?

No one associated with the musical knows whether a show so right for pastry puns set to sharps and flats can be a hefty source of … dough. Still, they’re banking on the affection for the series egging on a flow of customers for the stage adaptation. More tribute show than parody, “The Great British Bake Off Musical” is gentle in tone, with characters more lovable than laughable. Only the show’s judges — patented takeoffs on the celebrity odd couple of Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood, played here by Haydn Gwynne and John Owen-Jones — come in for some cheeky ribbing.

“The Great British Bake Off Musical” is the latest in a long line of productions on both sides of the Atlantic that recast pop culture phenomena as stage musicals. Usually, the adapted material originates as a novel, or more often a movie, and runs the gamut from A (“A Bronx Tale”) to almost Z (“Young Frankenstein”). It’s a rampant facet of the field, although in recent decades the marketing dimension has evolved: Where once musicals sought to create titles that distinguished themselves from their sources — “My Fair Lady,” for example, from “Pygmalion,” or “Nine” from “8½,” or “A Little Night Music” from “Smiles of a Summer Night” — the trend today is to retain the original title. An easier sell, it is reasoned, at the box office.

If “The Great British Bake Off Musical” is any kind of pioneer, it’s by putting a score to a reality show competition.

“TV shows are rarely adapted,” Brunger said in a joint interview with Cleary. “What’s the critique online? There have been some snippy headlines. ‘Oh, they’ll make anything into musical, but what’s next? “The Apprentice: The Musical”’”?

Well, no. Or probably not. Oh, who can tell? In any event, the songwriters, who met as undergraduates at the University of Bristol and have written several musicals, including a well-received 2015 adaptation of “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾,” had to mix the right ingredients. Which meant not only mirroring the TV show’s cross-sections of contestants, but bearing in mind, too, that its producers were on the musical’s production team.

“There are moments where we do gently poke fun, but we still want at the core of it to be a proper musical, with heart,” Cleary said. “Where people kind of go, ‘Oh, my God, I wasn’t expecting to cry now.’ And of course, we’ve had the TV company involved the whole way through, so we have been able to have conversations about where is that line, or should we push it a bit?”

“You know, there are not many opportunities for new British writing teams in this country to get their work onto a main stage,” Brunger said. “And I think that marrying this, with the title of ‘Bake Off,’ has allowed us to put our voice on the work.”

A competition provides a ready-made framework for a story with a cliffhanger ending. “A Chorus Line,” the emblematic 1975 musical about dancers auditioning for the ensemble of a musical, was a template, Brunger said. In a way, the show is quirkily counterintuitive, turning a quintessentially British activity, such as making treacle tarts, into an excuse for Broadway-style song and dance. The fun of the television version, starting its 14th season on Britain’s Channel 4 later this year, is in watching 12 amateur bakers devote themselves so industriously to the agonizing difficulties of baking gingerbread to the proper texture and taste. (The program is known as “The Great British Baking Show” in the States.)

But you can’t bake a pie onstage in real time, so no, the actors don’t actually do it, although the program credits “set, costume and cake designer” Alice Power. For the sake of brevity, Brunger and Cleary reduced the entrants to eight, representing a spectrum of ages, personalities and demographics. Among them, an obnoxious Cambridge grad (played by Grace Mouat), a flirtatious grandmother (Claire Moore), an earnest young immigrant (Aharon Rayner) and an insecure backup contestant (Charlotte Wakefield) invited into the show’s famous tent after another baker fails to show. (The others are played by Damian Humbley, Cat Sandison, Michael Cahill and Jay Saighal.)

The comedy is inherent, onstage as on TV, in requiring folks from Chichester and Wembley to follow skeletal recipes for obscure Eastern European cheesecakes with unpronounceable names. Harder to execute well is a narrative that must compress the pace of contestant elimination. “How do you get rid of people without having the audience going, ‘Oh, God, we’re going to be stuck going through this every 10 minutes for a whole night?’” said Brunger.

To that end, the show, like “A Chorus Line,” digresses into the contestants’ personal lives. “The things about ‘Bake Off’ the TV show that I love are that it celebrates character,” said Kavanaugh. “It’s not satirical in any way. The people with all their eccentricities are upheld by the program. They’re not ridiculed like they are on some reality TV series.”

At the same time, the director noted, there’s something delightfully quaint about a musical in which it really is much ado about, um, just desserts.

“I also love the very British thing of, you know, a pie falling on the floor being the status of an international catastrophe,” she said. “You know, the stakes of the baking are so high, and the event is so small. And that, to me, feels like a wonderful juxtaposition for theater, for humor.”

The Great British Bake Off Musical, music by Pippa Cleary, book by Jake Brunger, lyrics by Cleary and Brunger. Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. Through May 13 at the Noel Coward Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, London.

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