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Interview: The Drifters Girl Arrives in Southampton

Direct from the West End, The Drifters Girl arrives at Mayflower Theatre this month, ahead of a tour of the UK and Ireland.

From the 12th-16th September, the show details the rise of The Drifters and the lady behind them that drove them to success.

From the highs of hit records to the lows of legal battles and personal tragedy, Faye Treadwell is the legendary manager of The Drifters who refused to give up on the group she loved. Thirty years, and hundreds of hit songs later, there is no doubt that Faye Treadwell was and always will be, The Drifters Girl.

Their songs are among the most famous and most loved in history, with the likes of Save The Last Dance For Me, Under The Boardwalk and Saturday Night At The Movies giving them huge hits on both sides of the Atlantic. They've sold more than 200 million singles and more than 100 million albums worldwide.

But before The Drifters Girl musical came along relatively little was known about the vocal group's history (since forming in 1953 they've featured 60 different vocalists) and talent manager, Faye Treadwell, along with her husband George helped turn them into a global phenomenon.

Having played at Newcastle's Theatre Royal in October 2021 before moving to the Garrick Theatre in London's West End, where it enjoyed packed houses and nightly standing ovations before concluding its run in the West End in October last year, the musical is now embarking on a UK and Ireland tour, with director Jonathan Church promising: "Audiences are in for a great time. It's a celebration of the music of The Drifters along with an incredibly rich, dramatic story.

"Faye was such a trailblazer and what I hope the show does is tell a story that a lot of people don't know with a lot of great music that they know really well."

"And the music is incorporated in ingenious ways. Most of the group numbers are done as performances, as The Drifters themselves would have performed them in concert or in the studio, whereas Faye's songs express what she's thinking or feeling.

"So, we've taken several musical forms and found our own unique way of blending music with storytelling," Jonathan notes.

The narrative behind such songs as Kissin' In The Back Row Of The Movies, Stand By Me and Come On Over To My Place intrigued producer Michael Harrison whose current productions include The Bodyguard, The Wizard of Oz, Crazy For You and Annie had heard all the hits.

"But I didn't know very much about the group or about Faye herself," he says.

"When I tracked down her daughter Tina I told her that I'd love to create a musical about The Drifters and she was the one who said: "If you're gonna tell the story of the group, you really wanna tell the story of my mother." 

He smiles. "I thought I'm sure you would say that; but then I heard Faye's story and realised that Tina was right."

Faye, who passed away in 2011, was there through the highs and the lows - from hit records and sell-out tours to legal battles and line-up changes.

When her husband George died in 1967, she bought out his partners and took over management of the group full time.

Like Jonathan, Michael sees her as a trailblazer: "She was a woman to begin with, which was hard enough in the music industry. She was African-American, which made it even harder. For me, one of the things that makes The Drifters Girl really special is that it's not just focused on the
men. Don't get me wrong, there are some explosive moments in the show which are about the boys, but at the heart of it is this extraordinary woman."

The show's book was written by Ed Curtis, with Tina Treadwell being consulted throughout the writing and development process.

"And even during previews she was very specific about certain things, like Faye's story arc and the way she spoke, Michael notes. None of us ever met Faye and we didn't know what kind of a personality she was, so we needed Tina to give us a little bit of that meat on the bone."

Michael approached Jonathan Church, who was also intrigued to learn about Faye Treadwell's role in the group's success: "Against the odds she became the leading – if not the only – black, female record promoter of the time and Michael thought that aspect of the story would appeal to me dramatically. What he didn't know is that, like a lot of people my age, I'd grown up watching The Drifters on Top of the Pops, so it was also delving into a little bit of my youth and teenage years."

The director didn't realise that Faye had relocated The Drifters to the UK in the early 1970s amidst litigation over the use of the band's name in the US as well as to tap into a new market.

"I had no idea about any of that side of the story. That the reason I was seeing them on Top of the Pops is that Faye decided: "I'm going to take the band to Britain and gave them another 20 years of hits."

The plan was to open The Drifters Girl in 2020 with Beverley Knight in the lead, then the Covid pandemic struck. But Michael was confident that he a hit on his hands. - Beverley attached herself to the show very early on, so when I went to West End theatre owners and said I've got Beverley Knight in a musical with the soundtrack of The Drifters" it was quite an easy sell. And when it opened the audiences were brilliant and we had people coming back again and again." The touring production will be the same as the West End version but with more of a get-up-and-dance finale. And Michael is excited for audiences to see Carly Mercedes Dyer as Faye Treadwell. We're really lucky to get her," he says of the Olivier Award nominee for Anything Goes. "You need a powerhouse vocalist in the role as well as a great actress, and Carly is both."

In the original production Matt Henry played Clyde McPhatter, who was among The Drifters founding members back in the early 1950s. For the tour he's the associate director, working in tandem with Jonathan Church in helping restage the show for regional theatres and rehearsing the
new cast.

Matt (an Olivier Award winner for Kinky Boots) was involved in the workshops and the development of The Drifters Girl. Like his fellow male leads, he played a variety of other roles, saying: "Normally you play one character continuously throughout the whole piece but this really pushes you as a performer. You're using all your skills as a dancer, actor and singer and you're changing into different characters on a dime."

He was fascinated by Faye's as "such a force within the music industry" and also by discovering songs that he knew from parties and weddings were by the group. "As we were putting the show together, and I realised, "Oh, that's a Drifters song; and "Wow, that's also a Drifters song."

Once it was up and running he was thrilled by audience reactions. "They loved it. I think it was very nostalgic for a lot of people, taking them back to happy times and happy memories. But they were also interested to learn more about the band. A lot of times at the stage door people would say things like "I didn't know they had so many singers over the years; and I didn't know Ben E. King and Clyde McPhatter were in the group."

As the show heads out on the road, Matt is confident theatregoers around the country will be equally nostalgic, entertained and intrigued. "They are guaranteed a great night out and I'm sure they'll enjoy the trip down memory lane. It's such a fun, exciting show and The Drifters are such an
iconic group. Their music is still so beloved "Jonathan Church agrees.

When asked what he sees as the ban's legacy, he marvels: "An extraordinary number of songs over many decades that when you hear them they bring a smile to your face or remind you of a certain moment. Their music has a real purity and it was about live performance, it wasn't about what you created in a studio. Then you think a number of band members, Ben E. King in particular, who went on to become great solo artists."

In 1988 The Drifters were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by none other than lifetime fan Billy Joel. "And I think the band is fully deserving of its place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," the director adds, "but I think the most extraordinary thing about them is Faye Treadwell's role in their success. With The Drifters Girl I'm glad to see her in the spotlight."

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