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Simon and Garfunkel (sort of) head for Whitley Bay

Performer Dean Elliott talks about swapping Buddy Holly for Paul Simon as his show returns to the North East

ASHTON PHOTOGRAPHY The Simon and Garfunkel Story with Dean Elliott and Jonny Smart
The Simon and Garfunkel Story with Dean Elliott and Jonny Smart

The music of Simon and Garfunkel will be heard at the seaside this weekend, as DAVID WHETSTONE explains

It won’t be the real Simon and Garfunkel treading the boards in Whitley Bay this week but arguably, in The Simon and Garfunkel Story, you will get more for your money.

Dean Elliott, who devised the show and also plays one of the famous pair, says: “I wasn’t going to be Paul Simon. I’d decided I just fancied looking after the show and producing it.

“But I also wanted to be the music director because I love the music so much. Usually that job means sitting at a piano and playing some chords but because it’s guitar-led I listened closely to what Paul Simon was doing.

“He was the lead singer on 70% of the songs while Art Garfunkel did the harmonies. I ended up with a really good grasp of all Paul Simon’s guitar and vocal intricacies.

“The director said, ‘You sound like him and you can clearly act. Why don’t you do it?’”

Dean didn’t take too much persuading although he says: “I’m probably a bit too tall really. But that’s OK because the guy playing Art Garfunkel is also a bit too tall so we’re in proportion.”

There you go – more body for your buck! Instead of a Simon and Garfunkel standing about 5ft 5ins and 5ft 10ins (according to Dean’s estimation) you get a version that stands 5ft 8ins and 6ft.

The Simon and Garfunkel Story with Dean Elliott and Jonny Smart
The Simon and Garfunkel Story with Dean Elliott and Jonny Smart

Although because of the complex rules governing such matters, the pair don’t call themselves Simon and Garfunkel on stage.

In that sense, Dean explains, this show is more like Mamma Mia! (which has Abba songs but not Abba) than Buddy, a show which has the blessing of the late singer’s family.

In The Simon and Garfunkel Story you’ll get the songs, the story and the slightly-too-lanky lookalikes but it treads a fine line.

Dean is the show’s most assiduous promoter – along with almost everything else, it seems. So he’s best placed to explain how it came about.

“I was playing Buddy Holly in Buddy the musical for many years – a little while ago now but it was a great experience and it opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve always been a massive fan of music and stories. I love storytelling.

“I was going through my CD collection one afternoon. I’m a massive fan of Simon and Garfunkel – I’ve got all five albums – and I thought: do you know what? There’s enough music here to make a musical.

“I went back to my dressing room and was chatting to the guy I shared with and he said, ‘What’s their story? Didn’t they fall out? What happened?’ I thought that was a good starting point.

“Not many people really know what happened between them. I thought I’d do some research and what I found I thought would make a great story.”

Dean, who is speaking to me from his home in Malvern, Worcestershire, says: “This is not a tribute act. It’s a theatrical progress through their life and illustrious careers. We talk about the break up and their re-formation concert in 1981 in Central Park.

“They started at the end of the 1950s and finished in the 1970s and we thought: that covers the whole of the 1960s. We decided to fuse their story with the story of the ’60s, the high and lows.”

Dean agrees Simon and Garfunkel are rarely the first to spring to mind when you consider the ‘Swinging Sixties’.

“You think Beatles, Stones and maybe Janis Joplin but Simon and Garfunkel were very much part of that decade.

“The Graduate – the Mike Nicholls film with its Mrs Robinson theme song – was one of the biggest selling movies of the decade.”

In fact, the first four Simon and Garfunkel studio albums came out in the 1960s with the last, the Grammy-winning Bridge over Troubled Water, released in 1970.

So far it seems Dean’s faith in the enduring pulling power of Simon and Garfunkel has been vindicated. “We took two years to set the show up and we opened a year ago on tour. We’ve done over 100 performances and audiences are loving it.

“We’ve been to Newcastle and Durham and we’ve got a performance in the West End this month. We’re even looking to go overseas, South Africa and Canada. I’m really proud of my team.”

One important member of that team is Jonny Smart, from Birmingham, who joined the show straight out of drama school to play Art Garfunkel.

“We needed a great singer rather than a lookalike,” recalls Dean. “We auditioned hundreds of people.

“Jonny, who turned up with blond hair down to his shoulders, sang Bridge Over Troubled Water and was incredible. We said we’d love him to do the show and he said, ‘Do you want me to perm my hair?’”

Asked for his favourite Simon and Garfunkel song, Dean cites The Dangling Conversation and says (rightly) that I might not have heard of it. Released as a single in 1966, it barely rippled the charts.

Dean believes something happened in the news to overshadow it. “Paul thought it was going to be huge so he was disappointed. I think it’s one of their most beautiful songs. The words are poetry. Shortly afterwards Paul wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water which became his really iconic piece of writing.”

The real Art Garfunkel, aged 73 now, is appearing in Hall One at Sage Gateshead on September 23. An Intimate Evening with Art Garfunkel is likely to feature words and music. Paul Simon, meanwhile, is currently touring Australia with Sting.

For a taste of their heyday, head for Playhouse Whitley Bay on Friday where The Simon and Garfunkel Story starts at 7.30pm. Box office 0844 248 1588 or www.playhousewhitleybay.co.uk

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David Whetstone
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