Spin-offs woo dreamboats generation

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The lights go down after the interval in Dreamboats and Petticoats, the live band strikes up again, and the London Playhouse audience jumps to its feet.

As the musicians rip into “At The Hop” and other smash hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the audience dances and sings along, in spite of the heat of a summer evening and, for some of them, their advancing years. The theatre is in the West End, but the audience has been transported back to the suburban hangouts of its teenage years.

Unusually, Dreamboats and Petticoats is a stage musical that grew out of a compilation CD. But the featured artists are old-school stars such as Neil Sedaka and Joe Brown, rather than today’s chart toppers. Universal Music’s UMTV division, which specialises in TV-advertised compilations, has discovered that Marty Wilde and Billy Fury can give Lady Gaga or Florence and the Machine a run for their money.

The show is an excursion in nostalgia aimed at people who are old enough to know a “dreamboat” is a heartthrob and who still buy CDs. The show has been seen by 1m theatregoers since 2007.

A one-off compilation CD has spawned a brand encompassing a touring musical, a glossy photo-archive magazine, talk of a film, and a slew of albums, now being launched round the world. It has also shown that a new audience is there, if reached in the right way.

The show was conceived after Brian Berg, known in the music business as “the king of the compilations”, had a surprise success with a Marty Wilde greatest hits set, that sold 80,000 copies in 2007. As president of Universal Music Enterprises, which includes UMTV, he investigated – and discovered a group of baby boomers who were being ignored. “We found that these people love the music they grew up with, [but] they couldn’t find it easily. If you were able to get to them with a carefully targeted package, via TV advertising, and a concept that appealed to them, and they could find it in a supermarket, they would buy into it, and big time,” he says.

Revenues from the Dreamboats and Petticoats brand have reached £60m, with £35m from the show.

Although the music industry has long been living off its back catalogue, the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era is often dismissed as a period of vapid pin-ups. But it did produce a wealth of hits – from Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” to Helen Shapiro’s “Walking Back To Happiness” – that have lived on in the collective pop memory. The first Dreamboats album was an instant success, and has sold some 800,000 copies.

As the Dreamboats and Petticoats series grew, Mr Berg asked two pals he first met nearly 50 years ago in a youth club – the veteran UK television comedy writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran – to write the show, which is produced by rock ’n’ roll devotee Bill Kenwright.

The plot culminates in a day trip to Southend – “the Ibiza of its day”, notes Mr Berg – and the script has some gently knowing gags. One character plans to “work really hard, pass my exams and become a banker. Everyone looks up to bankers.” The audience groans with delight.

Meanwhile, the magazine, sold exclusively by retailer W.H. Smith at a pricey £5.99 ($9,50, €7.20), is in its second print run, and a seasonal Dreamboats & Petticoats Summer Holidays, appeared in the compilation chart last month. In the US, a three-CD package launches this month, through UMGI, Universal’s international division.

Having found a way to appeal to the silver pound, Mr Berg insists the brand’s demographic is getting younger: “Kids are coming [to the show] with their parents or grandparents.” The cast now includes venerable vocalist Tony Christie, who last year led a Glastonbury crowd in a mass croon of “Is This The Way To Amarillo?”.

The appeal of the franchise, says Mr Berg, is its echo of seemingly more innocent times. He cites a moment in the show: “When the kid wants his dad to get him a guitar on the never-never, Dad says ‘We never do never-never in this house. If everyone went on the never-never, the country would go bankrupt.’”

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