Paul McCartney writes first musical, stage version of It's a Wonderful Life

Former Beatle is to write songs for Frank Capra’s ‘universal story’, working with Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot

He has written perhaps the greatest canon of pop music, collaborated with everyone from Elvis Costello to Rihanna, and even soundtracked a video game, but at 77, Paul McCartney is ticking off another career first: writing a musical.

His first stage musical is to be an adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, and will open late in 2020. McCartney will write music and lyrics for the project. Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot and screenwriter for the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman, is also writing lyrics, and the show’s book.

The musical was initiated by Bill Kenwright, the British theatre producer known for hit productions of Blood Brothers and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as well as recent West End shows such as Heathers: the Musical. Kenwright acquired the rights to It’s a Wonderful Life and approached McCartney – a fellow Liverpudlian – with the idea three years ago.

“Like many of these things, this all started with an email,” McCartney said. “Bill had asked if it was something I might be up for. Writing a musical is not something that had ever really appealed to me, but Bill and I met up with Lee Hall and had a chat and I found myself thinking this could be interesting and fun.”

A scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
‘Comedy, pathos and rare humanity’ … It’s a Wonderful Life. Photograph: Allstar/RKO/Sportsphoto

McCartney described It’s A Wonderful Life as “a universal story we can all relate to”. Capra’s film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a selfless but embattled man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve after he is framed for defrauding customers of the bank in his small American town. A guardian angel is dispatched from the heavens, and shows Bailey what the world would have been like without his lifetime of kind deeds, resulting in one of the most sentimental – and satisfying – endings in cinema.

The film was named the UK’s favourite Christmas film in two separate polls in 2018, by Radio Times and Odeon cinemas. Kenwright originally attempted to get the rights as a young man, but Capra turned him down in a handwritten letter.

Hall said It’s A Wonderful Life was his favourite film. “It has absolutely everything: comedy, pathos and a rare humanity which has touched generation after generation. Yet it just couldn’t be more relevant. To give it a life on the stage is an immense privilege, but to do it with Paul McCartney is off the scale. Paul’s wit, emotional honesty and melodic brilliance brings a whole new depth and breadth to the classic tale. I feel as if an angel must be looking after me.”

Kenwright, who worked with Hall to tour his 2007 play The Pitmen Painters, said working with McCartney was “a dream realised”, praising the musician’s “unique gift of melody and composition”.

Lee Hall.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life has absolutely everything’ … Lee Hall. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

McCartney already has form in writing seasonal hits – Wonderful Christmastime reached No 6 in 1979 in the UK, and he recorded his version of The Christmas Song, popularised by Nat King Cole, in 2012 – but hasn’t commented on the songs being written for It’s a Wonderful Life.

Kenwright has heard demo versions, and said they “exceeded expectations … The songs take you somewhere you don’t expect to go. They sound simple – but it’s deceptive. That’s Paul’s genius.”

While he still tours, playing solo songs as well as tracks by the Beatles and Wings, McCartney refuses mere nostalgia, and has steadily released new music over the past decade. In 2012, he performed live with the remaining members of Nirvana; in 2014, he collaborated with rapper Kanye West, and that year he also wrote a song for the video game Destiny.

On his most recent album, Egypt Station, in 2018, he collaborated with contemporary pop songwriters and producers Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder. It reached No 1 in the US – his first chart topper in the country for 36 years – and was described in the Guardian as “an affirmation of an enduring talent, the work of an artist who has no need to try and be anything other than what he is”.

He has dabbled in musical film, first starring in jukebox musical films with the Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour and the animated Yellow Submarine – which blended loose storylines with Beatles numbers.

In 1984, he wrote and starred as himself in Give My Regards to Broad Street, a film that paired new and old McCartney songs with a tale about a nefarious corporate takeover at a record company. It produced the hit single No More Lonely Nights, but the film itself was panned, with US critic Roger Ebert saying: “The usual thing is to see the movie and buy the soundtrack. With Give My Regards to Broad Street, I think you can safely skip the movie and proceed directly to the soundtrack.”


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical review – a powerful spirit
It’s the music that carries the emotional weight in this tale of love, loss and roots rock, starring the superb Arinzé Kene

Arifa Akbar

21, Oct, 2021 @12:22 PM

Article image
Why Paul McCartney’s It’s a Wonderful Life musical is going to be terrible | Stuart Jeffries
Past musicals have proved there are some things that just should not happen, says Stuart Jeffries

Stuart Jeffries

19, Jul, 2019 @9:05 AM

Article image
Poster service: It's a Wonderful Life

This year's credit crunch Christmas has an upside: it's made Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) required viewing. Luckily, the film has become a staple of holiday scheduling. Paul Rennie talks you through the story - and its backstory

Paul Rennie

24, Dec, 2008 @11:52 AM

Article image
It’s a Wonderful Life review – Capra's Christmas cracker shines anew
A crisis in housing, a racist ruling class and a struggle against a hideous ego-plutocrat who names everything after himself – this 1946 classic still resonates

Peter Bradshaw

14, Dec, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Band review – Take That musical is perfect alignment of pop and poignancy
Avoiding crowbarred hits in favour of an affecting story of intergenerational pop fandom, this clever jukebox musical is full of fun and intimate detail

Peter Robinson

27, Sep, 2017 @11:40 AM

Article image
It's a Wonderful Life tops favourite Christmas film poll
Frank Capra's 1946 classic starring James Stewart is voted the nation's favourite festive film … along with Die Hard

Ben Child

29, Nov, 2011 @12:49 PM

Article image
How to stop Taylor Swift from turning Cats: The Movie into a dog’s dinner
With a big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline musical under way, here’s how #MeToo, Zac Efron and DJ Khaled could make purrfect movie memories

Hannah Verdier

17, Aug, 2018 @11:55 AM

Article image
It's a Wonderful Life 'most inspirational film' ever

It is a story about depression and disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. And yet for all that, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life has just been voted the most inspirational film ever made.

Staff and agencies

15, Jun, 2006 @9:01 AM

Article image
Paul McCartney: a safe but satisfying Glastonbury headliner
Having long since embraced a Beatles-heavy set list, McCartney still has what it takes to send a crowd into rapturous singalongs

Alexis Petridis

18, Nov, 2019 @4:51 PM

Article image
Pedro Almodóvar says musical version of Women on the Verge is ‘wonderful’ | Mark Brown,
London show starring Tamsin Greig reworked after Broadway flop is ‘an incredible tribute to my country’, says Spanish filmmaker

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

11, Jan, 2015 @7:04 PM