The beehive trailblazer

DUSTY, the new musical about the life and work of legendary singer Dusty Springfield, is a celebration of a unique artist that, for the first time, tells her story with the input of those who knew and loved her. The show draws on the memories of Vicki Wickham, Dusty's close friend and manager, as well as other key people from the life of one of Britain's most successful and most revered performers.

Vicki feels it's a fitting tribute to a strong, funny, consummate artist. “Audiences will come out surprised at what a life she had, the challenges she faced and how she overcame them,” says the woman who was working as an assistant producer on the TV show Ready Steady Go! when she first met Springfield in 1963. “All that, plus they'll have learned about Dusty’s lovability, her sense of humour and her extraordinary musical sense in choosing the right songs so that they were always very autobiographical for her.”

Written by Jonathan Harvey and directed by Maria Friedman, the show honours Dusty's musical legacy - a career spanning four decades with 16 UK chart hits and 20 in the US, including such classics as I Only Want To Be With You, I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, and the UK chart-topper, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me. The Sixties icon, known for her striking blonde bouffant and dramatic 'panda eye' mascara, was also a survivor who enjoyed a career resurgence in the late-Eighties by collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys.

And she was, as writer Jonathan Harvey marvels, a woman ahead of her time, introducing black artists to British audiences in her capacity as Ready Steady Go! host, endorsing the likes of The Temptations, The Supremes and Stevie Wonder on a special edition of the show broadcast in 1965. Harvey was also impressed to learn that the previous year Dusty had refused to play for segregated audiences in South Africa when promoters had ignored a 'no apartheid' clause in her contract.

“She was kept under house arrest in a hotel before she was escorted onto a plane, which is quite a massive thing to happen to a pop star,” says Harvey, who is best known for Beautiful Thing on stage and Gimme Gimme Gimme and Coronation Street on screen. When asked which key events in Springfield's life he felt should be covered in the script, he says: “It's about doing the research and thinking 'I didn't know that - that's amazing!' Her being deported from South Africa for refusing to play to a segregated audience – I didn't know about that before I started my research”. Harvey was also intrigued by how the London-born Mary O'Brien reinvented herself as a Transatlantic superstar, remarking: “When you see pictures of her when she was younger she had short red hair, glasses and a hockey stick and then she became the epitome of glamour. She knew that with the look she had she wouldn't become a big star, so she created a new persona.”

Then there's the music – a treasure trove of tracks to choose from, songs that are tried and tested,” says Harvey, who became a Dusty fan when he discovered her greatest hits album while at university. “So the challenge is choosing which ones to include and where. You don't want it to feel like you do a narrative scene, the show stops, she sings a song, then you move on to the next scene. As with any musical, the music has to feel organic and part of the action.”

Harvey has an esteemed collaborator in Maria Friedman, a three-time Olivier Award winner who came to fame as an interpreter of Stephen Sondheim songs and the acclaimed 2012 revival of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. Friedman recalls reading the DUSTY script and instantly knowing she wanted to direct it. “It's fantastically funny, which is a skill that is very rare, but also Jonathan has this big beating heart and compassion that runs all the way through it,” she says. “It's about friendship and other things, as well as music; it's about being a woman, being a trailblazer, an individual out of step and out of time with a voracious appetite for life and a real intelligence.”

Like Harvey, Friedman was intrigued to learn about Dusty's stance against apartheid, as well as the enormous success she'd had with the pop-folk trio The Springfields before deciding to go it alone. As a gay woman, Dusty couldn't have come out in the Sixties because “it would have completely stopped her career – and yet she had the courage to be with women”. All of which makes her the perfect subject for a show that isn't a jukebox musical but, as the director sums it up, is all about “a beautiful, spirited, extraordinary, courageous woman who lived her life fully”.

That life is covered from Dusty's first solo hit at age 24 in 1963 with I Only Want To Be With You through to her death from breast cancer in 1999.

Having struck up a firm friendship with the singer after meeting her on Ready Steady Go!, Vicki Wickham eventually became her manager when Dusty recorded What Have I Done to Deserve This? with the Pet Shop Boys and feels it's crucial she's portrayed warts and all in the show. “Her tale has to be honest and told with integrity,” says Wickham of a woman who was known for her perfectionism and temper tantrums as well as her loyalty and humour. “It’s vital we show her as an extraordinary person and I really do think people need to know her true story and how she overcame obstacles to become one of Britain’s greatest ever singers.”

Selected to play this most demanding of roles is Katherine Kingsley, a multiple Olivier and WhatsOnStage award nominee whose theatre credits include Piaf, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. “What makes this show so brilliant is that it's drawing out the inner-Dusty, who she really was – Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien –and the two characters who negotiated their life together to some degree," she says.

Asked how she's prepping to play such an iconic lady, Katherine replies: “I'm immersing myself in her world, listening to her singing, watching videos and interviews, reading biographies as well as looking at her mannerisms and working out how she moved. Once I have absorbed all of that, the job is throw it away and make the character my own.”

  • DUSTY will open with an exclusive tour to four venues, including Newcastle’s Theatre Royal (July 17-21)