Everybody’s Talking About Tom MacRae

There’s a certain joy and optimism that just exudes from writer Tom MacCrae. Chatting with him instantly feels chummy, as if you are sharing a drink in a pub with a longtime friend. It’s this same familiarity with a sense of hope for the future that has fueled the wildly popular Amazon film, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, based on the stage musical, based on the 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, featuring the real Jamie and his coming of age in the world of drag. The film was a welcome breath of fresh air and became a global sweetheart despite both the screen and stage versions being postponed during COVID.

With over 1,000 sold-out shows on the West End, and now with the success of the film, MacCrae (who penned the play, screenplay, and lyrics with co-writer Dan Gillespie Sells) has become the latest personality to join the ranks of Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals, and Greg Berlanti in telling LGBTQ stories with a dash of camp and a whole lot of heart. Tom is completely self-taught and received a BAFTA early on in his career, has written for Doctor Who, Comedy Central UK’s Threesome, and The Librarians. And now with a major hit on his hands and already working his next musical, how does he explain his success for someone who never took a writing class?

Not knowing what you’re doing is quite useful. I’m talking about creative industries specifically where if you can invent it with enough kind of imagination, you can make it become true. I think when you really do believe you know what you’re doing is probably when you’re going to start producing stale content. So, it’s good to keep testing yourself and kind of throwing yourself in at the deep end, and that’s all I’ve ever done. And if I’d done a writing course, I’d have left with that kind of piece of patriarchy or look, I’m a writer. Well, that would be very false confidence because you’re not a writer until you’re writing and you’re not a good writer until you’re writing good stuff. So, to never go in thinking that I deserve to be there, but that I had to earn my place with every job just kind of kept me keen and hungry. But a couple of years ago, me, Dan, and Johnny (who created Jamie) were made Doctors of the Arts by Sheffield Hallam University, which is where the Jamie stage version opened and where it’s set. So suddenly, we had this very formal day where we all got this kind of education we’ve never had and this fantastic qualification. So now I am qualified! Like, I’m a, literally a doctor. It’s come quite late in my career, ha!

Tom does not usually write about his own life, but rather focuses on other characters. But similarities to the real Jamie can be drawn. And perhaps these shared similarities are what have made the movie so relatable to other gay kids, and really anyone who feels like an outsider, from a small town. He wasn’t an introvert, he wasn’t that chatty kid in class, he was just … different. His coming out was not a Hollywood dream.

I just was kind of lost. I was in the wrong place. I grew up in a little village, which is a small town, but smaller, then even smaller than that. And I love it now, but it was not a nurturing place for a kid who wanted to make movies and theater and write songs and all this stuff I got to do. I was the odd one out and I never worked out how to fit in. And now, I fit in there very well. I think I’ve figured how to have different sides to my life. But as a kid, I just wanted to escape. That was all I was interested in. I didn’t care about school or anything. I wasn’t particularly academic. And I just was looking to run away, which to be fair, I’ve never stopped doing. I’m always running somewhere.

I was 17 and (coming out) sort of came out without me wanting it to. So, I had the kind of fallout of having never even kissed a boy. I didn’t think there were any gay kids, in hindsight. So, it was so hypothetical and suddenly I was having to kind of explain who I was, and I didn’t know. It was really kind of horrible, but it wasn’t so for very long. My mum and dad were pretty good. And then they were absolutely great. So now, I can sort of talk about it without any residual pain, but it was not fun at the time.

There is a part of the musical’s denouement during which Jamie’s best friend, Pritti, confronts Dean, the school bully. That moment and Tom’s perfectly crafted speech make for a powerfully touching highlight and is presented in the film exactly as it was in the stage version. That experience during filming would serve as a learning point for MacCrae.

Everything she says in that speech is me, at that age. It’s what I wish I could have said to the Deans in my life. I think two of them were called Dean, which is why I use the name. Something I really did learn when shooting the film, was how these 16, 17, 18-year-olds (most of them straight) who played our Year 11 responded to the content of Jamie and the queer issue, and the drag, and gender-bending and all that, and just how completely relaxed and open-minded they were about it all. These weren’t posh kids, these weren’t stage school kids, they were kids from the area we found by doing an open casting call. I realized, since I had been at school, just how much it’s all moved on. And then I got to go back to my old school to do like a speech day. I hated being there the first time around and going back this next time with all different staff and all different kids, I saw how much they really wanted to have an inclusive community at the school. They had a group for trans kids at the school and an active LGBT club. And the teachers were proactively kind of pushing that kind of conversation to be happening. And I thought, well, the world has all changed. I mean, it’s not perfect and this is only one small part of the world, but in the UK, it really has moved on a lot. And I’m happy that Jamie gets to become a part of that.

The music of Jamie, though modern, captures the charm of earlier feel-good musicals and does not alienate musical theatre lovers from any genre. A doer, Tom just jumped into the creative process of writing a musical for the first time with both feet. His songwriting partner, Dan Gillespie Sells, is a popular English singer-songwriter best known for his rock group The Feeling. Their friendship, and their work, was kismet.

We met at a rally. We were being political. I was with a friend of mine (Russell Tovey), and we all just really hit it off. So, we started hanging out and I was a really big fan of Dan’s band, and still am. He had been watching my sitcom Threesome, which was on TV at the time.  And so, we ended up hanging out and we’d go out and get drunk. I was quite excited because I’d never had a friend who was a pop star before and we’d say, “We should write a musical! We should write a musical. Yeah, we’ll write a musical!” And then one day Dan rang me whilst we were both sober and said, “Let’s actually do it.” So, we’ve been friends for a little bit before it happened, but our friendship has always been involved in some way with either talking about or writing a musical.

I did the lyrics and Dan did the music. Normally with his band, he did both. Normally, I would do neither. So, there was a point when we had to figure out how that worked, so we went to watch a lot of shows to research how others were working together. And, at one of those, we bumped into someone who ended up introducing us to (director) Jonathan Butterell, who’d seen the Jamie documentary, which inspired the stage show. That’s how that kind of all came together. I think that’s why it works is we just did it and it just came together. And now looking back, I could probably break down why it works. But at the time we were just like, if we’re having fun and we like it, then it’s probably okay. And luckily enough other people have the same kind of sensibilities which allowed us to find this huge audience, which we didn’t really know was an outlet.

Tom’s favorite part of the film?

It’s the new song, “This Was Me,” without a doubt because it’s so powerful and it’s also where Dan and I have our cameos with our parents dressed as drag nuns. It was the first shot of the first day of filming. It was a little cobbled sheet, which we were pretending was somewhere in London, but was literally just opposite the theater where we opened. So, it was kind of an amazing day of everything coming full circle. We had John McCrea, who was the original Jamie in the West End, playing young, Richard E. Grant in the flashback with Max (Harwood), who was now the movie version of Jamie, having his first day. And there we all were with me and Dan in these ridiculous heels, all done up, tottering along. And then the song is probably my favorite one of all the songs we’ve written. I think the moment is really powerful. It’s how we honor the fallen and it’s our kind of letter back to those times and those days, AIDS, the 80s, and London and drag, and the police and everything, and trying to kind of make sense of that for a modern audience.

Meeting the real Jamie and his mom was a bit surreal for MacRae, and the characters he and Dan had created for the musical, though unplanned, fit the real-life versions like a glove.

Well, we saw the documentary and I just watched it once because I didn’t want it to influence me too much. Although I absorbed way more than I realized. There is so much of it in the show. But we decided not to meet Jamie until we’d written it so that we didn’t have any competing version of Jamie New, who’s my fictional version, and Jamie Campbell, who’s the real boy. We met Jamie and we played him the songs and he knew this musical was in the works, but he didn’t know (even when we just had our two weeks at Sheffield) that it was a major production, with a band in a proper theater, with a proper budget, a cast of 30, and sets and costumes, and magic and all the rest of it. Jamie had no idea it was going to be all of that. And then we played him the songs, which we’d had all demoed up. He thought it was going to be the two of us at a piano crooning out some show tunes in the top floor of a pub. And instead, we had this lavish production and played all the songs. He found it very, very emotional as you might expect, particularly “He’s My Boy,” which is the big mother/son song.

And then we met his mother Margaret on the night before we opened the show. And it was amazing because she’d come out with these little sayings like, “what is normal anyway?” We looked at each other because they were literally lines from the show that I’d written, I’d made up. There were three or four times where she just said things that were almost word-for-word lines of dialogue that I’d given her character, from my imagination, in the show. And we said to her at the end of the night, “You’ll think that we’ve gone home and rewritten it when you see it tomorrow. But I promise you, everything is as it was before we met.” And Margaret always says to me, “You were in my head, you were in my head,” and somehow, yeah, we were. We have this very beautiful and quite strange relationship where it’s like I’m her mind reader. They are a wonderful family who loves the show, and we love them.

In addition to his film and screen work, MacRae has published three children’s books and will be writing the live action/CGI adaptation of MG Leonard’s Beetle Boy youth geared books. He is also knee-deep in writing a new musical but is sworn to secrecy. Now with theatre returning, Jamie’s global reach continues with a continued UK tour (with Bianca Del Rio playing the role of Loco Chanelle in Liverpool), Japanese, Australian, and Italian tours, and a Los Angeles debut in January at The Ahmanson.  The world is literally talking about Jamie.

Check out our in-depth podcast chat with Tom on Metrosource Minis, as we chat about his parents, sci-fi, reboots, and his take on current drag culture, available on metrosource.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Alexander Rodriguez

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