Madness Open "House"

Ska band's songs form the basis of new musical

With the London opening of Our House Monday night, New Wave ska veterans Madness officially transformed themselves from rockers to thespians. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen's Brian May -- no strangers to the medium themselves -- were among those on hand for curtain.

According to Madness singer Graham McPherson -- best known as Suggs -- the band has long wanted to put a production together. "We'd been thinking of doing a musical for about five or six years," he says. "We started a few ideas, which are still somewhere on the back of cigarette packets in North London pubs."

But it wasn't until the band connected with playwright and fan Tim Firth that the project started rolling. Our House follows the fortunes of Joe, a sixteen-year-old caught committing a petty crime to impress his girlfriend; he then has to decide whether to give himself up or run. After his split-second decision, the plot explores two parallel lines of consequence, similar to the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors.

With the West End -- London's equivalent to Broadway -- already hosting "We Will Rock You" (featuring music by Queen), "Taboo" (featuring music from the Eighties' New Romantic scene) and "Mamma Mia" (featuring the music of Abba) Madness worked hard to make theirs a fresh and compelling story. "We didn't want to do a biographical thing or a tribute to ourselves," explains Suggs. "Our songs have always been quite narrative, and in videos we always tried to inject some theatricality: 'Baggy Trousers,' being at school; 'My Girl,' having your first girlfriend, 'Our House,' in your house -- there you've got the basis of a kid growing up."

The band also wanted to avoid a simple greatest hits compilation, cherry-picked from its twenty-one Top Twenty U.K. hits. "It would have been easier to do a slap-and-tickle, here-comes-the-circus, Madness Cockney knees-up," Suggs says, "but with Tim being a Madness fan, we've got songs in the show which I'd even forgotten about."

There are also two new songs written especially for the main characters, something new for Suggs. "Having never written to order," he says, "that was a very enjoyable part of the process. The songs really arrived as naturally as possible out of a really good story, as opposed to the other way round."

However, Suggs maintains that Our House does not mean a full-fledged reunion of Madness, who broke up in 1986 but regrouped for various shows and to record the 1999 album Wonderful. "We fluttered with the idea of giving it a proper go again, but it's a strange vehicle, Madness," he explains. "It comes and go when it wants. The joy of playing and writing together is that we don't do it all the time. You get people like U2 who have five years off between albums, and maybe that's all we've really been doing. We've always been around each other and we all speak to each other all the time, so maybe we never really did split up and never really got back together -- who knows?"

Madness will tour England in December and they're planning to record another album. "It's still the very early days," Suggs says, "but we've been talking to people at Trojan [Records] about doing a pure ska-ish reggae album, a back-to-the-roots kind of thing."

And, according to Suggs, if Our House is a hit, the band may begin writing original material for another musical: "We've certainly got enough ideas."