November 13, 2012 / 7:06 PM / in 8 years

Sixties icon Dusty Springfield subject of new stage musical

NEW YORK (Reuters) - She was a huge 1960s soul sensation, but Dusty Springfield’s personal life played more like something out of grand opera.

Actress Kirsten Holly Smith portrays singer Dusty Springfield in this publicity photo from the stage production "Forever Dusty" released to Reuters November 13, 2012. REUTERS/Thom Kaine/Handout

Now the British singer’s life story, from the elevating, catchy hit tunes to her struggles and heartaches, is about to play out on a New York stage.

“Forever Dusty,” which opens on Sunday at New World Stages off-Broadway after seven years’ gestation, is the brainchild of co-writer and star Kirsten Holly Smith, who plays Springfield.

“I want to honour this woman,” Smith said, reflecting on the extraordinary life of the singer with the dusky voice and blonde beehive hair-do. Springfield opposed apartheid in the mid-1960s, long before it became fashionable, and was a lesbian when the term was rarely uttered aloud.

“There would be no Madonna, Lady Gaga, without Dusty Springfield,” Smith told Reuters.

“She was truly a force of nature,” said Smith, describing Springfield as “this awkward, gangly, Catholic schoolgirl wearing thick eyeglasses who changed her name (from Mary O’Brien) and transformed herself to become this queen of the mods.”

“There’s also something about her voice and I was determined to find what that grit was, that soul.”

But she never expected it would take seven years - a period during which Smith, who is American, said she became “a huge fan, who became sort of obsessed with her.”

Living in Los Angeles, Smith wrote monologues and performed iconic hits from the Springfield songbook, which includes “I Only Want to Be With You” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” at open mike nights. She eventually secured a grant to put on the stage show.

“People responded to the material, to the story and to the music. I realized there’s something in this, so I kept going,” eventually moving to New York and working on the show four more years after mounting a version in Los Angeles called “Stay Forever.”

But given Springfield’s struggles with substance abuse and tempestuous relationships with women, “Forever Dusty” is no cotton-candy coloured jukebox musical bathed in warm nostalgia.

“We deal with a lot of the darker aspects,” such as Springfield’s time in a mental institution, she said.

“She had a really dark period and I don’t want to be abusive to her. It got really bad, and I don’t need to go there, but we absolutely do touch on things that happened.”

Smith said both Springfield’s famous and lesser-known songs drive the narrative, adding, “It’s not just a concert performance.” A central arc of the show is Springfield’s relationship with an African-American journalist.

Springfield, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and an icon of Britain’s Swinging Sixties, died of breast cancer in England in 1999 at age 59.

Reporting by Chris Michaud, editing by Jill Serjeant

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