There's something innocent about Garry Marshall when he talks about Happy Days, the 1950s teen-based sit-com he created forty years ago this year. This is fitting somehow for a writer, director and producer who himself came of age in a post World War Two era of rock and roll and high-school hops which he mythologised on a show that became a key part of a nostalgia boom that's never really gone away.
Initially piloted as a one-off episode of Love, American Style, Happy Days ran for 255 episodes between 1974 and 1985. The show's initial focus on Ron Howard's straight-laced good guy Ritchie Cunningham was soon upstaged by Henry Winkler's leather-jacketed tough guy Arthur 'The Fonz' Fonzarelli, who stole the show enough to become a household name.
Thirty years since the show ended, Happy Days – A New Musical opened in Glasgow last night as part of its UK tour in a production written by Marshall himself alongside Bugsy Malone composer, Paul Williams. Set around the time of Series 4 of the TV series, Happy Days – The Musical, which stars Ben Freeman, ex Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker and former Sugababe Heidi Range, focuses on Richie, Fonzie and the gang's attempts to save their regular hang-out, Arnold's malt shop, from a construction company's plans to turn it into a shopping mall.
This in itself speaks volumes about how much Marshall's creative heart still resides in a small town America unspoilt by the sort of commercialised landscapes that are now taken for granted in more recent teen-based television. It's this depiction of a simpler life too that Marshall sees as crucial to Happy Days' enduring appeal.
“Who would've thought we'd still be talking about it forty years later?” the 79-year old says, the morning after Happy Days – A New Musical's opening night, “but people seem to like nostalgia. Happy Days was always very positive. It's certainly not a reality show, but it was based on a lot of stuff. I grew up not too rich in the Bronx, and I was sick all the time, so I dreamt up a lot of stuff. The original request was to do something nostalgic that was set in the 1930s, but I grew up in the 50s, when there were nice days, no drugs and everything was kinda calm. How to make calm exciting was my job, but the first pilot for the show didn't sell. They said who needs the 50s, but then a wonderful film came out called American Graffiti, and everything changed.”
American Graffiti was future Star Wars director George Lucas' 1973 film about a group of teenagers coming of age in the early 1960s. Crucially, one of the cast was Ron Howard, who would go on to play Richie in Happy Days. A year later, Henry Winkler appeared in The Lords of Flatbush, a low-budget feature based around a group of teenagers in 1950s Brooklyn. Winkler's performance could be viewed as a harder-edged dry run for Happy Days, a template for Happy Days' more saccharine-based approach had already been set by Grease, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs' 1971 musical, which would go on to mirror the success of Happy Days in its seminal 1978 film version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.
For Marshall, the son of a tap dance teacher and an industrial film director whose career began as a joke writer for assorted comedians before going on to script The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show and a TV version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple , Happy Days was to lead to a big-screen career of his own. Marshall would go on to direct Pretty Woman, Frankie and Johnny, Runaway Bride and Princess Diaries.
Happy Days – A New Musical first appeared in 2007, although it had been in development for much longer.
“There were a lot of challenges,” Marshall admits, “and we had to keep doing it till we got it right. I have a theatre in Burbank in Los Angeles, so we work-shopped it there. I had different companies telling me different things, but I wanted the storyline to stay true to the spirit of the series.”
Beyond the stage musical, the legacy of Happy Days has left its considerable mark on the film and TV world, with the programme spawning no less than eight spin-off shows. While Laverne & Shirley featured Marshall's sister, Penny Marshall, Mork and Mindy made the then unknown Robin Williams a star. While Joanie Loves Chachi, Blansky's Beauties and Out of the Blue fared less well, animated versions of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork and Mindy kept the spirit of the three hit shows alive.
Happy Days is notable too for many of its cast going on to be directors. Ron Howard left the show in 1980 to concentrate on a career that has seen him direct more than thirty features, including Splash, Frost/Nixon and How the Grinch stole Christmas. As a producer too, Howard has made his mark, and most recently was executive producer of TV drama, Arrested Development.
Anson Williams, who played Potsie Webber in Happy Days, has directed a stream of TV shows, including Beverley Hills 90210, Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Charmed. Given the nature of much of both men's work, it's clear who their inspiration was.
“I learned in show-business that you've gotta do everything,” says Marshall. “Happy Days was a phenomenon that changed my life, and enabled me to do other things, so I would encourage everyone on the show to do the same. Five directors came out of that show, and Ron Howard went on to become one of the best film directors around.”
While in London, Marshall is clearly enjoying himself. After the first night of Happy Days, “We went to a party and stayed out late, which was nice,” while at the time of talking he was planning to see Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1960s-set musical about the Profumo scandal that presents an altogether more salacious image of the period that directly follows the Happy Days era.
“Now it would have to be done edgier, darker, more risque,” Marshall says of the TV show. “In the series, they wouldn't even let us use the word 'virgin', but we did our own issues. Richie had a motorcycle accident where if he hadn't been wearing a helmet he would've died. In the end, if a show is done well, then it works, and it doesn't matter if its edgy or innocent.
While Marshall expresses a desire to do a new show, “I don't know if I'd ever get something as good as Happy Days, but you gotta keep trying.”
Happy Days – A New Musical, King's Theatre, Glasgow, February 24th-March 1; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, May 5-10; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, May 12-17.
Garry Marshall – A life onscreen
Garry Marshall was born in the Bronx in New York in 1934, the son of a tap dance teacher and a director of industrial films.
Marshall became a joke writer for comedians such as Joey Bishop and Phil Foster, and became a writer for The Tonight Show with Jack Parr.
In 1961 Marshall moved to Hollywood, where he teamed up with writer Jerry Belson. Together the pair worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, The Joey Bishop Show and The Danny Thomas Show.
As creators and producers, Marshall and Belson's first series was a show called Hey Landlord, in 1966 and 1967. They then adapted Neil Simon's play, The Odd couple, for television, before creating Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy on his own.
Marshall directed his first film, Young Doctors in Love, in 1982, and scored a hit in 1984 with The Flamingo Kid. Since then, he has directed another fourteen features, including Pretty Woman, Frankie and Johnny and, in 2011, New Year's Eve.
Marshall has also appeared in numerous TV shows as an actor, most recently in Two and A Half Men.
This year Marshall was awarded the Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.
The Herald, February 25th 2014