As An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical enjoys a run in Manchester the show’s writer Douglas Day Stewart talks about his enduring creation

What was your original inspiration when writing An Officer and a Gentleman?

I had essentially lived the story. I was required to serve in the military during the Vietnam War era and had a choice of being a soldier or a naval officer. I went to Officer Candidate School in Newport Rhode Island in 1962. I had a really tough drill instructor, and I dated a girl from the factories. So in later life when I was looking for rich subject matter for writing, I wanted to revisit my time in the military.

So is the character of Zack very similar to you?

To start with he was, but as I began writing the story I spoke to a friend of mind, a fellow writer and a guy with more life experience than me. He told me “nobody’s ever really dealt with the fact that the military is this melting pot for people of all background and classes” so I decided to do something more rough edge. So I took the character that was based on me and I began to rough him up. I put him on a motorcycle, I gave him tattoos and martial arts skills and that became Zack Mayo.

Did you know the film would be such a success?

It’s only looking back now that everyone has this misconception that the movie was coming out of this big Hollywood machine and was destined to be a hit, but that wasn’t it at all. It was a hard sell! I had recently done The Boy In The Plastic Bubble which was a big hit TV movie and The Blue Lagoon which had been well received so I dared to hope An Officer and a Gentleman would be the third in a string of successes, but I wasn’t sure how anyone would respond to it, particularly as it is so military focused.

What made you want to return to An Officer and a Gentleman and turn it into a musical production?

I think it was always my hope to do this with the film. I’ve always loved musicals since I was a little boy and saw West Side Story with my father. I kept thinking this was a wonderful story for musical theatre, it has elements of a real Cinderella love story. A working class love story that is so simple and uplifting, what better kind of tale to tell on stage?

What has the process been like?

I have been working at trying to realise a stage musical of this film for 15 years and I’m finally seeing it in the form I feel it is supposed to be in. An Officer and a Gentleman is a very small, personal story and for me. It didn’t need to be puffed up in any way; it doesn’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles to work. When I was first introduced to the director, Nikolai Foster, we both started talking about our love for theatre and our shared feeling that this story should be told in a kind of very real way. That’s the journey that has brought us to this point.

Was it tempting to change or update the story?

I think this is a story very much rooted in its time. It’s important to remember this is a love story set in the innocence of the early 80s. In all reality it probably couldn’t be the same story today as we live in a different time.

Why do you think audiences still love An Officer and a Gentleman, more than 30 years after its release?

I think what they hold on to is the working class dream. The idea that if you believe and work hard enough, that American promise that we hope is still valid. People want to believe that human beings can be transformed, and can transform themselves into winners. You see the excitement of the audiences when Zack comes into the factory at the end, and that excitement is still there now.

The original movie has some very iconic scenes; can audiences expect to see their favourite moments on stage?

Yes, absolutely! It was very important to Nikolai and I throughout this whole process that the original idea be respected. This production is the movie but taken into a whole new dimension through music. I love the way the music takes a moment and makes it transcend anything written in prose. The emotions of the movie are really powerful but just you wait and see what happens when you add music!

What can audiences expect, and why should they come and see the show?

I think that more so even than the early 80s we are living in a very difficult time and I believe that audiences are going to find that all those things they loved and dreamed about when they were young are still there, and they’re going to discover their hearts can be opened again.

An Office and a Gentleman, Manchester Opera House, until Saturday. details from