How do you get commissioned to write a musical?
Since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opened at Southwark last week, I have had a few young/new composers asking me how I came to be involved in the show.
Quite simply this was a direct commission. Or in other words I was hired to write the music and co-write the lyrics for it. The production/show was not my idea. The producer (Jethro Compton) approached me and after talking about the project and doing a sample submission of one of the songs I was hired.
This implies another question… perhaps a more important one.
How did the producer come to know about me?
I’m afraid the old adage is extremely true. It’s all about who you know. If you want to be a professional in this industry then it’s very much time to stop pretending that your talent will shine through and you will be recognised and lifted up to the place where you belong. Yes, talent, skill and craft have a big part to play. BUT I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in the genesis of any commercially successful show, you can go back through all the interactions and find somewhere in there a little story about one person telling another about this show that they loved.
It would be very easy to think that this is unfair, that it is purely talent and ability that should be the ultimate decider in who and what is successful, and if our industry was called “SHOW”, I would very much be inclined to agree with you…
But it’s not.
It’s called “SHOW BUSINESS” and a business rises and falls not only on the quality of it’s product but the way in which that product is discovered by the general public.
So is it all about who you know? Or rather is it who knows about you?
For example, in this particular curious case… Last August/July I was going about minding my own business when I received an email rather out of the blue from a producer who I had come to know over the last couple of years. They had seen my work on These Trees Are Made of Blood at The Arcola as well as the showcase of The Wicker Husband at The Other Palace, had enjoyed my work very much and had said as much.
This producer, had recently been contacted by an old friend of hers from her earlier days producing. He wanted to produce a musical of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and set it in Cornwall with music influenced by the folk tradition. His original composer was no longer involved in the project and he was looking for a replacement at short notice. He had emailed his producer friends in the UK and asked if they had any recommendations for such a commission. Our mutual contact, having seen The Wicker Husband (which is, at it’s heart a folk musical), recommended that he get in touch with me and she did an email introduction for the two of us.
And that was that.
I met Jethro and we got on very well, I offered to write one song so he could see how we might work together (Interestingly that song did not make it into the final show). The show is now on at Southwark Playhouse.
The point is this:
If you want to be hit by a truck, you need to get yourself to the road. If you want to catch a train you have to get yourself to the station. This is not about selling out. This is about selling your work. Whether you like it or not, any success in show business means YOU have become a business yourself and you need to treat both yourself and your work in that manner.
In the shoe business, you make a shoe, great. Then you put that shoe out in front of people who can sell it for you. This doesn’t mean your family and friends. They are essential, they will lift you up when you’re down, make you feel better when you feel like shit, but what they won’t do is make your business successful.
Other people do that. Three types of people in particular:
1. MAVENS: These are people who are absolutely obsessive about their enthusiasms, for instance people who’ve read every single book about Sondheim or musicals, and talk about their obsessions in a passionate way to anyone who will listen, but usually only in a one-to-one session or in small groups with other obsessives.
2. CONNECTORS: We all know people like this… they are the social butterflies, they know everyone who is anyone, and anyone they don’t know they make it their business to find out about. They establish impossible connections with vast numbers of unrelated social groups. They are the hubs to which all roads lead. They will inevitably be one of your six degrees of separation.
3. SALESMEN: These folks can sell anything to anyone, they have business smarts, they have intense charisma which will charm the scales off a snake. They will make you feel as if you’ve never heard such a brilliant idea and they’ll make you feel as if you are missing out if you aren’t part of it. They are masters of FOMO.
So why are these people important… they are all important individually but it’s when you put them together that the magic starts to happen…
When a MAVEN talks to an interested CONNECTOR, the obsession and enthusiasm of the MAVEN disseminates to a huge array of disparate social groups, which in turn can be picked up by other connectors or Mavens. This is hugely useful but it’s when an interested CONNECTOR comes into contact with a SALESMAN that the magic happens. A CONNECTOR is like a scatter gun, pumping the bullets of your idea in a million different directions in the hope that a bullet will hit something. And you can only hope it’ll hit a SALESMAN…
So how do you become a known quantity?
I feel utterly ridiculous trying to answer this as I am hardly a known quantity in the industry myself, although I certainly am better known than I used to be. DOWN JASPER!!!!
But, I think one answer lies in becoming aware of the peculiar gifts of your friends. This does not mean you’re using them or taking advantage of them. In my group I have chatted with many of them about what sort of person they are, we’ve found it interesting to talk about and funny as well as informative. Some are obvious Mavens, other’s are clearly Connectors or Salesmen. Some are a combination of two, and there are even those rare folks who are all three. Have a beer and a chat with your friends and family, your colleagues and peers, talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Tell them why you’re interested. There’s nothing underhanded in it, it’s simply becoming aware of your social circles natural inclinations. Is there someone who is always out and about, always the social hub of any party, maybe they are a CONNECTOR? Is there someone who just loves talking about details, and is expert at the minutiae in a given field, maybe they are a MAVEN. Have you someone in your life who seems to be able to command attention just by walking into a room, that people are naturally drawn to and people really listen when they talk? Probably a SALESMAN.
It’s great to get to know a little but more about your mates, but what you might not have is connections to people in show business.
So how do you meet them? How do you become a KNOWN quantity?
Well, it’s all a matter of time, work and exposure. For one thing, write quality work. But once it’s written, don’t sit on it…
Get yourself along to open mic nights, scratch nights etc, events, talks, enter competitions. And make sure you don’t just stand in the corner. Get up, perform something, give people something to talk about. Get your work on, produce it yourself at first or with a collective, get it to a festival. Make it happen, this is how it starts. Get some training, get better at your craft, make sure the work that people are seeing is of the highest quality.
It’s all well and good going up to people at events and talking to them about your work… But it’s far better if they have seen something you’ve actually DONE rather than heard you talk about something you SAY you’ve done. When it comes to proving the quality of your work, talk is extremely cheap.
So, how do you get your first commission?
1. Get out there and make the work to start with.
2. Go to events in the industry and get your work seen/heard by people.
3. Repeat steps one and two approximately 1000 times.
Then people will start to find you, and one day you might find yourself receiving an email out of the blue from a seed that was planted years ago…
It’s been a little while away from Blog world, I haven’t seen a huge amount of Derek, Jasper and Colin lately which has been lovely. And I’ve been wondering why that is. Today I’m sitting down by the river in Putney having a little lunch by myself and thinking about life and how strange and wonderful it can be sometimes.
You may know that I’ve been working on a new musical called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which opens soon at Salisbury Playhouse before arriving in London at Southwark Playhouse on the 15th May. My theatrical work to date has wandered widely across a spectrum of genres and subjects, from the true life stories of Argentinean genocide and mass disappearances in Mexico to tales of a scarecrow’s wedding and the grumpiest boy in the world, to stories inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis and Alan Turing to stories of fairies, sprites and extraordinary spouses made entirely from Wicker. So when someone asks me what sort of work I make, for a long time I didn’t really know what to say…
Now I just say that I’m a storyteller.
And the stories I choose to tell are the ones that spark a little spark in my imagination and give my heart a little kick.
The spark will never be a bonfire at the very beginning. The kick will never be more than a little nudge, certainly a far cry from a coronary. For me that’s not the nature of things work. In all of the stories I’ve been privileged to tell, the excitement grows as the work grows. As you discover the story, the imagination begins to spark everywhere, the heart starts to thump deeply and by the time it finally comes to fruition on stage it has become an electrical thunderstorm in my head and a thumping march in my heart.
Such was the situation with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The show that we have made is unashamedly romantic in it’s nature. but interestingly I have never been particularly interested in telling purely romantic stories. By which I mean the principal driver of the show is the drama and conflict inherent in the romantic relationship between two (or more) beings.
I don’t think I’ve ever told a story where a romantic relationship is the real driver of the drama. It may strike some people as odd given that I have written shows entitled The Wicker Husband and The Scarecrows Wedding. But for me it has never been the love story that has drawn me to these stories…
When I think of The Wicker Husband I think of the struggle of self acceptance, when I think of The Scarecrows Wedding I think of grieving and loss and when I think of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button I think of time.
Time and what we do with it.
When I was first approached by Jethro Compton about being involved in the project, the thing which sparked that little spark for me was our perception of and relationship to ‘time’ and what that means for us as human beings.
For me, my interest in the story began as a philosophical enquiry, almost an intellectual exercise into the nature of time itself.
I would always hope that approaching stories in this way will hopefully lead to a deeper, more complex and human experience for the audience. After all, romantic relationships are only a part of our lives and they tend to reflect the deeper parts of ourselves that sometimes we’re afraid to look at.
So with Benjamin Button I began with the idea of Time… Whilst for Jethro Compton (my collaborator) it began with the idea of Home…
Coming at the story from these two different perspective has led me to a rather strange conclusion about writing collaborations…That starting on the same page is not necessarily always the best thing.
If Jethro and I had both started from the same point then I think the show would have suffered for it. As it is, the collaboration thrived upon those two different ideas slowly moving to a central point and influencing each other upon the way. I think this manner of collaboration can lead to a richer storytelling palette. As long as the nature of the collaboration remains generous and understanding then I think it’s probably extremely healthy to approach a story from different points of view. After all, that’s what our audiences will be doing. Reacting to the story based on their own unique personal experiences.
Now that I think about it, there are two particular songs in the show that dig at the heart of what the story is about for us.
One is called ‘Home’ and one is called ‘Time’.
These thoughts have come to me after spending a week down in Cornwall rehearsing with the company. Nights on the beach with fish and chips and curry, a bonfire under the stars and singing in Cornish around it. The things which one might think of as cliche, but as one of our astute company members pointed out.
“Yes, very cliche… but strangely enough, something I’ve never done.”
Sadly, our West End stages are currently dominated by American Imports, Juke Box musicals and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh juggernauts, with just 6% being written by UK musical theatre career writers…
So if you are planning on seeing a West End show, perhaps reconsider, come down to Southwark Playhouse and see a brand new UK musical set in Cornwall, performed by our extraordinary ensemble of actor musicians. It’s a fraction of the cost of a West End show and you’ll be right up close to the action.
If you would like to come and see it then click on the link below and support new UK musical theatre by writers who really care about the medium. It's on from the 15th May through to the 8th June.
If you are a twitter person please tweet about it. If you are an instagramer, please instagram.
If everyone who reads this blog brought along 5 friends then we will be able to sell the run out. Book your tickets below: