At JFK airport waiting for my flight home and thought I would wrap up this American adventure with a quick blog about my experiences over the last few days. If I’m perfectly honest, my brain is practically empty but let’s see what it can manage.
The Festival began on Thursday, taking place over two full days during which the eight selected musicals were shown twice each. Each was cut down to forty five minutes and the cut had been approved by NAMT prior to casting. Most writers chose to do the same thing which was basically an abridged act one that would leave audiences wanting more, whilst giving a flavour of the storytelling, characters and style of the piece. I was lucky enough to catch all of the other performances except for Rob Rockiki’s Monstersongs because it was on at the same time as The Wicker Husband (fortunately it’s being performed at The Other Palace in London next week, so we’ll get to see it anyway. Also quick plug for Rob, please go, he’s just the loveliest man and such a talent).
It is always with mixed emotions that I see another writers work, especially when you are part of the same festival and all vying for the attention of a huge number of producers, venues and other industry folk who can potentially help you. There is a part of you that hopes that your piece gets as strong a response as others. It’s often harder (at first) to just sit back and enjoy the incredible work that is being shown to you, because there’s a part of you sitting in judgement. Fortunately the feeling of judgement quickly goes away when presented with work as varied and exciting as was on display at NAMT. The shows were all so markedly different that it was impossible to compare them really. Some were thrilling and bombastic, others were nuanced and delicate, some were otherworldly, some were very much based on real life.
It was utterly inspiring to see work of such high quality here, it made me want to work harder and be better but also made me feel very proud of the fact that The Wicker Husband was here and was part of it and that so many people were responding to the work in such a wonderful way.
I’ll tell you a little about how it worked… Rhys and I would go on stage at the start of our presentation and do a short ninety second introduction to the piece, then we would rush out into the audience to watch the piece from the stalls. Bearing in mind this is the first time I have stepped away from The Wicker Husband as a writer (I’ve always been playing guitar or doing something…) so that was a scary experience too. We'd then watch our incredible cast and band bring the whole thing to life. As soon as the showing had finished, whilst audience were still applauding Rhys and I had to rush out of the theatre and stand next to a small table out in the foyer which was full of information about our show including drop cards with our newly minted demos downloadable on them. There were email sign ups for people to write their details if they were interested in the show. After the first performance I was terrified as we waited by the table for the audience to start coming out. What if no one was interested? What if no one wanted to speak to us? We had been assured by NAMT staff that this would not be the case and as ever they were completely right. It was quite intense as people from all across the industry from Broadway and West End producers to University performing arts faculties lined up to shake our hands and talk to us, some hugged us and thanked us for the show, everyone wanted to know what happened in Act 2 and after about 20 minutes of spinning around, shaking hands, taking business cards and smiling most of the information on our table had disappeared. Ciera (The New Works Director at NAMT) came by after the crowd had disappeared and asked us to put any business cards we had received in a bag that she provided.
Needless to say, it was all pretty overwhelming, and ours was certainly not a unique experience as we could see after the other shows that there was plenty of enthusiasm for all the writers and their shows. It felt almost uniquely American, they wear their enthusiasm right out on their sleeve and are completely unashamed to tell you that they love your work. As a Kiwi and a Brit, I can certainly say that it was one of the most intense experiences of my career and I went to have lunch utterly exhausted.
From what I understand, Rhys was continually being stopped by people throughout the festival to tell him how much they had enjoyed the piece, my experience was somewhat different. I find such situations rather difficult, I tend to avoid eye contact and I suspect that I tend to put on a face which says “Please don’t talk to me.” It’s funny, I think I’m a natural extrovert but am not great at accepting praise and am not particularly good in huge groups of people. Large groups of 15-20, yes. Any more than that and I tend to hide away and get nervous. This is one of the things that I know I really need to work on, and I think I got better as the festival progressed and as suspected many people came up to me as well during the final party. Rhys couldn’t walk for more than a few meters without someone stopping him.
The second day was much of the same with similar enthusiasm for the piece together with a writers panel at the end of the day.
Then we were whisked away to a party, then an after party and then Rhys and I stayed out until 4am sitting in a small irish pub drinking and talking about the whole experience.
And now it’s all done. What happens next, who knows? NAMT will collate all the responses to the piece and let us know if people are interested and they will get back to us in the next couple of weeks. The whole event was just so immaculately organised by Ciera and the team at NAMT and we can’t thank them enough for having involved us in this years festival. Also a huge thanks to the British invasion that showed their support for us at the festival including Victoria Saxton, Andy Barnes, James Hadley, James Dacre, Lettie Graham, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Andy Chan, Stephen Greenhalgh, Mark Shenton, Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour. I’m sure there are other people that I’ve missed out, I hope they will forgive my completely dead brain if so.
That’s it fellows, I’m just about to board my plane and I’m looking forward to coming back to my lovely London and seeing you all soon. Maybe at Fanatical (the new musical by Matt Board opening very soon!). A massive thank you to our wonderful USA Wicker Family who brought the piece to life so wonderfully. Love you guys and couldn't have done it without you.
Tonight I am feeling all sorts of emotions.
Thus far only a few of your will know why. Regardless, it has prompted me to write a post whilst slightly inebriated. I hope you will forgive me for any in-articulence. To get you up to speed, a few weeks ago the president of the Fred Ebb Foundation (fellow who, with his mate John Kander wrote musicals such as Cabaret, Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys) called me whilst I was working at Trinity Laban. He told me that I was one of seven finalists for The Fred Ebb Musical Theatre Award (one of the most prestigious musical theatre awards in the world). He told me that my work was now being passed onto the finalists panel and I would find out by the end of the month about the result.
Now, the thing about this award is that it’s worth $60,000. The money is given to you to do with as you please. There are no conditions attached. It’s simply an award that recognises your potential as a writer and gives you some money to help you realise that potential.
I know that many of us writers live right on the breadline. Sometimes we wonder how the hell we are going to pay the rent for the next month. I know I certainly do. It’s not a comfortable existence. But shit man, if you want a comfortable existence you should be looking elsewhere. Anyway, when the opportunity for an award like this comes along you start to imagine another life, a life where the idea of security, children and family might be possible alongside your dream of writing musicals for a living. It’s literally a potentially life changing amount of money. And as much as you tell yourself that you aren’t going to win it, that you are only one of seven equally deserving finalists there is a tiny little sliver of hope, a little light shining there in the dark that can’t be dampened, the idea that maybe, just maybe all the things you have hoped and dreamed of might actually be possible. They might be literally waiting around the corner… “Could be… who knows…”
So it’s utterly crushing when you find out that you didn’t get it.
Isn’t it interesting that when someone wants to give you good news they call you on the phone, but when they have to give you bad news they send you an email.
This evening I was with Rhys and his lovely husband Josh when I received the news that I hadn’t won the award. I was glad not to be alone. I told them both immediately.
I think this is an important step.
Don’t get me wrong, I am the grateful recipient of a bunch of musical theatre awards which have been life changing and incredible and I will remain endlessly grateful for them to the end of my days. But you may not know that I have also (along with plenty of others) come pretty close to a bunch of awards that I did not get. Amongst them:
2 x finaliist for The Cameron Mackintosh Composer in Residence Award
1 x shortlist the Cameron Mackintosh Composer in Residence Award
1 x finalist for the Kevin Spacey Musical Theatre Award
1 x finalist for the Old Vic 12
1 x shortlist for the Old Vic 12
3 x finalist for the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award
What I’m saying is that whilst I’m very grateful for those wonderful wins, I’m also a bloody well-seasoned loser.
So what have I learned about how to handle being a loser?
First, tell someone. Anyone. And tell them quickly. Tell a stranger on the street if you have to. Because the sooner you tell someone, the sooner the reality of loss will sink in. And the sooner that happens, the sooner you’ll get over it. The sooner you get over it, the sooner you will get back to writing.
Next? Eat something. Preferably something sugary and with a cookie like consistency. I’m literally sat in Brooklyn right now, eating my way through an entire box of oatmeal and raisin cookies. I feel better already.
After that, feel bitter and sad, and outraged and all of the negative things. It’s alright to feel that way for a little while. Drown your sorrows in biscuits and beer and bitching.
But after that, maybe realise that the thing that you’ve lost was never bloody well yours to begin with. Although it may not feel like it (given your proximity to it), nothing has actually changed for you. No one has taken something from you. All that has occurred is that something that was never yours was not given to you.
And finally, just take a second to think…
When you win an award it is a wonderful feeling, there are so many incredible things that can come with it; gratification, personal fulfilment and satisfaction. These are all brilliant things.
But none of them really compare to the power of losing...
When you lose, something happens to you. An ember ignites. The spark of creation. Desire, want, hope, drive and ambition… these are the things that come of losing. It pushes you to be better, to work harder, to become greater, to show the world what you are made of.
It is not winning that makes a winner. It is losing.
Having said that, I'll still be blooming applying for every award I can find as I need the moolah innit!
Good night all. Tomorrow is the first presentation of The Wicker Husband at NAMT. Wish us luck!!
Yesterday we had band rehearsal for the first time with Douglas and Romano, both of whom are incredible instrumentalists. I’m so excited to have them on the team. They are both extraordinary players and despite my vastly inadequate scores, they managed to make things sound very exciting indeed.
We rehearsed this morning, once more with our wonderful cast who continued to impress us with their growing mastery of the Yorkshire accent and then obviously we went to the pub. Where we argued about lyrics for about 3/4 of an hour. All in a very happy, friendly fashion of course. We all remain the best of friends. And it turns out that arguments are about lyrics are extremely important. I’m not sure if you all realise this, but when someone questions one of my lyrics, Jasper Mountbatten III jumps out from the cocaine hole he’s been partying in and shouts a massive emphatic “NOOOOO!!!!” in everyone’s face. I’m afraid I have no control over Jasper. But after a couple of hours of him shouting “No!” at everything, he eventually gets bored and wanders off to find a high roller poker game, at which point I can have a reasonable response. I will share my reasonable response with my colleagues on Monday. I’m sure they’ll be relieved.
Charlie left for Connecticut and Rhys and I went to see A Star is Born at a cinema on 42nd street, but we are both so utterly New York that we had to leave halfway through the film in order to attend the NAMT writers cocktail drinks. We basically figured out what the end would be anyway… After the alien abduction of Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga goes on a wild bender and hooks up with Lee Scoresby from His Dark Materials. Whereupon they get married but have an open relationship involving Christian Slater and a mischievous sheep named Kevin Bacon. The sheep then disappears in mysterious circumstances after an intense scene in an Icelandic sauna house. The film ends with a duet between a singing towel and a flannel named Petunia Grapefruit. Sorry for spoiling it all for you guys.
The drinks were totally worth it. Because we got to meet all of these other fantastic writers, of seven other fantastic shows. So many lovely people together in a room. I obviously made sure that if anyone comes to London then they must get in touch so that they can be introduced to the new Musical Theatre crew over here. Obviously Rhys and I were the last ones left and were kindly offered plastic bags in which to insert the remainder of the food on offer. We promptly filled four bags with leftovers, grabbed a handful of chocolate and a donut for the road and said goodbye to our erstwhile hosts before they could stop us. We LOVE the NAMT folks.
Tonight, I discovered a fellow lover of Love Island this evening in Karin Nilo (NAMT producer extraordinaire). I very kindly ruined her future free time by introducing her to the wonders of Made in Chelsea. My apologies to all of her other friendship groups which I assume will come to hate her shortly after she becomes obsessed with those posh fools from England. It turns out Ciera (NAMT God) is a massive bake off fan.
Incidentally one of the folks I met was a lovely fellow called Rob Rockiki, who will have a show on at The Other Palace (called Monster Songs) in November. Please everybody go and see it. I’ll be there with bells on. It looks great.
Then Rhys and I tried to find somewhere to have a drink. We found a place and then proceeded to have a profound conversation. The conversation veered one way then another. Like a drunk careering down a midnight highway in deepest Kentucky. We talked about everything from the nature of talent and whether it can be taught. The result of this particular conversation was that we thought that talent in musical theatre writing came down to a combination of two particular factors. Empathy and Obsession. Or in other words you have to feel and you have to not give up. Everything else we figured could be taught. Song perspective, lyric and melodic craft. These can be learned.
We may be and probably are completely wrong.
Then we talked about relationships and how actually things really come down to how invested we are in another persons narrative. Rhys told me how excited he was about his husband’s life story. He wanted to know what was going to happen, he felt the pain and joy and excitement on the way. It made me think about relationships in a different way. We talked about how we become invested in the narrative of our friends life stories. Their successes and failures, their triumphs, their joys and sadnesses. We commit to them and we feel them like they were our own.
I hadn’t thought about relationships like that and it made me think once again that Rhys is a unique individual with a peculiar and wonderful outlook on life.
All of this comes with the caveat that I am writing this blog post while slightly inebriated on the A train on my way home. I’m fricking tired but I’m happy.
And I’ve got a two bags full of chicken skewers, satay, steak and tiny vegetarian pizzas to prove it.
I have also got no money.
Oh the life of a writer!
Because I am attempting to be a little bit less of an obnoxious prick, tweeting and face booking ALL the time. I’ve decided to condense my daily blogging into tri-daily blogs instead.
So when you last left me Timothy had appeared and started whispering at me. You’ll be glad to know that Timothy has once more been relegated to the bottom of a trunk, with a gag in his mouth.
On Saturday afternoon we had brunch with Adam Gwon (an extraordinary new composer & lyricist who wrote Ordinary Days and has won just about every award going). He has been part of NAMT three times previously and was able to give us the low down on what to expect. One of the best things he said about it was what comes about as being part of the NAMT community. Producers and venues can offer all different sorts of things. Some will be interested in your show, others will be interested in you as a writer, others still may not be interested in you at all, but that’s ok. I’m not fussed. I’m just glad to be here. I fan-boyed all over Adam a bit, having first heard his work 10 years ago when I was working on my first musical 'The Magic Stone of Saturnalia'. He was so generous with his time and knowledge and it was great to learn a bit about the New York new writing community. It seems that a bunch of them all work in studios in the same building. Isn’t that just fun? It confirms what I am now absolutely convinced is one of the cornerstones for a healthy new musical theatre scene in London. It is the community that counts. Support your fellow writers. Yes, absolutely feel like you want to break their legs, but go to their work, get drunk with them and then laugh about how envious you are of their talent. Trust me, it’s like well good fun innit.
On Sunday, I met Rhys for brunch and had a breakfast burrito, which (next to a street vendor hotdog) might just be the most delicious thing in the world and then I did bugger all for the rest of the day. I just stayed in the apartment and had a day off. I also forgot to do the laundry that I had intended to do for the last three days.
We had our first day of rehearsals on Monday where we met the cast for the first time. We aren’t allowed to release that news yet but all I can say is that they are all phenomenal and I’m still a little bit awe struck by the fact that these guys are in a rehearsal room on 8th Avenue singing some wicker tunes. It’s a far cry from the Rusty Bicycle in Oxford where Rhys first proposed the idea to me.
The best thing about it is the love that these once strangers seem to have for the work. It is a rehearsal room full of all sorts of joy. Full of smiles and enthusiasm. They know the songs and are already bringing a huge amount of character to their portrayals. Any worries that I may have had that this show might not connect with the American performers have been allayed. Questions have been asked such as:
“What does Diddely I-ten Day mean?”
My answer. “Nothing.”
I realised afterwards that I should have said, “Nothing, anything and everything.”
The second day of rehearsals was equally productive with the cast flying through the material at great speed under the steady guidance of our wonderful MD Eli Zoller. I can’t wait to hear it when the band start kicking off.
In total we’re allowed 20 hours of rehearsals, which is not a huge amount of time, but I feel like we are in good shape. We’ve had 8 hours so far, so only 12 left. But all the music has been learnt and the guys are sounding strong. It’s nice not being in control of the rehearsal schedule, it’s safely in the hands of Charlie, Eli and the NAMT team. I feel like I’m being spoilt. I have a lot to do and to think about but I don’t have to steer the musical ship. It’s brilliant. If there was ever a doubt about whether I preferred being a musical director or composer, those doubts have completely disappeared. Don’t get me wrong, writing is hard work, but then when the writing is nearly done, being in a rehearsal room listening to the work is just a bloody pleasure isn’t it? And I'm ever grateful to the brilliance of MD's.
Hi diddely dee, a composers life for me.
So after finishing our 2nd rehearsal we got in touch with George Stiles & Anthony Drewe who are over here rehearsing their workshop production of Becoming Nancy directed by Jerry Mitchell. For anyone considering applying to the Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award, I can confirm that it is most certainly the gift that just keeps on giving. We won the award for a year of mentorship in May 2016. It is now nearly 2 and a half years later and George and Ants and their wonderful life manager Lettie continue to be a driving force behind our musical and our careers. Providing unique opportunities wherever they can.
For example, today after we finished rehearsal we walked over to 42nd Street New Studios where they were rehearsing and we sat in on their rehearsals and had the pleasure of watching Jerry Mitchell stage a number from their show. There were some familiar faces including the incomparable Jenna Russell performing some incredible Abba moves to a fab new tune by George and Ants. It was also a pleasure to properly meet Elliot Davis, the book writer on the project and also one of the guest tutors on the BML composer & lyricist course.
I don’t think our paths properly crossed during my time in the 1st and 2nd year BML workshops but it was lovely to have a conversation (albeit whispered and out of earshot of Mr Mitchell) about it and how much BML has influenced my career. I continue to believe that it is one of the most important factors in any success that I’ve had in my career. Elliot was very pleased to hear that I now make my living as a writer of songs for the theatre. Again, anyone wanting to increase their skill in theatrical songwriting I can’t recommend BML enough. I can honestly say that I would not be where I am (literally rehearsing in New York with Broadway folks) without the skills that I learnt in BML.
We then went for dinner with George, Ants and Elliot chatting about all things and no things and everything in between. A lovely evening. That was Tuesday.
And now you find me on Wednesday, having finished a dialect coaching rehearsal and having worked with three of the performers on The Heart of the Weave. I am now back in my little apartment.
And today I think I achieved the most important thing that I have done since I arrived in NYC...
I succeeded at doing my laundry.
I feel proper New York now that I’ve washed all of my socks.
So… in true New York fashion, I woke up this morning and there was someone in bed next to me...
Have no fear! I am on Lothario! This someone was not a real person at all… it was one of my oldest acquaintances. His name is Timothy Hollowpants and he is the physical manifestation of my fear.
It’s funny that I haven’t introduced him to you all before, given that actually he’s the daddy of Derek (my depression), Jasper (my ego) and Colin (my envy). I guess I didn’t bother to introduce him because it feels like he’s always there. He doesn’t shout like Jasper, he doesn’t moan like Derek and he doesn’t have violent psychopathic tendencies like Colin.
He’s the quiet type.
If Jasper is a tall posh toff who wears cashmere and loafers and if Derek is a slightly hunched, small fat man who basically lives inside a grey tracksuit, if Colin is a small, violent, bestubbled Glaswegian… then Timothy is a different sort altogether.
He is a little boy. He’s thin and pale. Not particularly tall or small. He never ages and he never speaks, except in tiny whispers that no one else could ever be able to hear. But when he whispers I’m afraid that his arguments are quite compelling.
Jasper, Derek and Colin are still en route to New York, but of course, even though I didn’t notice him, Timothy got in to my carry on luggage and has been here with me (very quietly) the whole time.
But this morning, lying in bed in this beautiful Brooklyn apartment, Timothy started whispering…
I can’t be entirely sure what prompted Timothy’s whispers, but I suspect it might have been something to do with receiving the rehearsal schedule for the NAMT showcase this morning. Everything has been wonderfully organised by Charlie Westenra (Director) and Eli Zoller (Musical Director) in collaboration with NAMT. I guess, usually I’m quite involved in the arrangement of rehearsals for my shows because I’m usually the MD as well. In this case however, it had been left entirely in the capable hands of our directors. Wonderful but also scary.
Seeing the rehearsal schedule and the names of the leading men and ladies of Broadway who would be singing my songs next to certain time slots prompted Timothy to whisper the one thing that he knows will get me every time. He is a boy of very few words. Five words in fact.
You. Are. Not. Good. Enough.
It’s simple but effective and he knows it works magic on me. Over the years I’ve learnt ways of dealing with it. I’ve read all the self-help books, I’ve talked with all my friends endlessly about the nature of fear. As a result it no longer has the hold it once had over me, but Timothy knows that I’ll never be entirely free of him and he also knows precisely the moments when those words will have the greatest effect on me.
I know that right at this moment, some of the people reading this, my closest friends included will be saying “No bear! You are good enough. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t!” And I do believe them, I absolutely do. I know I have worked hard at my craft. I know the work is good. But the horrible contradictions of humanity mean that I also believe that none of that necessarily matters.
I have come to know that this feeling will pass, so I’m trying not to dwell upon it, but there’s no denying Timothy’s presence. After all, he’s standing by the radiator staring at me with big wide, frightened eyes.
So I am scared. But I am also excited and one thing that I have learnt is that fear has a purpose.
Fear breeds determination.
And that can only be a good thing. Now, stop staring at me Timothy.
I must go now as I've just heard a knock at the door and a shout "Bring on the cocaine and hookers baby! Let's get lashed NYC!!". Oh God, please no. Jasper Mountbatten III has arrived...