I was just listening to Desert Island Discs and was inspired to make a list of my early influences. Unsurprisingly only one pair of musical theatre writers makes the list. The rest are artists of different genres that have all nevertheless contributed an enormous amount to my growth as a writer of musical theatre.
Yusuf Cat Stevens - Tea for the Tillerman
I listened to and played Cat Stevens entire catalogue over a period of my teenage years and through my early twenties. I was obsessed with the guitar work, the beautiful arrangements, the constantly searching lyrics and that voice. I used to try an imitate his voice. I thought I was doing a pretty good job until I eventually heard a recording of my voice. Stevens work is at the heart of my folk voice. Whilst I have written and performed in a multitude of styles from gypsy jazz, flamenco, heavy metal, pop, opera, classical, old school jazz and afro beat to country, dance, hip hop and reggae. I must say that folk music is the heartland of my musical soul. Stevens curiosity about life and philosophy captured in song is both entertaining and meaningful. Something which I am constantly trying to acheive in my own work.
I swam upon the devils lake
I'l never, never, never
I'll never make the same mistake.... (listen for the pause here, genius)
I'll never, never, never
Paul Simon - Graceland & Monday
Paul Simon's musical curiosity and diversity is extraordinary. From his early days with Art Garfunkel through to the Graceland Album, the Rhythm of the Saints and even an original musical, Simon has never been satisfied with sitting on his laurels. Arguably one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century he was constantly borrowing from other cultures and styles and yet always confidently putting his own spin on them. The result was some of the most unique music of modern times, both lyrically and musically. His lyrics tend towards the poetic, juxtaposing images conjuring a rich tapestry of life and all it's strangeness whilst also maintaining an emotional intimacy and powerful storytelling arc. Again, it is something I strive for as a storyteller. I think it's really Paul Simon who has influenced my metaphorical work. I mean seriously:
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Joni Mitchell - Blue
I started listening to Joni Mitchell in my mid twenties. I can't remember who introduced me to her but it was a revelatory moment. I quickly became obsessed with her work and life. Several of my early songs are direct responses to her own work and if you listen carefully you can hear the nods to her work throughout. I use her work when teaching songwriting because she is the absolute master of showing rather than telling. She can make you feel her loneliness without even going near the word "lonely", she can make you feel her obsession with using any word even associated with "obsession." To me this is masterclass songwriting. She makes the specific universal. It is a skill that in the pop mainstream has almost disappeared and is the poorer for it. When I'm teaching songwriting it is one of the first things I talk about. Anyone can say they are lonely. But only Joni Mitchell can say:
On the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue tv screen light
I drew a map of canada, oh canada
And sketched your face on it twice
Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice - Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat & Jesus Christ Superstar
One of the first albums I ever listened to. And I listened to it over and over again. One of the best things about this is Tim Rice's lyrics. The man is just very funny, extremely theatrical. It is not easy to write a joke in lyrics or make people laugh when they're expecting a rhyme but Tim Rice does this in spades. And Lloyd Webber's music compliments it perfectly, Certainly there is alot of pastiche being played with here but also you can hear the beginning of contemporary musical theatre. From which many writers of todays generation have drawn their influence. Always tuneful with masterful lyrics. Lloyd Webber and Rice were a brilliant combination. It's a shame that they were unable to continue their collaboration. I think from them I learned how important it was to have humour in my stories and how that humour can go hand in hand with the drama. In fact, you can't have Close Every Door to Me without Those Canaan Days. You can't have Gethsemane without Herods Song. There is only so much drama that an audience can withstand without having some release through laughter. It makes the drama all the more powerful.
Robert Schumann & Robert Schubert - Dichterliebe, Die Schone Mullerin & Die Wintereisse
When I first started learning classical singing officially from a teacher. I started listening to a singer called Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was the preeminent proponent of interpretation of the lied (german classical song) and I listened to every recording he made. Through his recordings I came to know the works of Schumann & Schubert (along with Brahms and Beethoven). In particular I became completely obsessed with the songcycles Dichterliebe, Die Schone Mullerin & Die Wintereisse. All settings of romantic german poetry. Both heartbreaking and tragic and yet full of hope and joy. The variation, the tunefulness, the utter drama and the height of human emotion conveyed in these settings is extraordinary. But for me the thing I took away the most was the importance of the arrangements. These were piano accompaniment but they never failed to capture every element of the world in which the song was taking place. If there was a river, it sounded like a river, if there was wind in the trees it sounded like wind in the trees. And the voice sat beautifully upon the top of all of this as just another addition to the world. Another thing I learnt from these guys is you've got to hold back your exciting moments. If your whole song is set in a higher register then there ain't no way that top G is going to be exciting. Hold back. Build them up. Make them wait.
Coldplay - Rush of Blood to the Head
It's the euphoria of coldplay that I love. I don't necessarily understand all of their lyrics but the pulsing rhythm and joy of the sound of their work is utterly compelling. And indeed would perhaps be lessened by actually being able to understand the lyric. I can lose myself in the simple pounding heartbeat of the rhythms and feel things that words cannot attain. I think that's one of the most important things that has influenced me. I sometimes get carried away with the clarity and perfection of a lyric. But it's important to remember that music on it's own can tell a fantastic story in the right context and sometimes it's just smart to let it do it's thing. Let an audience be overwhelmed by the sound of a moment. Give them time.
Metallica - The Black Album
At school, while I was listening to Cat Stevens I was also listening intently to Metallica's Black Album. It's the family friendly one. Nothing Else Matters, Enter Sandman etc. I don't know if you can really call it heavy heavy metal. But I loved it. I loved it so much I did a mathematical statistics project analysing the songs of metallica and comparing them with those of Eric Clapton. Again, the power of the sound was something extraordinary. The electric charge of the music. I learned to play all of their songs (much to my mother's irritation). They are the reason I got my first electric guitar. But what I took away from Metallica is the deep sense of drama and variation in their songs. The Dynamic range of their music is astonishing. Often starting with an almost acoustic sound before letting rip on the overdriven guitars and pounding drums. That sense of build and anticipation is something that every musical theatre writer should know about.
Queen - A Night at the Opera
Well, quite simply this is pop musical theatre isn't it. I would have loved to have heard an original musical by Queen. The sheer theatricality of their performance, lyrics and music. Each song was a mini musical in itself. Bohemian Rhapsody does exactly what it says on the tin. It's poetic, hilarious, beautiful both musically and lyrically and contains a huge amount of pathos, drama and humour and being held together with fantastic musical hooks. It's everything musical theatre should be and I only wish we had more of their work. From them I learnt about the theatre. What it is, what it can be and who it's for.
I call these influences because they were present in my earlier years, they are part of my musical DNA. Of course I'm inspired by many different musical artists and have huge respect for so many musical theatre writers but because I was not obsessed with them back in my early years they are not listed here.
There is clearly so much to learn from musical artists of other genres that contribute to the musical theatre art form and I am very grateful that such artists existed and still exist and are still making music.
Don't be ashamed of how you write. There are no wrong or right ways.
I drink Coke Zero whilst I'm writing, although I know it's bad for me.
I sit in a Wetherspoons to write although i profoundly disagree with it's politics.
I procrastinate as much as anyone else. But I mainly procrastinate by writing something other than the thing I'm meant to be writing.
I write alone. I write with other people. I write in the shower and on the toilet. I especially like to write on the train, it feels like stolen time. I write in bed sometimes if my guitar is nearby. I write before or after a shower. I write in rehearsal rooms and whilst walking down the street. I write while I'm walking and while I'm cycling. I write now, but most of all I write later. I write in the morning, afternoon or evening. Sometimes I don't write at all and that's ok. Sometimes I can't be arsed to write anything. And there is nothing that I would like to do less. Sometimes I write what I have to write, but most of the time I write what I want to write even if there is another deadline for another piece of writing looming round the corner. I try to find something I want to write in the things that I have to write. And then usually the things I have to write become the things I want to write.
I write for the pure pleasure of it and I also write to earn money. I write for my audience and for producers but I also write for myself. I write when I'm happy and when I'm sad. But I find it very difficult to write when I'm depressed or when I'm tired. So when I'm depressed I talk to my friends. And when I'm tired I try to go to sleep if I can. I write when I'm sick, although I'd rather not. I write as a means of expressing myself and as a means of understanding more about the world. I also write because I'd rather write than do anything else for a living. I write musicals, short stories, poetry, lyrics, music, songs and novels. I'm better at some of these things than others and I don't mind that. I write in quiet places and noisy places. I write in pubs and cafes, but I also write by rivers and in fields. Sometimes I research things before I start writing, sometimes I dive right in and research later. I write as a means of catharsis and as a way of leaving something behind. I write to inspire myself and to inform and inspire others. I write to leave a path through the wood although I know that the path I am leaving will likely never be followed by another writer. I write not so that others might follow my path but so that others will know that it's ok to make their own. I write to tell people what I've learnt but also to ask people for help. To ask what they know. I write with a cup of tea or without. I write when I'm hungry and when I'm frustrated. I write because I want things to change and I want to be a part of that change. I write because I have ideas. I write because I want to get better at writing.
Some writers have routines. Some writers are as wild as the wilderness. Some straddle the gate between the two.
All writers are writers. It doesn't matter how you do it.
The important thing is that you write.
LEARN HOW TO WRITE MUSICAL THEATRE (IN PRAISE OF BML!!)
It’s 8pm on a Monday evening. It’s a week to go before the show that I’ve been working on for almost seven years goes into production at the glorious Watermill Theatre in Newbury. I don’t think it’s really hit me. I’ve had several musicals produced and put on by amazing companies since I began writing The Wicker Husband all those years ago with Rhys Jennings, so it feels strange to say that this is technically my first musical. In the time it took for us (and our wonderful director Charlie Westenra) to write it and get it produced I have had approximately 30 other shows of various levels and lengths produced.
But today’s blog is not about The Wicker Husband, it’s about something that enabled me to write The Wicker Husband. Today’s post is about a little known organisation called BOOK, MUSIC & LYRICS or BML to it’s many close friends.
BML was founded by David James (himself a musical theatre book writer) originally from the across the pond.
In 2010 there was virtually no formal, practical training in musical theatre writing in the UK (beyond university courses). There was certainly nothing in the UK to rival the formidable BMI Workshops set up by Lehman Engel in New York whose alumni include such glitterati as Robert Lopez (Frozen, Avenue Q, Book of Mormon), Alan Menken & Howard Ashman (Every Disney Film), Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic), Michael John Lachiusa (The Wild Party, Giant), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline or Change, Shrek), Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Once on This Island).
Where were the great new shows being written by the great new musical theatre writers of the UK? Quite simply, besides Stiles & Drewe (who work tirelessly to further the work of new writers) there weren’t many. The majority of new musicals in the UK were being written by pop writers who were being offered the chance at high profile crossovers.
Why were there no great new musicals being brought to the West End or migrating to Broadway besides the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the productions of Cameron Mackintosh? The answer lies I think, in part due to a fundamental lack of training opportunities for new writers.
I can only imagine that David James had the same thought in 2010.
Before he founded BML in 2010, really the only opportunity for musical theatre training existed in New York at the Tisch School or at the Lehman Engel BMI Workshop. Neither of which were practical for the majority of UK writers.
I'd like to talk now briefly about my own experience with the idea of TRAINING...
In 2008 I wrote my first full length musical without training and without knowledge. I was in a blissful state of thinking I knew what I was doing. My work was widely praised and I was told that it would be no time at all before I was dominating the West End.
But because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I didn’t realise that my work could be better. In fact, I didn’t realise that my work NEEDED to be better.
It was fine, I had a certain level of talent, a decent sense of humour, some level of theatrical instinct and a curiosity about story…But what I didn’t really realise was that I was fumbling in the dark. And it was a darkness of my own making.
I had my eyes closed.
I didn’t realise that my work could be better because I was not really looking at it. Not with a critical eye. I was too full of the joy inherent in the act of creation and as such I was blind to the deficiencies in the work. In essence I was drunk on self praise and the praise of my friends.
Back then, I thought about musicals in a certain way. I thought about them in a way that I have learnt is not entirely uncommon amongst MT writers. I thought that writing a musical was a thing that could not be taught. I thought that writing a song could not be taught. I thought that my first attempt at a song would always be the best and could not be improved because it was emotion and instinct at its most raw. It was creativity completely uncensored and it was flowing in a pure stream of genius from my brain onto the page.
This is what I and (having conferred) many other writers experienced when we first discovered the joy of writing musicals.
As a result of this thinking, the very idea of training was beyond absurd.
After all, wow could you be taught the unteachable? And as a result of that thought I did not think to look for any musical theatre training. Because I thought that such a place could not exist, except in the minds of fools.
How wrong I was. How utterly, utterly, completely and ridiculously wrong. Jaw-droppingly wrong, breast-beatingly wrong. I was so wrong that I had dug right through wrong and come out the other side on Planet Incorrect. Then boarded a rocket and flown through the Skies of Error before landing in a distant place named "Even More Mistaken Land".
Anyways, you get the picture.
So what happened? What changed my mind changed?
Interestingly it was my selfish bid to gain some sort of profile in musical theatre that led in it’s own strange way to the beginning of my training.
My much hoped for West End transfer of my first musical with Charlotte Ive (The Magic Stone of Saturnalia - 2008 at the Putney Theatre Company - and unpaid amateur company show) was for some reason not happening. Thinking upon it now, I’m not entirely sure why this was so surprising to me, since I had simply no idea of what to do with it. I had no idea who to call, who to email, who to send things to, what I should say if they replied. In essence I knew absolutely nothing about the next steps of show business. So, I googled it.
“New musical theatre writing”.
Or something along those lines.
That google led me down a rabbit hole where I discovered two particular sites that would go on to utterly change my life.
One was MMD (Mercury Musical Developments) and the other was BML. I intend to do another blog later about MMD so I won’t go into that now as that blessed organisation deserves a blog all to itself. After all, MMD led me to submit a song to their Stiles & Drewe Prize, which eventually led to three years of songs in the finals of the competition, one runner up award and ultimately the winning of the MTI Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award which eventually led to the production of The Wicker Husband that is about to go into rehearsals next week.
It was BML, however that was the institution that changed the direction of my path as an artist. Over the four years of my regular attendance at it’s weekly workshops , BML would eventually come to challenge and change the majority of my deeply held beliefs about the creative process and musical theatre writing. If I was stumbling in the dark before, it was BML that grabbed hold of my eyelids and yanked them open.
Through the tutelage of hugely knowledgeable, award-winning writers such as Tim Sutton and Jason Carr, and incredibly gifted and experienced MD’s such as David Firman and Mark Warman, together with a regular influx of high profile West End musical theatre writers such as George Stiles, Anthony Drewe and Charles Hart amongst many others, my whole understanding of the great collaborative art of musical theatre grew and changed.
I learned how to write for character, how to write with appropriate language for character, how to create drama and tension through song and lyric, how to create a funny lyric, how to create a memorable hook, I learned how to collaborate, I learned how to take feedback, I learned that the first pass at a song is almost never the best. Essentially BML taught me how to write.
And then it taught me the greatest lesson that a writer can ever learn.
It taught me how to REwrite.
My peers on the course were brilliant. They learned with me, they taught me, they provoked me, they tested me, they competed with me and ultimately they got very very drunk with me. And after we all got very drunk they became my colleagues and friends who have supported and challenged me on this strange career path.
Many of those people are now award-winning writers themselves. All you have to do is look around at the new musicals that are happening Off West End, at the Fringe and in regional theatres over the country and I can almost guarantee that there will be a BML writer or alumnus somewhere in the team. One year I remember looking at the list of writers in the finals of the Stiles & Drewe song contest and it was almost wall to wall BML writers. And not because of favouritism (having now been a judge on the award I know that it’s done blind) but because BML writers have been taught well. They have been trained and they know what they’re doing.
Oh dear reader... I see the fear in your eyes! I know the thought running through your head! For it was the same thought that ran through mine. You’re scared aren’t you? You’re scared that a course that will train you how to write songs for the theatre will destroy your "Oh so original voice". It will mould you and shape you into a particular type of writer, and you, oh yes, YOU are an individual, who shall not be tamed. You are a wild beast, and woe be the hand that attempts to train you.
But oh, dear beast, my dear friend. You need not be frightened. For your fears are unfounded…
BML will not tame you. BML will unleash you.
You will not lose your original voice, that original voice will grow and become more confident having been fed with wisdom. I can happily say now, that several people have come up to me after shows and said “I could tell that was a Darren Clark song. It sounded like you.” Without training you are a fuzzy image of yourself. BML is the camera that will bring you and all your skills and talents into sharp focus so that your audiences can experience your theatrical skill at its best.
But! You say… What about all those pop stars who’ve written successful musicals without any training. If they can do it then so can I!
Fine, granted they may have had some success, they may have even written a good show or an excellent show. But I’m just saying, imagine if they had also had training…
And by the way, if you think that a good proportion of their success is not down to the brilliant collaborators they have (directors, dramaturge, producers, book writers) who have TRAINED then you are kidding yourself. And another proportion of their success is obviously down to their selling power as artists in popular music. If you can't have one you better make damn sure you have the other!
So, in short, I write this blog in praise of BML. It’s tutors, it’s alumni, it’s current members, it’s funders and most importantly it’s founder David James. Who had a vision for the future of new musicals in the UK and together with his amazing team has made it a reality. The landscape of new musical theatre in this country is shifting and BML is one of the drivers of that shift. More producers are taking a chance on unknown writers because those writers are becoming good at what they do thanks to the training they are receiving. This is what will ultimately lead to a whole new world of musical theatre in the UK.
Without the skills I learned in the workshop room I can guarantee you that The Wicker Husband would not be opening in March at The Watermill.
So, if you are a composer, lyricist or book writer, then do yourself and the future of British musical theatre a massive favour and apply to BML. Also, if you want to come and see some of the sort of work that BML producers make then come down to The Watermill and see The Wicker Husband for yourself.
To check out BML:
To book tickets to the Watermill:
Everyone knows the classic image:
A queen arrives in a carriage at a royal ball, it’s been raining outside, the carriage driver (obviously with great contempt for the aristocracy has exercised what little power he has and parked the carriage right next to a massive muddy puddle). The queen looks at the puddle and waits for a gallant knight with a strong jaw and shining Pantene locks to step forward and throw his cloak down into the mud for her to walk across, safe in the knowledge that her expensive footwear will remain mud free.
All appalling gender stereotypes aside, let’s have a look at it from the perspective of show creation…
The Queen is the story, all must bow before her, all must be given in service of her, for she is all powerful. The gallant knight is the writer, often on a fools errand, with less money than sense and ever seeking the way to his queen’s often changeable heart. Leaving the carriage driver aside (as the peasantry often are whilst they wait for the revolution) what is left?
In my mind there is one final key element in this moment. The cloak. The one thrown down in the muddy puddle, covered in stains, that allows the queen to pass over the grime and filth untouched and elegant, whilst the knight takes all the glory.
So who is the cloak in story terms?
Ever heard of a Dramaturg?
Unless you work in the industry not many people will have. But they should. It’s one of the most vital roles in story creation. The dramaturg is often the unsung (and underpaid) artist that can mean the difference between a gorgeous elegant story filled with meaning, humour and purpose and a pile of shit-stained first-class arsery.
So I write today in praise of the Dramaturg. And though I refer to myself as a composer & lyricist make no mistake, I am not being selfless, my role as a demanding and relentless dramaturg feeds deeply into every project that I become involved with. Just ask my collaborators.
What does the dramaturg do? It’s easily summed up in one sentence.
They interrogate the story.
They poke it, they squeeze it, they scratch it and identify the cracks when they appear. It is not necessarily the job of a dramaturg to supply the answer to a problem, indeed, if they do (and they are not also one of the writers) their solution will not necessarily be the final correct one. Their job is to identify the problems, the flaws in your writing, the moments where something doesn’t feel quite right. The role requires courage and sensitivity. You have to be able to speak your mind, but you have to do it in a way that recognises the pain and irritation that your words are likely to cause to the one whose work you are critiquing.
A good dramaturg will notice fundamental flaws in structure and moments of tiny detail that should be corrected, they will recognise inconsistency in character and laziness on the part of the writer. They will identify dead wood. They must be ruthless and demanding and the writer should be able to trust them.
In the world of musical theatre it is not enough to be a composer or a lyricist, or a book writer, or a director. You must also become an expert in the art of storyography. You must learn the essence of drama and comedy, of character and story structure. And you must learn how to articulate yourself in a way that it is possible for others to understand. You must try not be defensive (except I always am) and you must have the courage of your convictions (which sometimes I do). You must also have the belief that your critique is simply the beginning of a conversation, it is never the answer itself.
When a composer sets a song, it is the job of the lyricist and book writer to interrogate the setting. When a lyricist writes a lyric, the composer and book writer must do the same. It is often thought that a composer is purely the music guru.
For work to be dramatically strong I think that this is not the case.
A composer must be no less an expert in story than all of the words people. They are, after all, still a storyteller, they simply use a different canvas to paint on. And lyricists and book writers should not be afraid to critique music, if you feel like you don’t have the skill linguistically to talk about what you mean when it comes to music, educate yourself, talk to musicians. Make the time. It’s important. Make it your business to know and your work will be the better for it.
It’s one thing to read all the books in the world on how to write musicals. It’s an entirely different matter when working on an actual show. Musicals are unwieldy beasts, if you think you’ve figured them out I can tell you now… you’re wrong.
Every musical is different. It places different demands upon it’s writers. The biggest mistake you can make as a creator of musicals is to think that just because you’ve written forty musicals you know exactly how to write your forty first. Yes, of course you learn things, you figure stuff out and of course a person who has written 100 musicals is more likely to know what they’re doing than someone who is writing their first. But don’t be fooled. A show will attempt to trip you up at every turn and it is the assumption that you know exactly what you’re doing that will be the reason you fall.
Dramaturgy and story making is a matter of practice and time but it’s also a matter of humility. Think back to the cloak in my first little analogy. A cloak has no agenda, a cloak does not care if it is spattered in mud or soaking wet, there is no glory for the cloak. A cloak is simply a cloak. It is made for a simple purpose (in this case to prevent a queen from getting her feet wet). A dramaturg is simply a dramaturg. You will not be given credit for all of your brilliant feedback, thoughts and ideas. This is difficult to reconcile because we are human, but reconcile ourselves we must.
It is not that a dramaturg shouldn’t care about the work, that’s part of what makes them useful. It’s that they should not care too much for receiving credit for their part in the works success.
So, I write in praise of the dramaturg, I write in praise of all those writers, directors, actors and producers who are also skilled dramaturgs. Your work matters, more than any audience will ever know.
Avoid the narrative icey-berg
Become a decent dramaturg
Without this skill I surely think
Your story ship will surely sink
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be part of The Musical Theatre Dark Room. A new musical development programme run by China Plate, The Royal & Derngate, MMD and MTN. I was there as part of a project called On Hostile Ground, a new musical in development about the consequences of the Tory Government’s hostile environment policy which has had disastrous effects on the UK’s immigrant population. My collaborators (Juliet Gilkes Romero - book writer, Charlie Westenra - director/dramaturg and Mike Henry - Composer) were one of three projects selected for the Dark Room’s one week residency in Northampton and curated by two of New York’s musical theatre gurus (on the faculty at the famed Tisch School of the Arts) Fred Carl and Robert Lee.
Despite lots of lovely preparation emails and meetings with China Plate’s Rosie Kelly to discuss our project and it’s needs, I came up on the Monday morning train really not quite knowing what to expect, both from Fred and Carl and from my collaborators… You see this is a brand new collaboration team, we had only been in the same room once before for a meeting and had been working remotely since then so we weren’t entirely sure how the whole collaboration was going to work. I had worked with Charlie many times as we continue to develop The Wicker Husband together, and I had created a new piece of musical theatre for the RSC (The Day of the Living) with Juliet early in 2018, but I had never worked with Michael the composer before.
“What? Composer?” You say. “I thought you were a composer & lyricist.”
Well, dear reader, yes indeed, you would be right, I am such a one, but on this occasion I am only responsible for the lyrics. This will be my first full length project as solely lyricist. Was my ego bruised a little when I was asked to only do the lyrics? You might think so. But if it was, it was actually only for a tiny moment. What it actually did was give me a bit of a boost of confidence for my lyric writing. And I immediately was infused with a sense of freedom.
“Good Lord” I thought to myself, “This means I just get to write words without worrying about music right?”
And it was made all the better by working with Mike Henry whose approach to composing and indeed style and musical background was so vastly different from my own. Michael writes music I could never write, infused with Jazz and classical influences as well as wicked beats. And as such I find myself concerned only with the drama of the words, safe in the knowledge that Michael will do something unexpected and wonderful with it. I won’t lie. I have rhythms in my head when I write the lyrics, sometimes even tunes. But I have kept these entirely to myself throughout the process and every time Mike has set them in a way that I would never have thought of (apart from a couple of pleasing mini moments that he set exactly as I had imagined. Good laughs.) Needless to say it’s very exciting.
Aside from learning about MT from our New York gurus, we’ve spent the week learning how to collaborate with each other, as you will have noticed from my other blogs one of the greatest skills you can learn when it comes to creating musical theatre is how to collaborate. For some writers, they only write with one or two other people. And for good reason. When you find a writing partner that you can make good work with, you hold on to them for dear life. Fortunately for me, I have a few of these now, and each relationship is special, unique and completely unlike the others. With each one I learn something new about the art of communication. It’s different with every team.
So back to the actual substance of the week…
We applied as a foursome to be part of the Musical Theatre Dark Room and were fortunate enough, along with two other writing teams to be selected for the residency. We spent a full week up at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, our travel expenses, per diems and a writing stipend were all paid for. It was great to have the financial needs of writers recognised in this process. The residency put us up in lovely nearby apartments just a five minute walk from the venue, which after a couple of weeks of four hour rehearsal commutes was a welcome change. In the mornings we would gather in the foyer for conversation that (for me at least) ranged from lunch to the economic reality of being a creative in the UK, to in fact the very nature in which we as creatives relate to money and economics. Then we would have a three hour session led by Fred and Robert that looked at a different aspect of musical building every day as they related to the particular shows that we were all making. Day one was “Character and Appetite”, Day two was “Community and Environment”, Day three was “World Building” and Day four was “Score concept”.
The sessions all involved looking at key songs and musicals and deconstructing them with that the particular thereof the day in mind.
I’m not going to go through in detail what was said, instead I’m just going to sum up the key points that I took away from each session:
2. Community and Environment
3. World Building
PLEASE NOTE: By Day 4 my brain was completely overloading with information and my understanding of things began to get a little incoherent… therefore I can’t really remember what was said in Day 4’s session. Sorry about that!
The afternoons of each day of the week were writing time and we would sometimes be in a room together talking about what we wanted to do and other times we'd all disappear into the various nooks and crannies of the Royal & Derngate... I'd be somewhere writing a lyric, Charlie would be researching, Juliet would be writing a scene and Mike would be writing out music. Then we'd all come back together, mash it up and see what we had. It was thrilling to hear the work people were doing and how it might all speak together to make this piece of musical theatre.
The final day unfortunately I can't talk about because I wasn't there as I had to open a show in London. But I'm told there was a sharing of everyone's work which was utterly inspiring.
One of the biggest takeaways of the week for me was to trust your own process in building a musical.
There are many ways to do it and each is valid if it works for you. The most important thing however is that music is one hell of a wayward beast and it will take you in directions that you would never expect…
So sitting down and planning out a musical without making any music as part of that plan might be a costly adventure in terms of time. This is obviously not the case for everyone. But certainly for me, I will be letting the music take me a little way into the forest before I start cutting out a path. After all, it’s the unexpected that makes life a joy and if everything is planned out before you even begin… well…
Where’s the fun in that?
It just remains for me to thank China Plate, The Royal & Derngate, Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network and Fred Carl and Robert Lee from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York for giving us all an extraordinary week of insight. I'd also like to thank the fellow participants on the course. Thank you for making the week so interesting and inspiring, for the drinks, for the conversations, for the fellowship.
I've talked alot about how important community is in the building of a career. And now, the participants of the Dark Room have a Whatsapp group. Welcome to the future!