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: