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.