One of my songs "My Wicker Man" from The Wicker Husband has been selected as one of twelve finalists for the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award this year at the Novello Theatre in London's West End. This is a competition that has been very kind to me in the past, winning the Runner Up Award last year and as a finalist in 2013. This week I was one of three composer/lyricists (the others being the wonderfully talented Tim Connor and Jen Wigmore) who were asked to do a short interview with Whatsonstage this week about writing new musical theatre. You can read the interview here:
Out of necessity my rather long original answers were cut down for the final version. But I thought I would post my original answers here for anyone who wants to have a read... enjoy.
1. What is your song about?
The song is from The Wicker Husband, a new musical based on a short story by Ursula Wills Jones. The story follows The Ugly Girl, who guts fish for a living and is treated as an outcast by her village. One day the villagers humiliate her at a local dance and, distraught, she runs to her only friend, a willow tree, where she sings about how life might be different for her if she had a husband. She learns through the show that this is not the answer to her problems. She must learn to love herself for who she is before she can truly accept the love of another.
2. How hard was it to write it?
I wouldn’t use ‘hard’ to describe the process I went through in writing this song. I’d definitely use the word ‘patient’ though. I wrote the first iteration of this song almost immediately after reading The Wicker Husband, two and a half years ago. It started off as a very naive piece of work because it was purely a strong emotional reaction to that moment in the story. As a consequence I came away with something very raw, but extremely unpolished and incoherent both musically and lyrically. The melody of the first two lines from that first version is all that remains in the current song. The lyrics went on a tremendous journey through several iterations. Endless conversations with script writer Rhys Jennings and Director/Dramaturg Charlotte Westenra gradually shaped the concept of the song.
It needed to accomplish one major thing: To open up a heart that is closed to the possibility and hope of love. Starting with the practical things a husband made of wicker could bring to her daily life (helping round the house and at work). Then she moves to the thought that he might become a companion and a friend (something she has never had before), then she starts to imagine a conversation with that friend, and her flight of fancy finally carries her over the threshold into imagining what it might be like to love someone and for that person to love her back.
It sounds simple enough, and it absolutely is if you follow the logical thought of the character. But too often I was seduced by rhymes and melodic structures that were nice but did not serve the story and led me away from the heart of the song. But I got there eventually!
I also feel like I’m not the only author of this song. Many brilliant performers have brought their own take on it through workshop performances. Some of their additions/mistakes have been incorporated into the score because they were better than what I had originally written. Anne Marie Piazza, Claire Marie Seddon, Laura Pitt Pulford and Ellie Pawsey all contributed in their own way to the song as it currently stands. And having had a quick rehearsal with Lauren Drew for the Sondheim Society Award, I know she’ll bring something new to it again.
3. What inspired you to write it?
The inspiration came from Ursula’s text. Although it was our idea that she sing a song to her only friend (the Willow Tree), Ursula’s economy with text is an absolute gift to a lyricist, whose ultimate goal must always be the clarity of the storytelling. The character of The Ugly Girl simply inspires such hope and desire in the reader that you can’t help but be moved by her simple wish for a husband. Everything sprung from that. As I say it wasn’t a hard job, in fact it was joyous! But it certainly was a long one.
4. What do you think makes a good musical theatre song?
I try to remember the following principles:
5. Are there enough new musicals in Britain at the moment?
Big question! There are plenty of incredibly talented musical theatre writers in Britain at the moment. So it should certainly follow that there be plenty of new musicals. Indeed, the London Fringe is buzzing with new musical work... but there is a huge lack of essential support from the West End commercial theatre sector which means that the work is not being exposed to the larger theatre-going audience.
There are some brilliant companies out there championing the work of new writers such as Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network, BML (Book, Music & Lyrics), Theatre Bench and Perfect Pitch. We are also lucky to have venues such as The Southwark Playhouse, The Arcola, The Park, Leicester Curve, The Nuffield, Watford Palace, The St James, Theatre Royal Stratford East and The Mercury who are willing to give much needed chances to up and coming writers and there are others such as Katy Lipson’s Page to Stage Festival and Iris Theatre, both doing important and vital work to give new writers an opportunity for their work to be seen. The Arts Council England Grants for the Arts Awards will also be familiar to many producers and makers of new musical theatre, providing funding for a lot of new work. But the process is extremely competitive and has only become more so with the gutting of arts funding by a short sighted government.
The fact remains that until the West End Commercial Sector steps up and opens its doors (and considerable resources) to the next generation of musical theatre writers, our industry will remain limited. In New York they have Off-Broadway producing houses such as The Public, willing to invest years of time in the development of a project and they then have an established path to Broadway. We need similar paths to be established in London in order to be able to compete with the quality of new work that abounds across the pond.
There are some fantastic awards out there such as the newly established Stiles & Drewe MTI Mentorship Award, the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Awardand the Kevin Spacey Foundation Artist of Choice Award and we have been very fortunate to be shortlisted for all of the above with The Wicker Husbandbut they remain the exception to the rule and, in order for there to be real growth in the sector, there must be real investment.
So in answer to your question... Yes, there are plenty of new musicals in Britain at the moment, but there must be greater investment in order to allow a proper incubation period so talented writers can develop their craft and their shows to their full potential. Then a dialogue must be established with the Commercial Sector to ensure that new writing is given the opportunity to be seen and heard by the public at large. That's my two cents!