So, why would you want to write a musical?
It sounds awfully cliche to say so, but I've loved musical theatre for as long as I can remember. My Dad is probably to blame - he would take me to rehearsals of the school productions he MD-d, and I would sit in absolute AWE watching these giant teenagers in costume parading about on an even bigger stage. I remember wearing a cowboy hat and dancing with a drama teacher at a student performance of Calamity Jane, and, later on,being so inspired by a production of My Fair Lady that I stole a copy of the libretto and staged a one-person performance of the first scene on our living room carpet. Later on, when I was a tiny bit older, my parents took me to an amateur production of Oliver on my birthday (especially memorable as Bill Sykes' dog almost peed on the orchestra). At home we watched Annie, Bugsy Malone, Joseph, even Jesus Christ Superstar on repeat. My first experience of a West End production was the original production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2002/3, and it blew my little mind. In my teens, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to see many more shows, and I spent every single Saturday afternoon for 6 years at county youth theatre being IN shows. I was proper hooked on this musical theatre thing.
I can't remember exactly when I started writing songs, but I think my first PROPER song came when I was about 10? The lyrics were:
"Yeah I've got a smile on my face,
All the while, all the way,
I've got a smiiiiiiiiile"
Basically, I'd very recently started learning the guitar, and I'd discovered that if I moved the D Major chord shape back and forth a few frets, the progression was vaguely exciting and sounded sort of like an actual song. Thankfully I kept practising - at both guitar and lyric writing - and by the end of my teens I had a collection of songs which weren't too bad. I even did a few gigs at one point (and I'm tremendously grateful to the group of friends who came out to each one).
Aside from musicals, I grew up on a musical diet of 70s/80s rock n pop, with Billy Joel and Queen as the main ingredients. I was OBSESSED with both of these artists and learned their entire back catalogues (I'm not even joking. I have a Mastermind-Level of knowledge about Queen), and I therefore credit them both with teaching me how to write *real* songs. They were also the reason that I stuck with learning the piano 'properly', which meant I actually ended up learning to quite like the piano, even if I'm no virtuoso. Is it any surprise that when I discovered the work of Jason Robert Brown at the age of 13, my worlds/loves of music theatre and rock/pop music collided, and I had the realisation that not all musicals had to sound 'traditional'? (Cue: discovering Rent, having several epiphanies etc etc etc)
A lot started going on in my personal life in my late teens, and slowly, the urge to write songs started to fizzle out. I recorded a single and an EP in a proper studio, but I wasn't really feeling it anymore. At 18 I'd started to run my own independent applied theatre projects, and so I focussed on making theatre and performance with others, and just let my music kick about in the background.
I can't believe it was only ACTUALLY a few years ago that I sat down and said "I think I want to write a proper musical now." For some reason, before that point, my theatre-making and my songwriting had felt like two different worlds, or two different hats that I couldn't wear at the same time without looking stupid. Then I realised, they're all about actually about the same thing, right?
Telling STORIES. Sharing EXPERIENCES. Making people FEEL STUFF.
...but basically about telling stories.
My songs were mini stories, my theatre-work explored real life stories. Writing a musical would get me to write a BIG story for the first time - something for the stage, but filled with actual songs.
I was into this thought! Until I sat down with the crisp first page of my new notebook and realised I had absolutely no idea where to start. I explored the internet, watching documentaries and interviews with Sondheim, Schwartz, Menken, ALW, JRB, hoping inspiration would come. I read blogs, watching videos of workshops...nothing. I needed an idea. A spark.
Now, on a slight tangent, you should know that I'm quite openly an active member of the LGBT+ community, and I've grown to become a tad annoyed that I don't always get to see people like my friends and I properly represented in new musicals. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty examples of ground-breaking and valuable work for the stage, and there is an increasing amount of work about same-gender love stories, for example - but, to be blunt, I wanted to see a show where the LGBT+ characters didn't die? I wanted a piece of theatre with trans people in it, but where it wasn't solely focussed on their transition. I wanted something that wasn't sensationalised. Now, often that kind of theatre is absolutely important and relevant a lot of the time - but I, personally, wanted to see a different kind of representation, too. I wanted to see non-binary folk. I wanted to see bisexual folk. I wanted to see stories that were written by LGBT+ (particularly trans) writers and had LGBT+ people actively involving in producing and telling these stories. I wanted to chuck stereotypes out of the window, and I wanted light-hearted tales and comedies as well as all the tragedies.
I wondered what would happen if I had a go at writing something like this. THIS is what gave me that idea - that spark.
Enter stage left: The idea for 'Steep Themselves in Night', a contemporary musical fairytale inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here's a rough synopsis:
“There’s plenty of drama happening in the enchanted forest. The Fairy Queen and her lover, the angsty half-fairy Majesty, have had some kind of argument, and she has disappeared. Majesty’s anger and emotional fog has caused, well, a literal fog, and Rufus, Bramble and Flutter, the loyal and royal fairy staff, are left to pick up the pieces.
Meanwhile in the mortal world, just a mile away, Dimitri loves Xander - but that’s rather illegal in The Old City. The pair plan to escape the evil state (and Dimitri’s father) via an elaborate getaway to The Other City, under the cover of a mysterious fog which overwhelms the nearby forest. However, the shortcut turns out to be longer than they expect – especially when Dimitri’s best friend Maria and adoring ex-fiancée Ella appear close behind them.
When the paths of the fairies and the mortals cross, all hell breaks loose – but our Narrator thinks it’s fairly decent material for a new story, even if fairytales are a bit overrated.”
(In a separate post, perhaps I'll explore the LGBT+ representation I've tried to aim for in more detail - but I can tell you for sure that there is at least one bisexual guy and one openly non-binary fairy in the story. Mainly, it's just about folk who have diverse sexualities and gender identities getting on with their lives and having a role in a silly little story. They may not be defined by their identity, but they sure as hell don't hide it.)
And so, I started writing. It took me about 18 months to get it into fairly decent shape. In October 2017, I pitched my idea at The Other Palace in London, and to my complete surprise they actually seemed interested! Their support has been incredible so far.
In March this year we hosted the first informal table reading in their studio with a phenomenal group of actors, and I came away with a) a list of rewrites, b) the understanding that Act 1 probably doesn't need to be 1 hr 40 mins, and c) the kind of warm fuzzy feelings that can only come from hearing your story come to life outside of your own head for the first time.
If I've learned anything so far, it's not just that musicals are very expensive and time-consuming...probably more importantly, I've learned musicals need to be collaborative. As a writer, you collaborate with your other writers. You collaborate with the characters you've created, you listen to their needs, thoughts, feelings and voices. You need to take feedback and support from the people in the industry who have done far more work than you have, and you need to understand you're not going to 'get it' straight away. You need to listen to your actors. You probably need to listen to your audiences, too...
You also REALLY need to listen to other musicals and other writers - last year I made a big deal of seeing at least one piece of theatre every single month, and nothing else was more inspirational in helping me get through each draft.
As I write this, I'm gradually preparing for Table Read No.2 in June. There aren't really any firm plans for what happens next - and even if nothing happens next, this whole thing has been a monumental learning experience. I've had quite the journey going from being the little kid sat watching Calamity Jane, absorbing every aspect of that good ol' traditional musical story for the first time, to being the adult sat in The Other Palace telling my own, very new, kind of story, for the first time.
In the words of Majesty in 'Steep', Here's To The Future...