Setting off from Finsbury Park
Somehow I’ve found myself in a dream-come-true scenario. At the beginning of the year I entered a competition (in a spirit of why-not) and now here I am in an idyllic corner of South West France sipping Rosé with music theatre luminaries George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and about to embark on a week of untrammelled music theatre creativity, hosted by said luminaries, in this splendid setting. As my grandmother used to say, I’ve fallen with my bum in the butter.
As some of you may know I’m writing a Zombie Musical, having won the MTI Stiles and Drewe mentorship award in June, which means a year of support in creating a full-length musical to be shown in stages of work-in-progress and ultimately in a full rehearsed reading with a professional cast and MD in Spring 2018. I learned about the opportunity last year when I was working with last year’s winner Darren Clark on an education project for Mousetrap Theatre. Darren seemed a lovely and talented chap indeed and when I heard he’d won a prize I was jealous but not entirely surprised. I thought it would be only decent to show up at one of the “progress lab” performances of work in progress at the Jerwood space and what I saw there really fired me up (and stoked the fires of my jealousy): the 10 singers plus dulcimer-driven folk band that performed Darren and his collaborator Rhys Jennings’ work on their folk musical The Wicker Husband delivered something thrillingly fresh and potent. I found myself enthusing about it for weeks to all and sundry (including my general non-musical-theatre friends who obviously weren’t going to get that excited). It was wonderful to hear something of real quality that was hugely distinctive (a “folk musical” sounded in theory so wrong, but what they did sounded so right) and to feel that the audience of music theatre professionals and hopefuls who’d turned out to see it so much wanted it to succeed. It felt like we were really being shown something that could be part of a new future for the British musical.
Another part of my excitement was just to hear the power of the performance of those professional singers. I couldn’t help thinking “imagine if I could get some of my material delivered like that – how exciting that would be…”
Well, the vision clearly lit a bit of a fire in me and I found myself applying for the award myself, despite having only two months to go until the deadline and no collaborator to work with. A year back, a producer friend had suggested to me the idea of writing a Zombie Musical and I’d come up with a passable synopsis and a few fun songs based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “Herbert West: Reanimator”. Now I had to turn that into a full script and a complete set of songs – if I wanted to enter the competition and have the chance of having my show developed in this way.
I honestly had no expectation of getting anywhere in the competition. I just thought it was a worthwhile exercise (since I hadn’t been able to find a collaborator for the piece) to have a go at writing it myself and see what I learned from that. To my surprise, I got short-listed. Then I was asked to go and meet George and Anthony to discuss it further: somehow, I was down to the last few!
At that meeting, I laid my cards on the table. Although I’d had fun writing the material so far, I didn’t honestly think it would make sense for me to try and write Book, Music and Lyrics all alone: I would far rather involve another writer and would be open to them radically re-developing the story, as I didn’t feel it could work well in its current form.
Well, they clearly saw something they really liked in my work and respected my self-critical approach because they awarded me the prize and set me on my current course: Zombie Musical or die!
My first job was to either convince myself I could write the piece alone or find myself the right collaborator. It didn’t take me long to confirm my doubts about the former and so the collaborator hunt soon began in earnest. I won’t go into the lengthy process of emails, conversations and meetings that ensued, except to say that it wasn’t easy and that it took six weeks before I could get to the point of confidently signing someone up to share my Zombie Odyssey.
Quite unexpectedly, the person who turned out to be just who I needed was a very old friend indeed: Susanna Kleeman, a writer and old college friend with whom I’d last collaborated an unmentionable number of years ago on a bizarre and somewhat contentious musical called “Disgusting” that we took to the Edinburgh Fringe as university students.
As the weeks until our writing retreat with George and Ants in France slipped by, Susie and I got frantically writing. The story and characters shifted about, scenes and song ideas bubbled up and we started to find a shape that we liked. It looked as though just about all the songs I’d written up until now (some thirteen of them) would fall by the wayside, no longer fitting this newly developed story. But this didn’t worry me. I knew that the story had to come first. When that really started to settle, when the characters came alive and we knew what they wanted and what they feared, then new song possibilities would flow from that – and I would just have to write those new songs instead!
Anyway, today we left a humid, white-skied Stansted and dropped down into this heavenly bit of France, where our utterly charming hosts have made us as welcome as we could possibly hope to be. We are staying in a little Gite down in the village and have just been up the hill to Ants’ beautiful house for a dinner of goat’s cheese tart and blackberry crumble. After a good couple of hours of talk about village life and this and that, George turned the conversation to work: tomorrow we begin in earnest. Once Ants has picked up the croissants from town he’ll scoop us up from our Gite and take us back to his place where, over a fine bit of French breakfast, we will discuss our new synopsis. Questions will be asked. Opinions will be aired. Work will be done. Somehow, Susie and I have to turn a heap of delightfully silly ideas into a living, breathing musical that can delight and move an audience. With George and Anthony’s expert help we look forward to the challenge…