Saturday, 18 March 2017

HOW TO WRITE A HIT MUSICAL



What are the magic ingredients of Musical Theatre? Some cite the first five minutes of the Lion King, the innovation of Chess, the staging of Miss Saigon. Others maintain it's the familiarity of the numbers in the so-called Jukeboxers - Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You, Beautiful - that draws audiences in droves. Les Miserables and Wicked tick some boxes. Phantom's a favourite. Book of Mormon has done it for millions, but not for me. West Side Story, Singin' in the Rain, Cabaret, The Sound of Music and Oliver! are more my speed, pop pickers. Any minute now, let's hear it for La La Land on Broadway, homeward-bound for a theatre somewhere near you.
If there were a formula, they'd all be cackling on down to Coutts.
There is perhaps no more crucial component than the ten thousand hours. And perhaps no finer example of self-belief and indomitable endurance than the musical I saw last night.
Men Who March Away, which received its world premiere at St. Anne's church, Limehouse, was not only a masterclass in the art of never giving up on a dream, but also the magic in a nutshell. My friend Wendy Baker, Mrs Danny, holed it in one:
'The songs were amazing because they were all brand-new, but somehow sounded familiar,' she said. I couldn't have put it better.
It's the art of creating something that everyone thinks they've heard before. Something comfortable and resonant, that makes us consider a subject, an era, an aspect of the human condition, that we may not have paused to think about, hitherto - or not in any focused way.
Mike Batt wrote this musical twenty five years ago, when his The Hunting of the Snark left the West End after a brief run in 1991. He toyed with staging it, down all the years, but was always sidetracked by demands on his time and talent. He met Katie Melua in 2002, and gifted her 'the one' of the many best songs from Men Who March Away: 'The Closest Thing to Crazy'. That hit debut single catapulted her to a multi-million selling career. Mike joked last night that now everyone will think he just bunged the song into this 'new' musical to give it a hit. The irony.
It is, of course, a love story. Musicals essentially are. Its backdrop is war - in this case, the first and second world wars with the Spanish Civil in between. War's devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people, its power to throw human relationships into disarray, is handled both brutally and tenderly. We are conflicted throughout, by vulgarity and gentility, cruelty and compassion, love and loss. Every song resonates. Every note haunts. Every lyric is both blunt and poetic. No less could be expected of the composer who gave us 'The Phantom of the Opera' (written with Andrew Lloyd Webber), 'A Winter's Tale' (with Tim Rice), and 'Bright Eyes'.
In this one-night-only staging, Mike conducted the magnificent Docklands Sinfonia - the only symphony orchestra in the East End, which was founded by conductor Spencer Down. He is the grandson of a docker and trumpeter in the working men's clubs. It showcased not only the marvellous musicianship of these extraordinary youngsters, but the talents of rising stars Alice Frankham, Alex Southern and Oliver Bower. As a delicious taster for a planned touring production, it was an unforgettable start. On your marks, now, guys. They'd better be looking for a West End venue and backers this morning. Men Who March Away is the most musical of all musicals. Get it on, Mike Batt. I am so proud of you. Go, give Hamilton a run for it. I'll be cheering from my front-row seat.


2 comments:

  1. Mike Batt had no input in the composition of Phantom of the Opera, as far as I'm aware. He produced the original single and wrote some additional lyrics.

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    1. It may have escaped you that I refer to the song 'The Phantom of the Opera', here, as indeed I refer to the songs 'A Winter's Tale' and to 'Bright Eyes' in the same sentence. It is clear that I am not referencing the musical Phantom of the Opera. I differentiate between musicals and songs here by using single quotes to denote song titles. Mike produced, orchestrated and contributed lyrics to the original hit-single version of 'Phantom of the Opera'. I have not said that he composed the musical itself.

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