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Darren Clark: The Curious Case of Writing a New British Musical

The writing of a musical is indeed a curious business. I’ve been writing music & lyrics for the musical theatre professionally in London for just over seven years now, prior to that I wrote and played folk songs on the London & festival circuit for several years and prior to that I performed (with a limited character range) in countless musicals. All in all, musical theatre has been a part of my life since I first heard the cast recording of Les Miserables at the age of eight. Back then I thought that Lovely Ladies was just a nice song about pretty ladies hanging around in a park. 30 years later the perspective has changed somewhat but my love of musical theatre has only deepened.

When Jethro Compton approached me about eight months ago to see if we could potentially work together on this show, I was eager to meet him. I had heard of the story and Jethro’s position as somewhat of a polymath (producer, writer & director) meant one thing that was particularly exciting: Here was a fellow who could make things happen. Indeed, shortly after we had agreed to work on the project together he had a production scheduled to run at Southwark Playhouse in 2019. Jethro’s vision was to take the concept of the short story (a man who is born old and ages backwards) and run with it. To turn it into a romance set in the fishing communities of Cornwall, Jethro’s home.

Time was short, and to be honest, that is my preferred situation. I think it was Leonard Bernstein who said that in order to do something worthwhile you need a good idea and not enough time. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was indeed a good idea and we certainly did not have enough time.

What has happened since then has been a decidedly curious experience. The art of making a musical is mainly the art of collaboration. You can have all the talent in the world but if you can’t park your ego at the door then you really have no business making musical theatre. Beautifully written scenes must be demolished and turned into lyric and song, beautifully written songs must be ruthlessly cut and left bleeding and crying on the floor.

As we began to work on the show, Jethro’s first act (written prior to my coming on board) was almost entirely demolished as we waded into the story together to make sense of this most curious musical. The story changed shape, characters were defined, intentions clarified and lyrics cut and reworked. The song that arguably got me the job in the first place (I wrote a song as part of my pitch to do the show) was cut as it no longer felt like it was part of the musical language that we were creating. In essence, everything changed, everything except the question at the heart of the show:

“What do we do with the time that is given us?”

We continued to work and proceeded to entirely demolish the 2nd act. We have now begun the process of rebuilding everything brick by brick, word by word, page by page and are hopefully beginning to approach something that is stronger and richer.

You might be thinking that this is not the job of a songwriter… but a composer & lyricist for musical theatre cannot exist in isolation. You must become a dramaturg. If something doesn’t make sense, you must ask why and it is also your responsibility to enter into a dialogue with your collaborator on how a dramaturgical problem might be solved. You should challenge and provide solutions. Simultaneously, the book writer must be able to question every single lyrical and musical choice you make. If a moment doesn’t feel right, it must be discussed. If a song isn’t working, either defend it, change it or throw it out and write a new one. Debate will happen, discussion will happen, and hard choices will have to be made. But that is the complete joy that is the making of this most collaborative of theatrical arts.

It’s so exciting to be making a brand new British musical for the stage at the moment. People may not be aware, but there is a groundswell of new writing talent simmering under the surface of the UK’s musical theatre scene. The West End may be bringing in the big guns from Broadway to populate London’s commercial theatres but some bold independent producers, regional venues and the Off West End scene are at the heart of a revolution to support and nurture career musical theatre artists from the UK. If time, money and faith are given to those writers who are truly passionate about the art form then there is no reason why the UK can’t be making musical theatre work to rival the giants of Broadway…

To quote a number from the show:

“It’s all just a matter of time…”

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