Well this is going to be a fun way to spend a fortnight I think as I sit and look around a circle packed with talented people from all sorts of theatre backgrounds, all here at Theatre Royal Stratford East to make innovative musical theatre. I’m here as a director on one of the projects and I get to spend the next two weeks with the writer Carl Miller and composer Chris Ash developing a show.
After a quick meet and greet we have an introductory session from the two course facilitators Fred Carl and Robert Lee. We are hugely fortunate to have this pair joining us from NYU Tisch School of Arts in New York. They talk about musical theatre with a passion, rigor, intelligence and seriousness that I find utterly addictive. There seems to be nothing they don’t know. I notice that very few people in England talk about musicals like this, instead they are often treated as lower forms of art. But here in this theatre for this fortnight, we are going to be making art and we are going to be challenged, provoked and supported.
Their pearls of wisdom include:
- This Yip Harburg quotation: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”
- The observation that musicals are a visceral form that use the power of music to make support the drama.
- That there aren’t rules when making musicals, but there are principals, ways of ensuring that it is engaging, and interesting.
- That in musicals, songs should have primacy of storytelling, that they will dictate the energy and content of the scene that contains them.
- That the music has content and isn’t just the vessel for the words.
- That the form of lyrics and the restrictions, patterns and rhymes is what gives them their power and ability to convey information in an interesting way.
- That form has power, you need a form to help communicate the content.
We then look at the opening of two very different musicals, Hamilton and 1776 and discussed at how these shows began, what they had in common and how they used drama, compression, exposition and relationships.
As the session concludes they leave the room with a major question. Why does your piece have to be a musical? And why must people sing?
I am left realising how incredible and varied a medium musical theatre can be, how flexible and robust, but that you need to pick your stories carefully.
We are here developing a rock musical about the Brontë siblings. A show that looks at a group of young people who were unemployable, unlovable and unconnected who had powerful imaginations and were longing for a way to connect. We are going to spend this fortnight working out why their passion and creativity, their longings and their anger is best expressed through song and what mechanisms and craft will help the story to be as clear and compelling as possible. We’ll get back to you, to let you know how it’s going.