Each week, Stage Door Live’s Associate Producer Janice de Bróithe takes a look at theatre Beyond The Pale.
This week, I am taking a journey of a slightly different kind dear readers. Rather than my usual wandering around the Irish countryside, I’m actually moving backwards to a time when we weren’t seized with panic by an outstretched hand, when hugging was barely a second thought and, most importantly, theatres were open, fully functional and we were all allowed in to do our jobs. I am, of course, talking about the distant utopia that was 2019.
A moment of context: this week on Stage Door Live we are focussing on Irish Born Musical Theatre. Musical theatre is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in this country, with the Bord Gáis (and many others) frequently selling out musicals all through the year and AIMS occupying a huge place on our stages and in our communities, (I covered this in a previous blog which you can read HERE) it is only relatively recently that we have seen Irish made musicals coming to the fore, Once of course blazing that particular trail in 2011. In the last number of years we have seen The Commitments, Angela’s Ashes The Musical, and Sing Street hit main stages, and some very exciting new voices making musical waves at Fringe level with shows like Beat and Fierce Notions proving hugely popular with audiences and critics alike.
Of course, right now, there are no musicals being staged, though some of course are in the works: Breakfast on Pluto, an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons and Treasure Island The Musical. That third one is the one I’m going to take a moment to talk about because, well, I’m the writer and it would be ridiculous of me not to mention my own work when we’re spending the week talking about Irish Musicals, and had Covid 19 not been such a rude and inconsiderate invader it would be on the path towards further development and production.
I have been working with musician and composer Chris O’Sullivan as a Musical Director since 2017 when we staged a version of Alice in Wonderland with my community based theatre company, Slapdash Theatre. In late 2018 we had already decided that we would stage Treasure Island, and he convinced me we could turn it into an original musical. I was terrified, but exhilarated. Musicals were the gateway drug to theatre for me and though I love making them, and though I am a writer, I never dreamed I would write one. Nonetheless we set to work and I spent that Panto season at the Olympia re-reading the book, taking notes and doing a LOT of underlining between scenes.
We started rehearsals February with only the first act written. Within three weeks of rehearsals half the scenes got cut, moved around or thrown out. Dialogue was replaced with song and thanks to my brilliant cast, characters became fleshed out, new story arcs emerged and we could begin working on Act Two.
Making the Music
I have been writing as long as I can remember – poems, short stories, plays, but I was always afraid of lyrics. Given that I don’t play any instruments I was just never sure of myself when it came to song writing. What I do love though is words and rhythms and rhymes, the stories they can tell and the pictures they paint. (To this day I will never forget the look on my music teachers face when I decided to do my 1st year music project on the complete works of Eminem instead of the more popular Westlife.) So I trusted my instincts put pen to paper and send them off to Chris who would inevitably, somehow, read my mind in the words and create the perfect melody for them. At first I would send him reference points ‘I’m thinking it needs be something along these lines’ with a link to a particular song, but within a few songs even that fell away. He told me afterwards he never once listened to any of the references I sent him. We did not always agree and there were definitely more than a few debates, but thankfully we are both willing to admit when the other person is right and it’s easy to see what works and what doesn’t when you’ve got a cast in front of you on the floor. The truth would always reveal itself, despite what we might think when we walk into the room on any given day.
As I’m sure most writers will know, sometimes it came easy, sometimes it was a struggle, and we were on a deadline. A lot of the songs came quite naturally as I was writing the scenes, others took a bit more work and some appeared after the fact. Come Home is one such song. We both felt that Mrs Hawkins needed a song, but we weren’t sure where or when. Then one day, about 6 weeks in, it hit me like a flash in the middle of rehearsals – out came the notebook and the scribbled words: “Don’t be brave Jim, come home.” I wrote that song in about two hours that night, and Chris had a draft melody the next day.
The show opened in VISUAL Carlow on May 24th 2019. I finished the script on May 3rd 2019. The finale song I wrote on May 10th. It was the one that eluded me the most and the last one I wrote. I had managed a few lines much earlier on, but couldn’t quite grasp what it needed to be. Looking back now, I think I needed to see what the show was as a whole, to understand who the characters and their respective journeys were as a whole. Thankfully, Chris is a genius and turned it into an incredible finale.
All in all, we wrote and staged an entire new musical in less than five months. It was an incredibly intense period of creativity and, to be honest, joy. I could talk your ears off about the beautiful and striking movement and choreography by Tara Landers and the stunningly elegant set design by Tadhg McSweeney. I recognise that we are in a position of relative privilege to be able to do what we did – not everyone can workshop a new show on such a scale.
The show, of course, was not perfect. My script was soon destroyed in notes and scribbles (and in some cases whole sections crossed out) as every performance revealed improvements to be made. It was, however, a huge success. Our show, our musical, had real potential. So we sat down after the fact and settled on a course of action.
We knew we wanted it to go further, and we wanted to get people interested and excited by it. So, over the summer months we recorded a cast album and decided to release it in 2020. We wrote and produced a whole other (albeit shorter) show for Christmas called A Christmas Tale, so our winter was quite busy. We were due to host our album launch on March 14th 2020. To say we were devastated when the lockdown kicked in on the 12th is an understatement.
We are not ones to be beaten however, so we have buckled down for the moment, beavering away quietly so when the world opens up again, we are ready to go, full sail ahead. In the meantime, we made a mini documentary which you can checkout below and the album is there for you to enjoy, so give it a listen and transport yourself to the swashbuckling world of Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins and TREASURE. Sure who doesn’t love some treasure?
Thank you to brilliant team at VISUAL Carlow, my incredible production team: Keith Quinlan, Amy McLoughlin & Brian Sheil, lighting designer Sinéad Cormack, set designer and builder, Tadhg McSweeny, choreography and movement director, Tara Landers, the genius that is Chris O’Sullivan and, of course, the cast of Slapdash Theatre.