Friday, 19 October 2018

The blue book

I had a fairly delightful day away from the intensity of the Brass rehearsal room yesterday. I left Simon, our wonderful choreographer, in charge, and headed to New West End synagogue to spend the day recording music.

The afternoon session was spent working on three pieces written by Trevor Toube, who is one of the stalwarts of the community there. He’s actually a very interesting composer and one of the pieces, dedicated to his grandson, Josh, was absolutely exquisite. It had an Eastern vibe, and yet it was somehow imbued with the expansiveness of Copland. Very impressive.

He didn’t half test us, though, in the piece he’d written for his grandson, Ben, which had a Microcosmos quality with octotonic runs alternating from tone to semi-tone. It took us a while to buffer that particular sequence up, but we got there, and I hope we’ve done him proud.

The evening session was spent recording four final tracks for our Blue Book album, one of which was a re-recording of a song we’d done in slightly too much haste in the studio in July. Was it July? It was very hot whenever it was!

It is an absolute joy to record in the synagogue. The acoustic there is second to none. If you stand in the middle of the space, performers can hear each other perfectly, and the sound wafts up into the ceiling, and then parachutes back down like a cascade of butterflies!

There is nothing like the sensation of performing with a group of top-notch singers. There are eight of us, and we sing two-per-part. My “desk partner” is James Mawson, who’s basically the fruitiest bass in the world. He thinks nothing of popping down to a bottom A - which I personally find deeply emasculating! Our voices blend together very well, however, largely because I am more than happy to play second fiddle and make it my primary objective to provide him with tonal re-enforcement!

I think it’s going to be a rather fine album.





Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Directing

I have to say, I am loving being at Mountview directing again. Directing theatre was always my great passion. It was what I wanted to do, and what I spent the first ten years of my career actually doing. At some point along the way, I fell into making films, and then the composing work slightly took over, but there’s something exciting and hugely meaningful about being in a rehearsal room, leading a team of people, all of whom have the same goal.

Obviously it helps that we’re breathing life into my own material. It is such a huge privilege to be able to enthuse young people with material I’ve crafted myself. And I have a joyously playful cast who are committing to every aspect of the process. We’ve done the majority of the technical work on the show. We’ve choreographed 95% of the dances, most know the music, the words and their characters, so we’re free now to play and work in minute detail. The girls, who, in fairness, probably have a slightly easier track in the show on account of having fewer massive production numbers, feel like they’re slightly further ahead. They are really enjoying the freedom that being on top of material brings. They almost feel like they’re beginning to think collectively. One of them bowls a googly into the group and the rest go with it. It’s massively gratifying to see them growing in confidence every day. I feel like a proud dad.

It’s a very emotional story, and not a day goes past when the entire room doesn’t get flooded by a swimming pool of tears. Catharsis is good, and as the cast commit more and more, I find myself increasingly emotionally effected. There is much of me in that show. Sometimes it feels like my soul will live on through it. There are so many lines which remind me of friends and family members, and transport me to different moments in my life. Today, as we dealt with the death of one of the characters, I remembered my Grandmother. In other scenes, I see the faces of previous Brassers. I’m frequently reminded of the magical day when we took the 2016 cast to the trenches in France. I remember the laughter we had in the boarding houses whilst rehearsing the NYMT productions, the dreadful sound of the fire alarm at 6am and the sight of choreographer, Matt Flint, wrapped in a duvet, waiting to be allowed back into the boarding house after a fire drill. I think of Sara Kestelman telling a cast member that he really was a wanker, and Hannah Chissick saying “that’s literally my favourite moment in the show” ...every five minutes! I think of the day that Ben Mabberley auditioned for the show by playing “Orange Juice” on the cornet, and feeling so profoundly moved that I wrote the song Brass especially for him and remember the day we went to Birmingham to see young Harrison conducting the show with exquisite precision.

At each stage of the journey, people feel like they’ve fallen deeply in love with the show. Only today, one of the actresses in the production tweeted “I've honestly never loved a show as much as I love Brass.”

Crumbs, I feel proud to have brought it to the world.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Solidarity

I hosted the MMD new writers’ cabaret last night, which is a monthly event for new writers of British musical theatre. The evening gives writers the chance to try out new material in front of a supportive audience. I attended every session for a full year whilst writing Em. It was a fabulous way to force myself not to write “also ran” music. I tried my hardest to write a song each month which topped the last one, and I would learn a great deal each time about what I’d written based on the audience’s collective response.

The evenings were always well-attended and very lively, and, although I haven’t attended myself for a year or so, I was thrilled to be asked to compere last night’s.

It was a bit of a flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants scenario, as I had no time to prepare any schtick, so was essentially merely saying, “this is x, who’s written a song called x, which comes from a show called x...” I decided to keep the writers on stage afterwards to ask them a little bit about themselves and what they were hoping for. Occasionally I’d try to throw in a bit of advice, as I was aware that I was perhaps a little bit further on in my career than most of the others... and I think we all have a duty in the industry to support each other where we can. Largely, my message was for them to keep on writing. There were lots of young writers there - and our industry’s future sits firmly in their hands.

The set up in the UK is not geared towards the nurturing of musical theatre talent. There’s an amazing 18 year-old writer called Charli who would benefit enormously from studying on a high-quality musical theatre writing degree course. There are many such courses in the States, where amazing musical theatre writers like William Finn and Stephen Schwartz regularly teach. You literally learn from the best. The UK doesn’t have any such courses, however. The only option for a wannabe musical theatre composer is either to train as a performer and learn his or her craft by osmosis, or to study composing as part of a classical music degree, where musical theatre is often looked down on. There are song writing courses for pop music and jazz in some institutions, but, so far, in this country, the only courses specifically for musical theatre writers, I believe, are very part time or postgraduate courses, and you can count them on the fingers of one hand. There’s one at Goldsmiths, but, when I last discussed it with someone who’d been on it, I was somewhat horrified to learn that it wasn’t recognised by the music department, which meant the students couldn’t use equipment or university practise rooms. The musical theatre writers apparently wandered aimlessly from classroom to classroom, carrying the course keyboard on a trolley. It sounded bleak and undignified. I’m sure things will have improved. They have to have!

Anyway, my great sadness last night was that there weren’t more people in the audience. This was not the bustling event I remember from the past, where sometimes I’d worry that there might not be a slot left for me to perform my song in. I think perhaps only 8 people performed, and very few writers had turned up merely to support. It’s made me resolve to go more often because I feel it’s such an important event. And if any musical theatre writers are reading this blog. Go. Attend. Show solidarity. Us musical theatre writers need to raise our heads above the parapet.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Magic of the ancestors

There was an all-too-familiar, last-minute panic this morning as Nathan set sail for New York. His phone had somehow managed not to charge overnight, his 6.30am alarm hadn’t gone off, and he was woken instead by my 7.45am soothing iPhone arpeggios on a fake harp. The taxi he’d booked for the airport had come and gone, and there was much rushing about and cursing. This time last year, when heading off to the same Rhinebeck Yarn Festival, he left his passport at home and I had to drive like a maniac to Hangar Lane to get it to him.

I guess no one could be entirely blamed for messing up an alarm call after the night we’d had. We went to bed at about midnight. It was a muggy night as a result of a sort of misty, moisty mizzle in the air, so the window was open. I was drifting off to sleep to the sound of the Tallis Fantasia and rain trickling over the roof tops, when my ears tuned into a sickeningly familiar sound within our flat... namely the dull thud of water dripping onto our living room carpet.

We leapt out of bed and ran around in a mad whirl, moving furniture and sticking buckets underneath the places where the water was coming through - which, it turned out, was absolutely everywhere. We ran out of buckets and quickly moved on to dustbins, fruit bowls and towels. I’m not sure anyone should be expected to live in these conditions, let alone pay rent to do so.

I spent the weekend in Thaxted at another quiz. Did I ever mention in this blog that I’m quite partial to a quiz? This one happened in a village hall on the winding country road towards Great Dunmow where, on some nights, a strange optical illusion involving light and mist occurs, which makes drivers on the road think there are ghostly hares dancing on the tarmac.

One of the things I love most about Thaxted is the way that it wears its folklore on its sleeve: whether that’s its thriving Morris Dance and folk music scene, curious pentagrams scratched into the doors of local churches to ward off witches, or talk of strange, lingering fingers of smoke hovering over the lanes. Life would be very dull indeed without the promise of magic. I am a rationalist, but there are things which, in my view, shouldn’t be swept aside or undermined with brutal logic. I would not compose music, or write stories if I didn’t believe in certain myths or the all-encompassing power of nature. I certainly think there are skills and perceptions which human beings have lost as we’ve evolved. Apparently we used to be able to smell water from great distances. How we know this, I’ve no idea. I think we were probably able to sense different types of energy as well. I have nothing to back this theory up apart from the extraordinary pyramids, monoliths and perfect stone circles built by our ancestors.

...We came second in the quiz. By one-and-a-half points. Beaten by our mortal quizzing enemies. If Sally had been more certain that the song had been sung by Credence Clearwater Revival, and I’d have remembered that Carol Lee Scott had played Grotbags in the Pink Windmill, we’d have won. Actually, if Nathan had been on the team, we would have won, but he banged his head in the loo of a local yarn store, so was dispatched back to London for a much-needed night of r and r!

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Bullies

“This is your Northern Line via Bank train,” says the announcer at Highgate Station. As it happened it WAS the train I wanted to take, but that still didn’t make it MY train, and fifty per cent of people waiting on the platform were waiting for the Charing Cross branch. What’s wrong with “this is A Northern Line via Bank train?”

This sort of ghastly misappropriation of the English language is plainly part of an attempt to make official or formal language seem more cozy. Sadly, to my ears, it’s just as jolting as someone using “myself” to sound fancy when they simply mean “me.” “Who can I talk to about this problem?” “You can talk to myself.”

A rather unpleasant woman decided to squeeze herself into the tube carriage behind me as I made my hour-and-a-half commute to Peckham yesterday morning. She seemed entirely unaware that the space in front of me was being filled by my suitcase, but clearly felt I ought to be standing further forward, so kept thrusting her belly into my back and bum, which I found highly aggressive and, actually, a bit repulsive. I wondered how she would have responded to a man standing behind her doing what she was doing to me. Police have been contacted for lesser issues...

One of the things that #meToo has triggered in me is a desperate desire for parity in the way that we respond to issues relating to gender. These things have to work both ways. Yes, men CAN behave terribly, but, despite being pretty sure the woman’s motives yesterday morning were aggressive rather than sexual, I still felt a little violated by what she was doing.

Women can also be bullies and, in fact, throughout my career, I can pinpoint several times when I’ve been bullied by women, and actually fewer times where I’ve been bullied by men. I remember, on one occasion, a female executive producer literally screaming at me on the phone as I was trying to enter a recording session for the film we were working on. She shouted so viciously that I entered the studio shaking so much I had to sit down. The same person was thrown out of our sound edit for violently throwing books at the equipment when she didn’t get her way.

Strangely enough, I’m not sure I recognised that I was being bullied back then. I knew it was unreasonable behaviour and I knew it made me very distressed, but I don’t think it would have occurred to me that women even COULD have bullied men. In fact, I think many people, women included, still believe it’s impossible for a woman to bully a man. Men don’t have feelings, after all...

Within the last few months I experienced another dose of bullying from a woman, and, for the first time in my life, I called her out on it. She was utterly incensed, but, rather tellingly, instead of apologising, or asking what specifically she was doing which made me feel bullied, she instantly went on the attack and played the gender card: “if a man had said the same to you, would you have accused HIM of bullying?” Did my comments stop the bullying? No. They made it considerably worse.

And that’s how the viscous circle begins. A man is told that he can’t possibly feel bullied, and the bullying continues until he can bear it no more, and he puffs himself up to full size and growls like a lion. At which point he is instantly told he’s a bully!


Thursday, 11 October 2018

Brass, brass, still more brass

Peckham is a very Christian area. There are several shops in the area which blare out religious songs on tannoy systems and there’s a newsagent with a banner on it which says “Jesus is Lord, Phil. 2:1.” I’m not sure who Phil is, but, then again, I often feel that Christians talk in code to feel like part of an exclusive club. There’s all sort of stuff about the Lamb of God and phrases like “accepting Jesus into your life” which I find very bizarre.

That said, I quite like being able to travel across London and find myself in an area which feels so very other worldly. The deep, rich aromas of Caribbean and African cuisine fill the streets. People sit in little kiosks selling off-cuts of fabric, hair weaves and curious fruit and vegetables. I’m not sure the area is quite ready for the high octane energy of a musical theatre drama school! The Mountview students stand out. You can smell them a mile off!

The area is obviously changing rapidly, and it’s rather sad to think that, in a few years’ time, a lot of its quirkiness will have been swept aside by rising rents. They’re already building stacks of fancy-looking flats along the high road, and the area around Queens Road station is full of artisan bakeries and fancy bars selling micro brewery beer.

It’s probably about time. I remember going to Julie’s house on the train about fifteen years ago, and passing through Queens Road Peckham and being absolutely horrified by the state of the station, which was covered in graffiti and metal grills. It felt like something from the Bronx in the 1970s: the sort of thing which would periodically turn up on an episode of Cagney and Lacy when a homeless man gets murdered in a cardboard box.

The production of Brass at the Union Theatre was announced yesterday, which means I can now talk openly about something which has been brewing for the last month or so. I was in a production meeting for the Mountview version of the show when my publisher got in touch to say that the rights had been requested and, as ever with these things, you smile and wave, thinking that it’s entirely unlikely anything will ever get off the ground. Particularly with such a short lead time.

But in fairness to them, they’ve got it together, and rehearsals for their version started on Monday with, I’m rather pleased to say, young Jack Reitman in the cast.

It is entirely surreal to not have anything to do with this particular production. I just have to trust that they’ll get on with it, work hard, be truthful to the characters and play them with love, great affection and a huge dose of Yorkshire wit, grit and pride.

The fact that there are two productions running simultaneously in London is, of course, more than a little exciting. Add to this the news that a choir in Red Hill are singing three songs from the show in a major concert down there and it starts to feel like this precious child of mine, which I’ve nurtured for four years, is finally learning to walk unaided. The path I’ve chosen for myself in life has often felt like a brutal, uphill climb, but, just occasionally, it all seems worth it. Perhaps most gratifying of all is the sheer number of people who are coming forward to say what a profound effect Brass had on them when they saw it, or performed in it before.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Wounded soldier

I injured my head yesterday. We were part way through our customary Monday morning run of the show and I realised I was desperate for the loo, so bolted upstairs to the staff toilets. I’m not entirely sure I know what happened, but as I pushed the door to the staff corridor open, my forehead was greeted by something hard, sharp and wooden. I immediately realised I had done something silly because I could see blood on the doorpost. I did the thing they do on movies and brought my hand up to my face to realise I was, indeed, bleeding, just above my left eye.

It’s funny the things that go through your head when you injure yourself and go into slight shock. I took myself first to a loo cubical. I wanted to hide away whilst I worked out what was wrong. It’s an animal instinct. What you don’t want in these instances is someone fussing or panicking. I had my wee, but suddenly noticed I’d started to wee on my foot, which made me realise I wasn’t entirely firing on all cylinders! 

I remember pressing loo paper against my head and realising there was a fair amount of blood, but that it wasn’t gushing from me, so I decided the best thing to do was to make a cup of sweet tea whilst I formulated a plan which didn’t involve staggering into a rehearsal room and freaking out my cast.

As I walked away from the kitchen and into the giant fancy atrium at Mountview, I was hugely relieved to see our company manager. I pointed at my head and told him I’d hurt myself, and he instantly whisked me into the staff room to apply first aid. It turns out that he’s a designated first aider.

It took about five minutes to clean me up and stick a couple of plasters on my face. The wounds are fairly superficial. I’ve taken a chunk of skin off in a few places but I didn’t feel woozy, so probably didn’t have concussion of any sort. As the adrenaline drained from my body, I started to feel a little shaky and the wounds started to sting a bit, but I consider myself to be rather lucky not to have taken a considerably bigger hit.

I took the plaster off this morning, and it’s not the most attractive sight. A flap of skin is hanging off which I don’t want to pull at. I equally feel the wound needs to dry out in the air rather than fester behind a plaster.

So, the wounded soldier limps on. And so I should. In a show with a body count as high as the one in Brass, I merely count my lucky stars not to have been born 100 years earlier.