A new generation of UK musical theatre

‘There are so many talented writers out there deserving of opportunity’: Composer Darren Clark on launching new UK Musicals platform

In Features, Interviews, London theatre, Musicals, News, Opinion by Ian FosterLeave a Comment

As his new digital sheet music store New UK Musicals launches, I talk with multi-award winning composer and lyricist Darren Clark about the site and his career. Clark has been responsible for two of my favourite shows of recent years in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Wicker Husband so I was interested to discover that he has been keeping very busy during lockdown.

 

What was the impetus for creating this platform for new musical theatre?

It’s something I’d been thinking about for a long time. In the US, there is a site called NewMusicalTheatre.com, where some of the best US writers sell their sheet music. It was set up by writers for the writers so that they could get their work out to a wider audience. The Americans are so far ahead of the UK in terms of their support infrastructure for new musical theatre and so I thought I’d take a leaf out of their book.

What has been the biggest challenge in putting it together?

Really it was coming up with a business plan and model. I’d never done that before and I had to learn from scratch. What would be sustainable? How would I run the site and still have time for my own writing? How would I make it financially viable for everyone? These sort of questions were the questions I’d never faced before. And then once that was set up, it was figuring out the best way for the whole site to be designed and set up. How to make a fully customisable online catalogue of songs? That was tough. But fortunately, lockdown and the cancellation of several of my shows meant that I had a little bit of free time to figure it all out!

Do you think performers need encouraging to look at new musical theatre writing?

I think that once performers know that there is great new material out there, they won’t need any encouragement at all. Performing newer, less known (but still excellent material) is a brilliant way to make yourself standout from the crowd as a performer. It’s an opportunity to put a stamp on something that few have done before, to really make something your own. From my experience on numerous audition panels, it’s always exciting to hear a song that you haven’t heard before sung by a performer giving it their all. Those auditions really tend to stand out for me. I can’t really see a disadvantage to expanding your repertoire to include contemporary writing. I have such huge respect for the great writers of the past, but there is so much room for a new generation in addition to their wonderful works.

What do you want people to take away from the site?
Ideally, a song or two! No, really I’d like people and the public at large to see that there are so many talented writers out there deserving of opportunity to have their work performed. Ideally if new writing takes hold in performer’s consciousness, then it will begin to be heard more regularly in concerts and online, and then the producers will hear about it and understand because of public awareness it will become less of a risk to produce more new work, and then the cycle will grow and repeat. That’s what I want. Performer – Public – Producer. I believe that what is good for one new writer is good for all.

Covid-19 aside, what do you think is the biggest challenge to new UK musical theatre writing?
There are several things, one of which I’m trying to address here. Large scale audience awareness and support is a challenge because it’s not often that producers will risk a project with a massive marketing budget on new writers. And therefore it’s hard to get the word out that we are here and making good work.

To my own mind there is a fundamental misunderstanding of musical theatre in some of our largest producing houses. They seem to believe that writing a musical is all about writing good songs. And therefore if you get a good songwriter on board with your musical it will be a success. Unfortunately they are all wrong. Writing a musical is not about writing good songs. It’s about telling a good story. Pop songwriters don’t always know how to do that. Sometimes they do, sometimes they get lucky. But they are not invested in the medium in the way that a career musical theatre artist is. Producers have been looking for the new Hamilton in the UK. I can guarantee that they won’t find it amongst the pop songwriters of today. Lin-Manuel Miranda is not an anomaly. He’s a career musical theatre artist who knows how to tell a story and just happens to write some of his work in the modern hip hop vernacular. That’s the greatest challenge really. Getting the big producers and venues to trust new writers with larger projects. That won’t happen until we’ve made a name for ourselves and that’s partly what this site is about.

Photo © Johan Persson

Given the years in the making for any new musical, dare I ask how you are feeling about The Wicker Husband’s all-too-brief airing at the Watermill?
You know, you might expect me to be devastated that something we’d been working on for so long and FINALLY got to production after countless trials and challenges was then closed by a global pandemic on it’s opening night… and when you put it like that! But actually I’m okay. I’m mainly okay because I feel extremely proud of the work that we created. I try not to toot my own horn too often, but on this occasion I can honestly say that we have made something that is beautiful, meaningful and entertaining. And really, that’s what it’s all about. Of course I wanted as many people to see it as possible and it’s a shame that it’s inaugural production closed so quickly. But I have no doubt that it will be back and that this will become yet another interesting footnote in the epic saga that has been the creation of this musical.

How important do you think the ear-worminess (for want of a better phrase) of a musical score is? It is a criticism often levelled by reviewers but do you think that it is a fair critique, is there is such a thing as a memorable tune that applies to everyone?
Ah, the great question… do you know what… I think there is a secret to ear-worminess. I’ll let you all in on it. Yes, there is a certain amount of skill in making an earworm, all the usual things (an almost mathematical shape to the musical structure helps, and words which capture the imagination and flow well together). But the real key to it all is repetition. The shows that are often referred to as memorable actually use a huge amount of repetition of the same musical, lyrical phrases in the show or within a single song. Either that or they are classics that have been heard so many times in the public consciousness that they seem to be earworms even when they might not be. A memorable tune is usually one that is sung more than once, twice or even beyond three times within a short period of time. That’s my take on it. I could be completely wrong, but all evidence points to that conclusion for me. One of the lines from Benjamin Button that constantly comes back to me is “In their brand new six cylinder vauxhall twelve”. I doubt anyone in the audience thinks that’s an earworm but because we had to rehearse that particular line so many times in rehearsal it has become permanently stuck in my brain!

For me, ‘Matter Of Time’ lodged itself in my mind from the first time I heard it and I could still sing the chorus months later. Was there anything special about composing that piece of music?
‘Matter of Time’ I think is an absolutely prime example of what I’ve mentioned above. The chorus of ‘Matter of Time’ is sung approximately 15 times throughout 2 and a bit hours of Benjamin Button. To be honest, it’s no wonder it gets stuck in people’s heads. We really beat you round the face with it. But I think the key to having something that you can repeat many times in a short space of time is that it needs to be able to refer to different things over the course of the show. Every time you hear ‘A Matter of Time’ it’s referring to a different moment which means the chorus means something different. It’s not an accident that we repeat it so much. In a way, this show was my first real chance to test my theory on repetition and a “memorable” tune and so far it has been proving my point. ‘Matter of Time’ is always the first song that people mention when they talk to me about Benjamin Button.

You released a lockdown video of that track which was just brilliant to watch. Have any other lockdown videos caught your eye?
I’ve not been watching a huge number of them to be honest! There’s a huge amount of material being generated out there which is just so wonderful. I think the thing which I’ve enjoyed the most in particular are the strides being made by SIGNAL online with Adam Lenson. Through his concerts promoting brand new musicals he’s actually been developing brand new technology which makes the quality of performing actually live on a YouTube feed much better.

And last question about Curious…  I cry a lot in the theatre but usually just an  artful single tear – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button reduced me to heaving sobs, I can’t remember having been that close to losing it totally in a theatre. Did it make you cry?
I don’t usually cry at the theatre. But I must admit this one got me a little every time I saw it. I’ve had a guess as to why and I’ll share it here. It’s not often in the theatre that we get to experience a full life from beginning to end on stage. That’s exactly what happens in Benjamin Button (albeit backwards). I think as a result it is a show that can connect to people in a meaningful way. Essentially you spend 70 years with Benjamin and see his hopes and dreams, his failures, his challenges and his successes. I wonder if that has something to do with it, but I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. I’m so glad that is has connected with people though!

Photo © Jethro Compton Productions

And to finish, a few quickfire questions

Biggest achievement in lockdown
Definitely building www.newukmusicals.co.uk

Favourite new musical (that isn’t your own!)
The one that keeps coming to my mind is The Stationmaster by Tim Connor and Susannah Pearse. It’s extraordinary.

Favourite classic musical
West Side Story

What would your audition song be?
It was always ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ from Les Misérables back when I was a performer.

Most exciting musical theatre performance you’ve seen
Tyrone Huntley in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regents Park Theatre. Phenomenal.

Biggest inspiration
Paul Simon, for his willingness to go off the beaten track to find his way through the musical world and come back with something competely unique.

Elphaba or Glinda?
Glinda for the comedy, Elphaba for the belt.

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Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."
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Ian Foster on FacebookIan Foster on RssIan Foster on Twitter
Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."

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