I wrote my first song as a Valentine’s day present for my then girlfriend. She’s now my wife, so something must have gone well…
Since then I’ve written about a hundred and twenty songs in all, many of which feature in my original musicals, which you can read more about below. I’ve collaborated with orchestrator Henry Hawkesworth to create scores for Joanne Pearce’s (RSC Associate) new adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows which premiered at the Oxford Playhouse and earned five-star reviews (you can read one here). I’ve also composed incidental music for various stage productions including The Runner, a new play by Francesca Murray Fuentes which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and earned a five-star review in the British Theatre Guide. In addition I’ve written an album of ten songs, Two hundred miles apart, which built on that first Valentine’s offering, plus an array of one-off numbers for various occasions, including a song called ‘When we meet again’, which I wrote and recorded during the lock-down.
I’ve worked with several lyricists on different projects but usually write my own, and I particularly enjoy crafting words and music alongside one another. Which comes first? Well, the idea comes first, the reason the song exists. A first line suggests itself, often with a natural rhythm of its own. A tune or two is toyed with, then it’s a case of sitting at the piano, pad in hand, often into the early hours. I realised early on that writing songs is something I love doing. I also adore musical theatre: Singing in the Rain is possibly my favourite film, and many of my strongest childhood memories are of being taken to see West End shows. At school and university I acted in or played in the band for dozens of musicals. Once I had a few songs under my belt, writing a musical of my own seemed the obvious next step…
Ivor and I
Ivor and I is my first musical. Ivor Novello was a chorister at Magdalen College School in the early Twentieth Century and on arriving at the school I immediately wanted to learn more about him, having only the sketchiest idea of his life. Paul Webb’s Ivor Novello, Portrait of a Star was a good starting point for my research, but rather glossed over the part of Ivor’s life which I found most interesting: his very early career as a song-writer during WWI. Much more is known of Ivor’s later rise to stardom as a film-star and stage actor, who starred in his own musicals until his dying day (literally). But it was the war years I found most intriguing.
A charming but shy youth somehow made his name as the result of a single song (‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’) and stumbled his way through the Great War as the man who helped keep spirits up when all seemed lost. He did his (brief) time as a pilot, too, imagining himself as a dashing knight of the skies, but two crashes later he was declared too expensive to keep… This was the period, too, when Ivor met the love of his life, Bobbie Andrews; at the same time he was the new darling of the theatrical world with all of its beautiful women, many of whom fell hopelessly in love with his dark looks and sheer niceness. This was the Ivor I wanted to write about, a man trying to find his path in life somewhere between Edwardian Oxford and the roaring twenties.
I was musical director in the original production. The director was Tom Attenborough, a close friend and collaborator, who has already forged an impressive career. We had a fortnight to rehearse the show, and the result was a wonderfully fun production which earned a very nice review in the Oxford Times. More importantly, it convinced me that I could write musicals.
Tom and I have since worked closely together on re-working the show for the professional stage. I had a writing consultation with Julian Woolford, after which I re-wrote much of the plot. We then arranged a three-day workshop with a cast of London professionals which was incredibly valuable. Another edit came off the back of this, leading to the current version of the show.
The year is 1920. The Great War is well and truly over, and England is roaring into the ‘20s. Flappers and their young men strut their stuff in Town, determined to enjoy life to the full. But London’s poorest families are finding times tougher than ever, and as the curtain rises communist firebrand Eric Redburn is launching a diatribe against the privileged elite from ‘Speakers’ Corner’. His girlfriend Mary Mason is by his side, a spirited and fiercely intelligent girl of seventeen. Lord George Waverley and Freddie Upton, both dandified Oxford students, stroll past and become the target of Eric’s wrath. Upton – captain of the Blues rowing eight and a conservative stalwart of the Oxford Union – flings back his opinion of the socialist movement and a tussle ensues: Mary belts Upton in the eye, and the crowd unites in her support as Lord George drags Upton away…
Thus begins Act 1 of my second musical, The Bluestocking, which drew inspiration partly from Jane Robinson’s excellent anecdotal book ‘Bluestockings’. I met Jane at a lunch just after Ivor and I had finished. I was looking for new material for another musical, and had just begun to think about setting it in post-war Oxford when women were fighting for equal rights at the university. The bizarre coincidence of finding myself next to a lady who had just published a book on this exact period convinced me that fate was smiling on the project…
The Bluestocking was performed by a cast of sixth form students at Magdalen College School, Oxford, in November 2013. We performed to 1,200 people over 3 nights and received significant attention in the local press, being previewed in the Oxford Times and reviewed very favourably in Oxford Daily Information.
You can watch a five-minute highlights clip with photographs from the original production here
1917 – a story of the Russian Revolution
It was another history book, Douglas Smith’s Former People, that started it all for me. Smith follows the lives of three aristocratic families through the Russian revolutionary period, from the dramas of the First World War to the horrors of the Stalinist regime. ‘Former People’ was the chillingly bureaucratic term employed by the Communist regime to describe the aristocracy, and they were among Stalin’s many targets during the purges of the 1930s. But the persecution began long before Stalin took the reins, or even Lenin; many of the first victims of the spontaneous February revolution were hapless families who attracted the wrath of the crowd simply by virtue of having a large house. The aristocracy had led a singularly privileged lifestyle under the Tsarist regime, but the scale and suddenness of their downfall was monumental. Many lost literally everything overnight, and found themselves on the streets, their houses requisitioned as revolutionary headquarters.
1917 is the story of one such family, the Vebronskys. They are fictitious but much of the plot is drawn from the real experiences of the families in Smith’s book. Many of the younger generation accepted their losses with equanimity, recognising that they were living through the end of one era and the beginning of a new: some even came to embrace the Bolshevik cause, working for the Communist utopia which never materialised. Others fought the revolution to the death, joining the ranks of the ‘White’ armies during the Russian Civil War. Either way, Russia was clearly in need of drastic change and few mourned the end of the Tsarist regime in February 1917. Once the smoke cleared there was general jubilation and optimism, as the final number of Act 1 tries to capture. But within a year one autocracy had been replaced with another, and many of those who had fought for liberty in February now faced a new brand of dictatorship: Act 2 begins on the eve of the Bolshevik take-over. That side of the story is shown through the characters of Kaplov, Katya and Mikhail – all revolutionary in their own way, but each forced to choose between the revolution and their own humanity.
I felt these stories needed to be told on stage, and I hope 1917 does them some justice. If the background makes pretty serious reading, it’s because the historical background deserves it. But like all musicals, this show is ultimately a celebration of human nature, and in particular humanity’s ability to survive all manner of hardship. And not just to survive, but to come out singing and dancing too!
This was again previewed in the oxford-times
My next musical premiered at the Old Fire Station Theatre in Oxford in August 2018. Having sketched out a first draft of the show I gathered a cast of talented former MCS pupils and a creative team including Rachael Twyford as designer. Tom and Robin, my fellow Manouche Etcetera members, kindly agreed to play in the pit. And so a show was born…
Hamburg, July 1943. At the height of the allied bombing raids a group of teenagers living under Nazi rule defies the regime by dancing to banned jazz music in a secret underground bunker. Their free-spirited leader is Max, the son of a senior Nazi official but dedicated only to enjoying himself as much as the war allows. His friend Eva tries to convince him and the rest of the group to stand up to the Nazis more actively, without success. But when dangerous political pamphlets start to circulate and an American airman is shot down, the Swing Kids need to decide just what it means to be free…
The Swing Kids get a brief mention in all GCSE History textbooks; a bunch of middle-class German teenagers who defied the regime by listening to jazz, growing their hair long and wearing deliberately English clothes. Beyond that, they are less well known than the Edelweiss Pirates, certainly less well known than the White Rose. And yes, to some extent the Swing Kids were just teenagers reluctant to bow to authority, like any others. But the Nazi authorities weren’t like any others. The stakes were high, the risks potentially lethal.
Like all my musicals, Swing Heil began with a book. Different Drummers, by Michael Kater, was recommended to me by Roger Griffin, a History Professor and expert in extremism. He had come to one of my jazz gigs and thought I’d enjoy this book about how the Nazis tried and ultimately failed to deal with the ‘problem’ of jazz under the Third Reich. Goebbels and Himmler both agonised over what to do about jazz: on the one hand it was clearly a degenerate art form by Nazi standards, associated with Weimar decadence, Jews and black Americans. On the other hand, swing music was hugely popular in Germany as everywhere else in the Western world in the 1930s, and the Nazis were always to retain their hard-won popularity. The result? A deeply inconsistent policy which resulted in the creation of an official Nazi swing band (Charlie and his Orchestra), the closure of dance halls and the driving of proper jazz underground. Which is were Swing Heil is set: an air-raid bunker in the house of a wealthy Hamburg resident who is something senior in the Reich Air Ministry. His son, Max, has the run of the place while his father is in Berlin, and hosts wild parties with his group of Swing Kid friends….
We gave two performances of the show in a single, exhausting day (having moved everything into the theatre that morning), but were delighted with how well it was received. The Oxford Times previewed the show and later gave it a 4* review, commenting that ‘…it inevitably invites comparison with Cabaret and, remarkably, holds up very well against so mighty a prototype….Hot jazz numbers and smoky melodies punctuate the action, splendidly accompanied by a three piece band’.
There was a lengthy review in Oxford Daily Info, which ended by remarking that ‘This was the kind of show that leaves behind it regret that its manifestation was so fleeting; in this case a mere two performances. Swing Heil! ought to run and run in another venue – why not in an extended form? Vorwarts und aufwarts!’
Here is a link to a film we had made of the premiere, produced by Callum John Productions. Enjoy!
Leave it to Puck!
My fifth musical was a collaboration with musician John Mann, which premiered at the Oxford Playhouse in June 2022. We wanted to write something fun, family-friendly and short; it was paired in a double bill with Bob Chilcott’s Birdland. So we came up with a modern day fairy-tale based around a family who have their lives blown off course by mischievous Puck and his handfuls of fairy dust!
It was immense fun to write and direct, with musical styles ranging from swing to rock, with a healthy dose of Disney thrown in! The choreography was ambitious, thanks to Nyroy Dixon, and we used puppetry to portray the young girl, Willow, at the start of the show. We were delighted with the end result, which sent the audience buzzing into the interval!