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Tag Archive | "Tim Minchin"

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The Wicked Stage: Strange thing mystifying

Posted on 27 May 2012 by Sarah Green

A Twitter storm has once more erupted around the use of celebrity casting for the Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour taking place at the end of this year, and I can’t help wondering why industry professionals are again being overlooked?

The first controversy was the use of a TV talent show to find the actor who will play Jesus – even the show’s lyricist Tim Rice was against this idea. This has now been compounded by the casting of Tim Minchin and Melanie Chisholm (aka Sporty Spice) as Judas and Mary Magdalene. Minchin is known for basing his comedy around music and songs, as well as winning awards for his score to Matilda. Melanie Chisholm has also won praise for her stint as Mrs Johnston in the West End show Blood Brothers. The casting of these two has been begrudgingly accepted, however the biggest uncertainty is the casting of Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles in the role of Herod. People are outraged that a role that could have gone to a trained performer has gone to the breakfast broadcast presenter who, apart from singing on a couple of TV shows, has no obvious musical theatre connection.

Time Out has justified Lloyd Webber’s decision by the fact Herod is not a character to be liked: “It’s probably best not to dwell on the presence of noisy breakfast DJ Chris Moyles as Herod, but you have to concede that Webber knows how to pick a hate figure.” The cynic in me assumes all these casting decisions are to get bums on seats as opposed to being pure artistic choices; these big venues need to sell out. And it is working – the first date at the O2 has already sold out and an extra date has been added.

Like most people I follow on Twitter, I feel it is a let-down to bypass all these trained professionals for big names; these are dream roles for many and it could make them feel like all that training and hard graft was for nothing. This is why there is a buzz surrounding @westendproducer‘s Twitter talent search – what started as a simple online Twitter/Youtube competition and has expanded and resulted in a live final in the West End. The competition has been so popular that they have added a category for under 15s and an international listing which will be judged online.

The judges for the live show of UK adults include West End leading lady Louise Dearman, theatrical agent Gemma Lowry Hamilton, director Anne Vosser and performer Mike Dixon. Theatre stalwart Peter Polycarpou has also had a hand in deciding the quarter finalists. The best part is that unlike TV Talent shows which like to focus on ‘off the street’ characters or a sob story, nearly all of the quarter finalists are performers working in the industry and for them this is a whole different level of exposure. The title the winner receives may not be at the top of their CV, but it opens doors for them, something that is so important in this industry. I hope others take notice of what @WestEndProducer and his/her colleagues are doing; finding ways to use the internet to help professionals get a leg up in their careers. Do check out the quarter finalists and vote for your favourite, I wish all the competitors the best of luck for the live final on 9 July!

Image: Tim Minchin, Melanie Chisholm and Chris Moyles, courtesy of the Jesus Christ Superstar website.

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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The Wicked Stage: The art of writing lyrics

Posted on 04 March 2012 by Sarah Green

As well as looking at the issues currently facing musical theatre, I want to look at the genre as an art form. I want to look at what goes into the making of a show and how it faces just as many decisions, frustrations and creativity buzzes as a ‘straight’ play does.

I decided to start with lyrics because I believe they can often be the forgotten component behind the leader: music. It is true that it is often the tune we walk out of the theatre whistling, but it is the words that further the emotion and resonate most with an audience. I write this blog on the day Liverpool FC won the Carling Cup against Cardiff, resulting in Wembley Stadium ringing with a chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which many of the fans won’t know comes from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel. Yet those words about companionship and standing together are universal, and transcend the boundaries of theatre. Similarly, many people thought ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music was actually an Austrian folk tune and not penned by the same writing duo.

Oscar Hammerstein II is the godfather of book and lyric writing but he also wrote an essay on the subject, which is vital reading for any musical theatre student or would-be lyricist. He gives tips such as the use of a rhyming dictionary but hastens to add this warning: “A rhyming dictionary, however, should be used as a supplement to one’s own ingenuity, and not a substitute for it.” He goes on to point out that a rhyming dictionary won’t help you with elements such as triple rhymes or colloquialisms. Or indeed, the writing of a song in a dialect, for example the heart-wrenching lyrics of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Showboat: “Ah gits weary/ An’ sick of tryin’/ Ah’m tired of livin’/ An’ skeered of dyin’/ But ol’ man river/ He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.”

Within his essay, Hammerstein highlights how a song can’t always be just pure poetry because its overall aim is for a singer to perform it. At the end of lines it is often useful to have a more open vowel such as ‘ah’, which creates a nice open sound for the singer to let rip with. Hammerstein cites ‘What’s the use of Wond’rin?’ from Carousel as an example of why a closed sound doesn’t work. People often asked him why it wasn’t a more popular song, and Hammerstein muses in his essay that it could be because the song’s very last word is “talk” which is an awkward sound. Subsequently performers often cheat slightly by giving it more of an ‘ah’ sound. Another example of this is ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ from Oliver!, whose last big refrain is the title of the song. That “me” is a closed “ee” sound, and some performers will give it an “a” sound which, in an exaggerated version, would sound more like “As long as he needs may”, which makes it so much easier to belt out.

The examples are just a couple of the minutiae that go into the writing of lyrics, so it is strange that these poets can be overlooked by theatre people and audiences alike. There is a story that Mrs Kern (wife of Showboat composer Jerome Kern) and Mrs Hammerstein (wife of Oscar Hammerstein) were at a social function and the hostess introduced Mrs Kern by saying: ‘Her husband wrote Ol’ Man River’. Mrs Hammerstein disagreed: ‘It was my husband who wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’. Mrs Kern’s husband wrote ‘da-da-da-da’.” This is probably the best example of people giving the full credit to the composer and forgetting the lyricist.

Stephen Sondheim is known predominantly as a composer/lyricist but he started his career writing lyrics, his first job being West Side Story, and it is only through composer Leonard Bernstein that he was put down as lyricist. Also, we now have composer Andrew Lloyd Webber who is so much his own brand that we barely know his lyricists who range from Tim Rice to T. S. Eliot. I understand the genre is called musical theatre and as such music is the key ingredient, but it would be a shame to forget these unsung heroes who make a song complete. It’s why I champion composer/lyricists such as Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Schwartz, Willy Russell and Tim Minchin, because they draw attention to both areas and not just the tunes. As Hammerstein tells us: “A song is a wedding of two crafts.”

Image by Carl Milner.

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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The Wicked Stage: Reassessing the Jukebox Musical

Posted on 14 February 2012 by Sarah Green

Last month I wrote a blog about book musicals vs concept musicals and how they have been affected by the rise of the ‘jukebox musical’. The mixed comments I received regarding this have made me wonder about this newcomer a bit more. Also, as news comes about a musical currently undergoing workshops in New York and the UK with music by Sting, it has made me slightly re-assess my views.

To start with the basics, a jukebox musical is a show with well-known popular songs by a certain band or artist with a plot constructed to connect all the songs. This makes it different to a book musical where the songs are woven into the plot. Because it’s songs we know, it is often perceived that less effort went into the creation of jukebox musicals, and this has caused them to have the stigma of being a lesser musical (I certainly felt this during my studies). The early productions such as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You attest to this.  This isn’t to say that they are any less enjoyable or worthy for an audience, as proven by the success of shows such as Mamma Mia which has been running since 1999 in London.

There has recently been a rise in the number of celebrity composers creating original scores, such as Elton John for Billy Elliot, Bono and the Edge for Spiderman: Turn off the Dark and, recently, Tim Minchin for Matilda. These are not jukebox musicals, but some of the same theory applies: we go to a jukebox musical because we know the band and songs already, and we are equally likely to go if we know the composer’s work already;  it is a safe bet that we will enjoy it.

The newest type of jukebox being developed is best illustrated by American Idiot, which to all intents and purposes is a jukebox musical because it is using the songs from Greenday’s American Idiot album and others from their back catalogue. However, it differs because Billie Joe Armstrong (lead singer of Greenday) purposely gave the album a story arc and hoped it would be filmed or staged. This also harks back to the 1970s when bands were creating story-albums or concept albums; The Who, The Kinks and Pink Floyd are just a few examples. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice expanded their album to create Jesus Christ Superstar. American Idiot is the start of a closer fusion between jukebox and book musicals, and one we will see first-hand when it tours the UK later this year.

I recently read an article on playbill.com which mentions a new musical, The Last Ship, which had a UK reading in Newcastle in the first week of February. This is of interest because the music is by Sting and the plot is semi-autobiographical. When I first started reading the article I assumed it was a jukebox, as it mentioned the use of pre-existing Sting songs. However, as I read on it mentioned the writing of new songs and one in particular that co-author Brian Yorkey (winner of a Tony and Pulitzer for Next To Normal) has called “one of the best in the show”. If there are more original songs than pre-exisiting then can this be a jukebox? Or is it perhaps the closest we have got to fusing the book and jukebox?

I stand by what I wrote in my previous blog that most shows from the musical theatre back catalogue can be put into one of three categories, but there will always be exceptions. This recent re-invention and change to jukebox musicals could alter all that, and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition.

Image by Steve Webster.

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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In the Pit: What happens when there’s no room for the band?

Posted on 31 January 2012 by George Francis

Have you ever turned up to a musical and thought, where’s the band? Perhaps there was an empty pit, or no pit at all? No appearance on stage? They are probably in a cramped room somewhere in the realms of the theatre, or maybe even not in the theatre at all.

Live music is an essential element to musical theatre – it is a key factor in the theatrical experience and audience enjoyment. I am glad to say that a lot of producers feel the same way, and so if there is not enough space for the band in the usual spots they find or build a space rather than putting on a backing track.

Let me give you some examples: when Matilda the Musical first ran in Stratford, the band were visible to the whole audience on a special platform, and composer Tim Minchin insisted that a real grand piano be used, “because my score was pretty piano heavy, and I wanted the depth of tone and dynamic range that only an acoustic instrument can provide”, but in the West End version the band has to be “acoustically isolated”, playing under the stage and then taking their final bow on stage. The Spamalot UK tour is another example – normally the band would play on the back of the stage, however in one venue where there was not enough room for this, the band played in a portacabin just outside the theatre. This provided many problems, including instruments – and musicians! – becoming too cold. Similarly, for one performance of Blood Brothers many years ago, the band played in the pub across the road…

This situation leaves many people thinking, so why not just play a backing track? Well the benefits come not only to the musical community providing much-needed employment, but to the show as well. A show should always be conducted by a live Musical Director, as without this timings throughout the show could be sketchy, and standards could slip over time. Also, it is important for musicians to be continually employed in theatre; the risk of  extinction will always be a factor if non-live MDs (i.e. a click track for the cast or pre-recorded cues) are used.

However, there are also cons to using a remote band, the most obvious one being that the musicians don’t get their full due as they are not on show for the duration of the performance for their hard work to be seen. Another is that sometimes it can sound like a backing track; you don’t get the raw, live feel to the music. While this can also be a positive thing, as in smaller theatres you don’t get overpowering acoustic drum kits or deafening trumpets if you’re near the front of the theatre. As Minchin notes, “the advantages of a real piano are lost – in fact it leads to a lot of variables that are annoying – microphone type and position, spill of other instruments into the piano mics, and – most annoyingly – needing a tuner every day”. From a musician’s perspective, playing remotely can be very annoying as you are away from the action and this provides problems with communication links.

In the end, however, it comes down to this: it is better to use bands, wherever they are located, than switching to using tracks. Remote bands are becoming more and more used in theatre, so next time you go and you can’t see the band think of the musos playing their hearts out in a cramped room.

Image by quimby.

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