Back in the early days of The Bedlam Six a lot of the reviews we got said I should be writing for musical theatre. I suspect they meant it as a veiled insult rather than a compliment, as many critics deem musicals to be something of a deformed cousin to the superior genre of rock (this was before the likes of Hamilton and Book Of Mormon came along and shook things up). I know why they said it: a lot of our stuff had a narrative thrust and a pronounced conversational element (not to mention a certain knowing flamboyance). But as much as I liked musicals I didn’t agree. For me rock music was, is and always will be a theatrical artform, everything is story-based, no exceptions – those who believe the singers are the same onstage as they are off it probably also shout constructive tips to Hamlet during his duel with Laertes.
And really, narrative-based third-person character pieces actually have more of a place in the rock and pop canon than in musicals. Think of “Ziggy Stardust” or “Eleanor Rigby” or “Lola” or “Boy Named Sue”: narratives and tableaus performed by pop icons in amongst more traditional examples of the mainstream form. The biggest hits in musical theatre are nothing like these, they don’t tell stories from start to finish, the eleven o’clock number never has a “then and then and then” structure – the songs are about NOW and ME and US, they are moments that stand still. In short, they are pop songs. They get on with it, they are efficient, they seek out the most direct route to your heart and then cling on for as long as possible.
Now that I write pretty much exclusively for musical theatre I have a far greater respect for pop music than I ever did in my gigging days. Twisty-turny lyrical album tracks like “When Matilda Came Of Age” or “The Tell-Tale Hound” or “Ghost Story” could never be more than filler in a stage musical, the first songs to be axed when the run-time is exceeded. It’s almost always the “I Want” and “I Am” songs that make a musical a success because that’s where we witness people opening up, that’s where we get the honesty. It’s no surprise Hamilton proved to be such a phenomenon, Hip-Hop is a genre that’s almost entirely made up of “I Want” and “I Am” songs, the strangest thing is that it took this long for musical theatre to realise (or accept). In recent years Grime has taken the “I Am” song even further, with a greater focus on the socio-political context. If you haven’t watched Stormzy’s Glastonbury set I urge you to seek it out – his central performance oozes charisma and, coupled with the staging, lights, choreography, choir, song themes and the mixing up of genres, feels like musical theatre at it’s very BEST.
Since being commissioned as composer for a new piece of theatre about eight months ago I’ve written around thirty songs (obviously they won’t all go into the finished piece – it’s not Jocasta!). This has been my most prolific period in years. The year before that I didn’t write ANY songs. And it wasn’t for want of trying. In recent weeks I’ve been writing songs for children, for parents, for pensioners, for ghosts, for monsters, for animals, for inanimate objects, for ghoul people made out of a sort of sentient putty… the weirdest part is that for the first time in my music career I’ve felt a complete lack of imposter syndrome. Weird to write a song to be sung by a cat and not feel imposter syndrome. But then it’s a weird business.
I think the reason I’m so comfortable in this area is that the best examples of musical theatre are essentially truths masquerading as fantasy, whilst being in a rock band is to be a fantasy masquerading as the truth. It isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to write a song about loneliness for a child to sing, you just write about loneliness and don’t get too bogged down in the details: that deep ache is the same however long you’ve been alive, it’s only the context that changes. If I decide to write a song for myself to sing about how vulnerable I feel then, regardless of how open and honest I am, it will inevitably tumble out as some sort of millennial commentary or critique of toxic masculinity or be held up against my more aggressive work or lumped in with other men from a similar class/background. In short it’ll drown in context. In our society we seek to “other” people far too instinctively, but when confronted with a fiction we examine it for traces of the truth and, by association, ourselves.
There is such a freedom in writing for fictional characters that I’m amazed more songwriters don’t do it. Not because you get to pretend to be someone else, but because you get to be YOU. My old Bedlam Six notebooks are full of unused lyrics and ideas that were abandoned because they didn’t fit with the version of myself that I was trying to be ten years ago, because the big secret common to singer-songwriters the world over is that none of us really know who we are. Because you’re supposed to be one thing and absolutely no one is. My first musical Jocasta featured a huge cast of victims and predators and idiots and heroes and cowards and cynics and idealists and murderers and there was a bit of me in every single one of them. This new one feels like it should be an even greater stretch, peppered as it is with fairy tale elements. But if anything that’s even easier. The further away it gets from being one singular believable version of a human being the better it is for me, because a singular believable version of a human being is the hardest character to play. Because it’s by far the most unrealistic.
“Do you miss performing?” people ask me.
No, because I never stopped. None of us do.