Louise Dearman and Mark Evans on their Secrets of Stage Success

LouiseDearman&MarkEvans

Louise Dearman (Wicked, Cats, Evita) and Mark Evans (Ghost, The Book of Mormon) are two of the biggest musical-theatre stars working today. As they launch their new book Secrets of Stage Success – answering all your questions on how to follow in their footsteps – they recall some key moments in their glittering careers…

Mark headshotI remember exactly how I felt the moment I was about to step foot on stage for the first live show of Eurovision: Your Country Needs You back in 2009. This was a reality TV programme on primetime BBC One, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and the BBC were searching for the UK’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow later that year. I had gone through the audition process, and was offered a place in the final six acts that would perform live on television. Eurovision has a bit of a stigma attached to it, and the UK had experienced many years of doing very badly in the contest, so my agent and I had to consider if performing on the programme would be a wise move for me. We decided that no matter what the outcome, getting the national exposure on TV was a great opportunity – providing I did a good job on every live show.

So I really felt the pressure before the first Saturday night broadcast. I still clearly remember it was 10 January 2009, and a lot of my family had come down to the studio in London to support me. The atmosphere backstage was so tense, it would have been so easy to let the pressure get to me. I was standing with the other five acts backstage, and could hear the floor manager counting down: ‘Going live in 5, 4, 3, 2… here we go.’ Presenter Graham Norton’s voice boomed around the studio with a pre-recorded introduction, whilst the monitors, which showed what was being broadcast to the TV audience across the UK, played a montage of the audition process. The voice-over explained how six acts had been selected and how ‘Tonight is the night that you at home decide who stays and who will be the first act to go.’ Then the show’s opening music and titles were played really loud – and my adrenalin was pumping. Here I was, about to be on TV as myself, which is so different to what I was used to as an actor playing a character, live in front of seven million viewers. The show cut to Graham in the studio, introducing the acts one by one, and about five seconds before he called my name, I caught a glimpse of my family and friends in the audience, each wearing identical ‘Vote for Mark’ T-shirts and holding banners plastered with ‘Good Luck, Mark!’ and photos of my young nieces. In that split second, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being totally supported, and I filled to the brim with determination. I went out there and had one of the best nights of my life.

Lou headshotMy career has been a gentle but steady climb up the ladder of success. I have been in the ensemble, I have been a swing, I’ve understudied roles, played small roles in large productions, and big roles in small productions – but my ultimate aim was to play a lead role in a big West End musical.

I was playing Cinderella in pantomime in Milton Keynes, and one day between shows I was getting a bite to eat in the shopping centre when my agent called me:

‘Hello, darling. What are you up to?’

‘Just between shows, grabbing food, why?’

‘How would you feel about playing Galinda in Wicked?’

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaargh! You’re joking!!’

Then followed tears of joy, and a lot of screaming. To be offered such a fantastic role in one of the biggest musicals in the world was an overwhelming experience. I skipped onto stage as Cinderella that evening!

Wicked was a career-changing experience for me, and one I’ll always remember and appreciate. Of course, returning to the show, this time playing Elphaba, was equally thrilling and in many ways even more so. Whilst playing Galinda, I would often wonder what it would be like to trade roles and defy gravity just once – but I never in a million years thought it would actually become a reality. Ten months after leaving the show I was at home one evening and received a call from Petra Siniawski, Wicked’s Associate Director in the West End. She told me that they had been auditioning all week and after a long day, the panel were chatting and my name popped up: ‘Why isn’t Lou being seen for Elphaba?’

The Wicked creative team had got to know me very well in the two years I had worked with them; they had seen my numerous concerts outside of the show; and they thought I was more than capable of playing Elphaba. Additionally, it would be an incredibly exciting cast announcement: never before had an actress played the roles of both Galinda and Elphaba. I had a long chat with Petra and agreed to go in the next day to audition. I was terrified as I felt there was such a lot riding on this; the team I respected so much had put their faith in me and I had to deliver!

The audition went very well and a couple of weeks later I got the call from my agent who said, ‘Are you sitting down, Lou? They want you to play the green girl!’ I remember walking out of my front door onto the green outside my house in pure shock! It was happening, I was going to play Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West! That moment will stay with me for ever. I have the creative team of Wicked in London to thank for being so open-minded and thinking outside of the box. The show raised my profile and has opened so many doors. And I have the most wonderful group of fans from doing the show, who support me in everything I do.Galinda white bubbles

What should I do when things go wrong during a performance?

Unfortunately, there is not much advice to give for when things go wrong on stage. It will usually involve involuntary freezing and forgetting the English language or any sense of normal human behaviour at all. Both of us have made numerous mistakes on stage: we’ve made up lines of the script when we blanked, made random sounds that are more like animal cries, completely fallen over on stage and struggled to get back up, which reminds us of a time we worked together in Wicked

Mark headshotI was Fiyero, opposite Louise as Galinda, in the opening scene of Act Two, where pretty much the entire company are on stage as the citizens of Oz, looking to Galinda the Good for reassurances about their safety against Elphaba. Fiyero gets frustrated because none of what is being said about Elphaba is true, so he storms off the podium centre stage, and heads downstage-right for a quiet, emotional scene with Galinda.

So there we are, me and Louise, acting the scene (beautifully, even if we do say so ourselves!), and then I turned to do Fiyero’s dramatic exit, which involved running up some narrow stairs and continuing offstage. Off I went, missed my footing, tripped on a step, and landed in the full splits on the staircase. I struggled to stand up, pulling off bits of the leaves and branches from the scenery to help me, and when I finally managed to get to my feet, I just dropped my head down in shame and continued to run offstage. Two‑thirds of the audience were laughing out loud, and the entire company were trying not to lose it altogether.

Lou headshotI was left at the bottom of the staircase, looking up at where it had happened, desperately trying not to burst into laughter. Then I had to look at the company, who were all grinning at me like lunatics, and finish a very emotional part of the scene. When I got offstage, Mark and I fell about, laughing until our stomachs hurt, and almost missing our next entrance. It remains one of the highlights of my career.

The thing is, mistakes happen and that’s the joy of live theatre. It’s not like performing brain surgery where every single thing you do is a life-or-death situation. If you forget your lyrics or make a mistake, keep calm. It will somehow resolve itself, usually by trusting your instincts and getting yourself out of it – but at the end of the day, it’s just a show. The audience are unlikely to notice, and if they do (like in the case of Mark’s impromptu splits) then they love the fact they’ve seen something totally live, utterly unplanned and unique.

Wicked Funny

Mark headshotIt was such a big deal for me to head over to North America to perform in the touring production of The Book of Mormon – not just getting the role (though that was a big deal, of course), but the fact of living and working on the other side of the world, away from my entire support system: my family, friends, flatmate, agent, manager, doctor, osteopath, accountant, postman, window cleaner, bin man and the cat next door… It really did seem like I was kissing goodbye to so many things in my life, which was heightened because I was going to be in a touring show. A tour of that scale is like living in a bubble, and I’d be performing one of the most demanding roles in musical theatre, surrounded by a group of strangers I’d never met, for seven months. Little did I know that I’d end up being in the show for eighteen months, having an amazing time and visiting some incredible places.

I spent four weeks in San Francisco, rehearsing two or three afternoons a week, in advance of joining the existing company for the final five shows in that glorious city. The rest of the time I spent feeling anxious about whether I’d be able to survive the gruelling task ahead of me. I had many panic attacks and suffered really badly with anxiety and loneliness, to the point where I made myself sick with worry and developed a viral infection which left me in bed for seven days, completely helpless and feeling sorry for myself. I was in such a low place late one night that I called my agent, saying that if I didn’t feel better in a few days’ time I wanted him to get me out of the job and have me sent home. It was that extreme! Of course he calmed me down and helped me to deal with the pressure, as he’s such an incredible agent and friend.

Elder Price white bitsOur first performance was three days after Christmas Day 2012. We had our final rehearsal earlier that day with Trey Parker, one of the writers and directors of the show (and of course co-creator of the hugely successful animated TV show, South Park), and that night was my American debut, as Elder Price. The first Broadway show I ever saw was Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre, New York, in February 2010, and I remember promising myself that one day I’d be in a Playbill (the free theatre programmes given away at productions in the US). Now here I was, just two years later, leading a company of extremely talented performers. I felt so proud that all my anxiety disappeared and I was left with a healthy amount of nerves and excitement, ready to get on that stage and enjoy every second of a very special night.

Lou headshotSometimes something exciting comes along at exactly the right moment. One afternoon, when I was feeling pretty low because my tour had been postponed for reasons beyond my control, my manager telephoned.

‘Do you know the National Anthem?’ she asked.

‘Yes, of course. Why?!’

She explained that I had been invited to sing it before the Capitol One Cup Final – at Wembley Stadium, in front of 90,000 football fans, and millions more watching at home on TV! I thought she was joking at first, but she wasn’t.

On match day, I had a short rehearsal in the afternoon and then had to go to my dressing room and wait to be collected and taken to the pitch. I don’t remember feeling nervous as I was getting ready, just very excited, but when it was my time to go and sing, and I walked towards the pitch, I heard the immense wall of sound coming from the football supporters. I’ve never heard anything like it; it was almost primal and the sound literally went through me, my heart was racing!

What if I got the words wrong? What if I couldn’t hear the backing track I was singing along to? What if I passed out?! I’ve never been so irrationally nervous. I was taken by the arm and led to the edge of the hallowed turf, I waited for a nod from the woman looking after me and off I went. The fans cheered, the music started and everyone sang along.

It was the most thrilling, terrifying, overwhelming experience of my life – and something I’d love to do again one day.


FormattedSecrets of Stage Success by Louise Dearman and Mark Evans is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get a free, exclusive A3 poster when you buy the book from the Nick Hern Books website, while stocks last.

Watch Louise and Mark introduce their book on YouTube.

Illustrations by Mark Manley, www.markmanley.co.uk. Authors photo by Mark Yeoman.

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‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’: Engineering the Future of British Musicals

Julian Woolford With homegrown musicals such as Matilda and London Road wowing audiences and critics alike, some are saying it’s a golden age for British musicals. But any creative industry needs to invest in training for the future, and Britain lags well behind the United States in opportunities for budding writers of musicals to learn their craft. Here Julian Woolford, a successful writer and director of musicals, lecturer in writing musicals at the University of London and author of How Musicals Work (and How To Write Your Own), argues that it’s time for a change.

When I was in my early twenties I drove one of those ultimate student cars, the 2CV. It felt like a souped-up shopping trolley crossed with a deck-chair, and had an engine that sounded like a squealing hair-dryer. It got me around, and really came into its own for the three days of British summer when, with its soft roof rolled back, it felt like you were living in the south of France.

My dad was a design engineer for Ford and was always happiest tampering around with a car, so when the under-chassis of my 2CV was rusting through, he told me that it would be a simple job to strip the car off and rebuild it on a new one. For months the car sat in pieces in my parents’ garage as he took it all apart and put it back together again. He was determined that I should learn how the car worked so that I could maintain it in the future; accordingly, he would only work on it if I was with him. It was his mission to show me how the clutch worked, how the electrics all fitted together, and how the engine actually made the wheels go round.

My dad’s fascination with how things work must have been passed on genetically. When I began to study (and write) musicals I began to wonder why some musicals were the equivalent of a Jaguar XJS, purring their way into the audience’s heart, while others were clapped-out bangers that couldn’t get out of the garage. Of course musicals are an art-form and not a mechanical construction; but just as Alan Ayckbourn calls playwriting a ‘crafty art’, the writing of musical plays is both a craft and an art.

Musical theatre in the UK is big business and one of our major exports. The Phantom of the Opera, a British musical, is the most commercially successful single piece of entertainment ever created. Over the past thirty years, British writers have proven that West End musicals can dominate on Broadway as well as at home. However, exclude the shows written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John and the British productions (by Cameron Mackintosh) of works by Boublil and Schönberg, and the list of hits is depressingly short. What’s more, these men are all in their sixties, and coming to the ends of their careers.

At present the West End is dominated by their works and by compilation shows of varying quality (from the still appealing Mamma Mia! to the still appalling We Will Rock You) and the two most notable new musicals of the last year have been written by teams who are new to the form: Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda and Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road.

What is painfully obvious is that, with the sole exception of the Cameron Mackintosh supported team of Stiles and Drewe (Betty Blue Eyes, Mary Poppins), the UK is not producing new writing teams who are both committed to musical theatre and of sufficient calibre to sustain the industry in the future.

There was massive investment by the Arts Council in the 1990s and 2000s in new playwriting in the UK, and it seemed then that every producing theatre in the country had to have a new writing department. But very little of this money found its way into new musicals, which were seen as too commercial to benefit in this way. Recently, there has been a partial about-turn in the Arts Council’s thinking, and last year they came up with a modest amount of money to invest in the long-running writers organisation Mercury Musical Developments (MMD), and the fairly new Musical Theatre Network (MTN), which aims to be the UK equivalent to the influential National Alliance for Musical Theatre in the US (although it remains to be seen if it will be more than a talking-shop). 2CV Haynes Manual

But consider the size of the industry. As far back as 1997, the Wyndham Report, an economic impact study on musical theatre by the eminent economist Tony Travers, found that the total economic impact of the West End was £1.075 billion per annum and that West End theatregoers spent £433 million on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise in addition to the £250 million they spent on tickets. The West End theatre contributed a £225 million surplus to the UK’s balance of payments in 1997 and, as net currency earner for the UK, West End theatre is similar in size to the entire UK advertising, accounting and management consultancy industries, and far larger than the UK film and television industry. By 2011, when a much smaller study was carried out, West End musicals saw combined ticket sales of £400 million per annum (which brings in around £70 million to the Treasury in VAT alone). Using the same multiplier as Tony Travers we can therefore estimate that musical theatregoers are now spending something in the region of £692 million on restaurants, hotels etc and that the industry is now worth nearer £1.85 billion. This figure does not take into account the huge amount of touring product of all scales, nor the regional producing houses (who have a slender record in developing new musicals), nor the thriving London Fringe scene, nor the busy amateur and schools scene.

Yet no industry can sustain itself in the long run without providing training and inspiration for the creative minds that will take it forward.

In the UK, excellent training in musical theatre for performers is now provided by drama schools and conservatoires, and in the last twenty years there has been an explosion of courses for producers, directors, choreographers and musical directors. But there is precious little training for those who spark the creative process: the writers of musicals.

Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and General Motors didn’t establish their positions in the motor trade by waiting for great design engineers to suddenly appear from thin air. They trained the best minds in the necessary skills and crafts, and then let them deploy their own creativity and inspiration. More obviously, the fashion industry is awash with courses for aspiring designers, along with mentoring schemes and apprenticeships. The musical theatre industry, by not offering training to those who can create the international hits of tomorrow, is jeopardising its own future.

The increase in funding for new playwriting in theatres led to a number of playwriting courses being founded within established educational institutions, such as the one set up by David Edgar at Birmingham University. These, however, have not yet included musical theatre writing. There is a school of thought within the industry that successful new musicals will be written by those with no knowledge of the form, and that the successes of Minchin, Kelly, Cork and Blythe prove this to be true. But without training, the work of many young writers who aspire to write musicals is simply derivative; trying to emulate Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Jason Robert Brown. In addition, the bookwriting in many of their works often ignores the basic principles of drama, and is lacking in structure and impact. Another shortcoming of the ‘let’s-find-someone-who-has-never-written-a-musical’ school of thought is that it wilfully ignores the way in which other writers new to the form have failed so miserably, among them Dave Stewart whose score for Ghost is the weakest element of that musical. No other industry would be so careless as to leave its future to the lottery of those rare and elusive ‘diamonds in the rough’.

There is currently only one place that musical theatre writers can learn their craft in a formal setting, and that is at Goldsmiths College as part of the MA in Musical Theatre. But that is a module in an academic course, and the students have only a small amount of teaching in this creative component. We urgently need a writing course in a conservatoire setting, where the best young creative minds can learn about and experiment with the form.

American writers, by contrast, have more options in their universities, and have benefited from more than fifty years of the legendary BMI Lehman Engel Workshop, the pre-eminent training ground for musical theatre writers. It offers a dynamic programme in which writers learn the basics of musical theatre dramaturgy and how to apply it to their own style. What is more, writers are invited to take part in the two-year course free of charge. Alumni from this course have created some of the biggest hits on Broadway, including A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, Once On This Island, Ragtime, Avenue Q, Next To Normal, and the current smash The Book of Mormon.

If we are going to secure a future for the British musical we need to train writers for the future and do so quickly. We must not only train them in songwriting, but more importantly, in theatre and storytelling, all the while encouraging them to find their own distinctive voices.

I am not necessarily proposing that universities and conservatoires are uniquely placed to provide this training. My dad never went to university; he was educated at a time when the sons of bus drivers didn’t do such things, and certainly couldn’t afford them. He began as an apprentice at 14 years of age and had a series of mentors who educated him and encouraged him to think for himself. What I learned about cars from my father was a form of apprenticeship, and whilst I didn’t devote my life to vehicles I still have no qualms about changing a spark plug or swapping a tyre. It is no accident that the greatest living musical theatre writer, Stephen Sondheim, undertook an apprenticeship with the greatest musical dramatist of all time, Oscar Hammerstein II. How wonderful it would be if the older generation of British-based writers – Lloyd Webber, Elton John, Don Black, Tim Rice, Boublil and Schönberg – would mentor younger writers and help them to improve their work. American writers can already benefit from this as a good deal of the Advanced course of the BMI Workshop is moderated by established members of the Broadway community.

How Musicals Work by Julian Woolford

How Musicals Work (£12.99)

Having taught the Goldsmiths course for the past four years, I wanted to write How Musicals Work as a guide for those young writers, to be a kind of Haynes manual for the musical. It includes more than fifty exercises that I have set my students in class. Do them all and it is as close to doing the course as you can get without enrolling. But it is not a substitute for the courses, mentoring schemes and apprenticeships that we so urgently need. I learned a lot from my dad because of his passion for cars, and my 2CV was a much better runner after we had stripped it down; I am hopeful that we might yet get some vintage musicals from the readers of How Musicals Work!

NHB are thrilled to publish Julian Woolford’s How Musicals Work. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

‘Goldsmiths Festival of New Musicals’, the showings of the final projects for the Goldsmiths MA in Musical Theatre, is at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Tower Street, London from 12th–15th September.

Julian is appearing alongside Ruthie Henshall and Tom Chambers at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 14th October 2012.