Michael Bruce: How I became a theatre composer

Michael Bruce is a prolific theatre composer whose music has accompanied plays at the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway. He has written scores and songs for productions as varied as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Candide for the RSC, Strange Interlude and Man and Superman at the National Theatre, and Coriolanus, Privacy and The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse, where he is Composer-in-Residence. The job is endlessly diverse and you can never rest on your laurels, as he explains in this extract from his new book, Writing Music for the Stage – published here with audio clips from several of his theatre scores.

When people ask me how I started to write music for plays, they are often surprised by the sheer extent of happenstance and luck that led me down this particular road. I don’t think I’m unusual in that I didn’t set out to write music for plays. After teaching myself the piano as a child, I longed for a career in songwriting: pop music primarily and then later musical theatre. I went to a performing arts college (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) to study music and for the first couple of years only occasionally participated in any theatre activities. Even when I did decide to concentrate my efforts on musical theatre it never occurred to me that there might be a world of plays out there that required composers. In fact, it took me a long time to even call myself a composer – I was a songwriter; the word ‘composer’ seemed far too hifalutin. In my secondary-school music class, composition was called ‘inventing’ (presumably because we couldn’t possibly declare the music we were sweating out as ‘composition’). No, that required formal music education in a building with a royal crest on the front of it – surely?

The truth is, concert works, musicals, films, albums all seem to be much more glamorous and financially rewarding (although they often aren’t) than writing music for plays. Composition in the ‘straight theatre’ can act as a training ground for any of those projects, but it is frequently wholly satisfying in itself. Plays, more than any other compositional work, demand a strong multi-purpose technique, openness for collaboration, an eclectic knowledge and a keen interest in storytelling. If you’re going to write music for plays, you need to be able to turn your hand to almost anything musically and because of that, the people who do compose music for the theatre get there by a myriad of different pathways and circumstances. Many Oscar-winning composers still write music for theatre in between film projects. As you might expect, there is no tried-and-tested route to becoming a theatre composer.

two-gentlemen-Simon Annand

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2014, directed by Simon Godwin (photo by Simon Annand)

 

As a young composer in London, having previously served as an assistant musical director, I was busy writing small-scale musical theatre and cabaret when I received a last-minute call to participate in a podcast discussion about new musical theatre. A contemporary of mine who was meant to be on the panel became unavailable at the last minute and for some reason (I can’t remember why now) they called me. On the panel was a representative from the Arts Council who was very intrigued by the mention of an idea for a ‘composer-in-residence’ scheme. He later asked me to carry on the discussion over coffee. From what seemed like out of nowhere he managed to procure me an invitation to visit the Bush Theatre with a view to becoming their first composer-in-residence.

The Bush Theatre is a world-leading new-writing powerhouse and it became my home for the next two years. Yes, I wrote a musical there, but even more fascinating was my introduction to a world of drama I had neglected to embrace. There has been a tendency amongst some musical-theatre writers (and I was one of them) to become engrossed in an insular musical-theatre world, when right next door there is an entire industry of playwrights and directors putting on world-class productions of plays. I think it’s exceedingly important that artists get as broad a spectrum of inspiration and education as possible, and one of the best places to get that is at the theatre.

After forming many friendships and professional relationships at the Bush I was offered a job as composer-in-residence at the Donmar Warehouse. It was my relationship with Josie Rourke, the artistic director of both of those institutions, that led me to writing music for plays in the first place. In doing that, I have been fortunate enough to work steadily with some of the leading directors and playwrights, in the leading theatres, with the leading actors, ever since. The capacity for learning whilst working on these kinds of jobs with these kinds of people is unparalleled. You can never rest on your laurels when scoring plays, because you never know what the next moment will call for. You can’t just churn out the same thing every time because you are being constantly challenged to respond to the specific needs of the production. This is the best training you could ask for.

strange-interlude-set

Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill, National Theatre, 2013, directed by Simon Godwin

 

Directors are the people who usually have the power to hire composers. A director will specify their preferred creative team to a producer or producing theatre who can, in turn, suggest their own ideas. Sometimes a producer might question the employment of someone who perhaps is untested in the theatrical forum, but mostly, if a director trusts in a composer to deliver, the producer will back him up. Meeting directors may seem like a tricky thing to set up, but your best bet is to start working on small projects either at school, in college or in your local community and invite people to see your work. If you’ve got the option to watch a lot of theatre, then do so. To some extent this is harder if you don’t live in London or don’t have lots of spare cash to burn, but there are great regional theatres around the country producing top-quality work. Also, don’t forget that cinema broadcasts of theatre productions make them far more accessible on a budget from wherever you are in the world. Absorb all the influences you can: get to know which directors’ work you enjoy and write to them. You could even send a director a demo or two. What’s the worst that could happen?

Joshua McGuire in Privacy Photo by Johan Persson 5

Privacy by James Graham, Donmar Warehouse 2014, directed by Josie Rourke (photo by Johan Persson)

 

The most important thing to do is to get some experience on your CV. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a town hall or on Broadway. If you can show some proclivity for hard work, directors are much more likely to take you seriously. Take every job going and turn your hand to as many styles of music as you can. Even after years of working I still have difficulty turning things down: I am constantly thrilled when someone decides they would like me to write the music for their show. Never take anything for granted. The number of weird and wonderful jobs I took on as a young composer and musical director is still staggering to me now. From the cramped and seedy nightclubs of Soho to commercials for car insurance, there’s something to learn from every experience, so no matter how far from your desired path a music job might seem, you should take it on, make the most of it and feel proud to be earning a pay cheque.

You will meet new people every time you take on a new project, and you never know where those relationships might lead. Always remember that the theatre industry is small: contacts are vital to keep your workload ticking over and you never know who might come to see your latest offering or what new opportunities lie right around the corner.


FormattedExtracted from Writing Music for the Stage: A Practical Guide for Theatremakers by Michael Bruce, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘A good score makes a world of difference to an actor. Read Michael Bruce’s book and you’ll understand why. He is a genius.’ Judi Dench

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), click here.

For more excerpts from Michael Bruce’s theatre scores, visit the Nick Hern Books SoundCloud page here.

Author photo by Steven McIntosh.

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Spotlight: CARDENIO at RSC

Gregory Doran directs Cardenio

Gregory Doran, editor and director of Cardenio

Gregory Doran has performed a masterful act of literary archaeology in bringing a lost Shakespeare play to the stage. Opening last night at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Cardenio is set in the heat and dust of Andalusia in seventeenth-century Spain. But the history of the play is every bit as thrilling as the play itself. Here, Greg charts the thrilling story of Cardenio, from the story’s first appearance in Cervantes’ Don Quixote to its re-imagining at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, via Shakespeare and Fletcher’s stage in 1612 and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1727.

Theatre is the most collaborative of the arts; and collaboration has been the key note of Cardenio since William Shakespeare and his younger colleague John Fletcher decided to write a play together, based on an episode in the Spanish best-seller, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, first published in England in 1612, in a translation by Thomas Shelton.

Cardenio somehow avoided inclusion in either the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, or of Humphrey Moseley’s publication of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays in 1647. But Moseley did register The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare (sic) for publication in 1653, in the Stationers’ Register. Perhaps Sir William Davenant (who promoted the rumour that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate child) had a manuscript of this play, and may have prepared it for performance by his company after the Restoration, with Thomas Betterton, the leading tragedian of his time, as Cardenio himself. Davenant’s company had done adaptations of the two other Shakespeare/Fletcher collaborations we know about: The Two Noble Kinsmen and All is True (Henry VIII); so why not Cardenio?

Cardenio production photo - Pippa Nixon as Dorotea and Alex Hassell as Fernando

Pippa Nixon as Dorotea and Alex Hassell as Fernando. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

The prompter to that company, one John Downes, retired in 1706, and it seems a manuscript copy of Cardenio, in his handwriting, fell into the hands of one Lewis Theobald. Theobald, who had trained in the law, had tried his hand at everything: classical translation, journalism, poetry, opera librettos and even a novel, and was scratching a living writing the new popular pantomimes at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But he finally came to prominence by challenging the great poet of the Augustan Age, Alexander Pope, for his sloppy inaccurate edition of Shakespeare. And Theobald’s follow-up move, designed to secure his place in the literary pantheon, was his adaptation of that Cardenio manuscript, which he called Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers. It was a success. It ran for ten consecutive performances at Drury Lane Theatre.

Back in 2003, when I was directing Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, his sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, we got a group of actors together to read Theobald’s Double Falshood. We all agreed that it had great potential, but that the plotting (particularly at the beginning) was convoluted, and it was missing several scenes. At which point, we put the play aside. However, after re-reading Shelton’s 1612 translation of Don Quixote, I realised that those missing scenes might be re-imagined from the very same source material that Shakespeare and Fletcher must have used.

Cardenio production photo - Oliver Rix as Cardenio

Oliver Rix as Cardenio. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

In 2007 on a visit to Spain with my production of The Canterbury Tales, I was introduced by the Almagro Festival director, Emilio Hernandez, to Antonio Álamo, a writer and the director of the Lope de Vega Theatre in Seville. Antonio is a Cervantes nut, so we inevitably discussed Cardenio. He alerted me to what an extraordinary story it is, and made me realise just how much Theobald (who admitted he was adapting it for the tastes and sensibilities of the London audience of his time) had removed: namely, much of the psychological complexity and rigour of the original. We would need to replace Cardenio’s ‘cojones’!

Further discussion with Spanish colleagues ensued. I travelled to Cordoba to accept a Bellas Artes medal, on behalf of the RSC, from the King of Spain (Laurence Boswell’s brilliant Spanish Golden Age Season had visited Madrid, as had my own production of Coriolanus: both had emanated from the RSC). In Alicante at a Cervantes/Shakespeare conference organised by Professor Jose Manuel Gonzalez de Sevilla, further discussions took place – and finally a visit to Seville with Antonio Álamo, to understand the significance of the story in Spain. Out of this visit came another draft, which we workshopped with the Hamlet company in 2008, and another draft was further developed at an RSC residency in Michigan, under the aegis of Professor Ralph Williams. Here we worked with Hispanic-American actors from the LAByrinth theatre company in New York. So, for example, Cardenio was played by a Mexican, and Don Bernardo by an actor from Los Angeles, which certainly revealed and rooted the play’s Spanish temperament.

Cardenio production photo - Alex Hassell as Fernando, Christopher Chilton as Priest, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda

Alex Hassell as Fernando, Christopher Chilton as Priest and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

Throughout the process, we poured over other seventeenth-century versions of the Cardenio story, by Pichou, by de Castro, by Bouscal, and by Thomas D’Urfey. But in an attempt to provide some sense of integrity to the piece, where extra lines were needed, I tried to limit myself to plundering only those Jacobean plays in which John Fletcher had drawn upon Cervantes.

Cardenio is the first new production in the Swan Theatre, since the RSC’s Transformation Project (another collaborative effort if ever there was one). The Swan opened twenty-five years ago with Fletcher and Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, so it is only fitting that we return with another play they worked on together, although this time the list of writing credits has grown to the length of a Hollywood blockbuster, with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Fletcher, Shelton, Theobald, etc.

Cardenio programme text (jacket)

Cardenio - Shakespeare's 'lost play' re-imagined

Cardenio reopened the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on April 27th, and runs to 6th October 2011. It has already received a glowing reception from the critics – ‘an extraordinary and theatrically powerful piece’ wrote the Guardian, ‘a spirited, entertaining and at times touching night at the theatre’ adds the Telegraph. Today’s piece is an extract from Gregory Doran’s Introduction to the published text of the play. To secure your own copy of the Bard’s ‘lost play’ – with a special 20% discount (and free p&p for UK customers), click here and add ‘Cardenio Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout and your discount will be applied when your order is processed.


Ken Campbell: The True Spirit of a Prankster

Michael Coveney

Michael Coveney, biographer of Ken Campbell

Published today – April Fools’ Day – is Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of the one-man comic whirlwind who tore through the British theatre establishment using well-rehearsed anarchy and a genius for surreal comedy. Here, Coveney recalls Campbell’s fondness for a good wheeze – including his notorious Royal Dickens Company hoax…

If there’s one side of Ken Campbell that illustrates his insistence that theatre should be lived ‘in the moment’, it’s his penchant for the prank, his love of the hoax. The maverick director, who died two years ago aged just 66, was a sucker for stunts and wheezes of all kinds in his work, from the physical clowning in his early Ken Campbell Road Show, right through to the impossible feats and adventures in his great epics – Illuminatus! and The Warp – and his unstoppable flow of unlikely tall stories in his magnificent solo performances. He mixed vaudeville with science fiction, pratfalls with philosophy and physical fun with furious linguistics.  This is what made him so unusual: he emerged from the world of weekly rep and the first stirrings of the fringe as a provocative instigator of the unexpected, the outrageous and the downright disrespectful.  He really did believe that the only things worth doing were impossible, and that going to the theatre should entail taking your life in your hands.

He also felt that creating mayhem was all part of the serious artistic process. Thus the idea that the Royal Shakespeare Company should be put on hold in favour of a similarly dedicated Royal Dickens Company may sound ridiculous, or even far-fetched, but the whole madcap adventure had a serious undertone.

Many theatre directors, even RSC ones, have occasionally called for a moratorium on the Bard. One of them was Matthew Warchus, who directed the Alex Jennings Hamlet for the RSC and is currently responsible for their biggest non-Shakespearian hit since Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, the Roald Dahl musical, Matilda.

Campbell’s RDC hoax, brilliantly conceived and inspirationally executed, was a response to the great success of David Edgar’s two-part version of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, exactly one year after Ken had launched his ten-play, 22-hour epic The Warp on an unsuspecting public at the ICA Theatre in the Mall.

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

But it was also a dig at the RSC’s increasingly commercial ambitions in the rush for sponsorship and world domination, and a reminder that some people were capable of ambitious, glorious work without any subsidy to speak of and outside the citadel of the establishment.

He despatched a series of letters on authentically reproduced notepaper, apparently signed by Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s artistic director, inviting leading directors and playwrights to embark on a series of Dickensian adaptations: Bill Bryden was asked to consider The Pickwick Papers; Peter Hall required to ‘have a look at’ Martin Chuzzlewit; and Trevor Griffiths urged to re-visit A Tale of Two Cities with Jonathan Pryce in mind as Sydney Carton.

Mike Leigh was offered twenty-three actors and a 17-week rehearsal period ‘to take on the challenge of Bleak House: looking forward to your reactions. Love, Trev.’ Mrs Thatcher’s arts minister, Norman St John-Stevas, was also kept in the loop: ‘Dickens will prove as big a draw as Shakespeare, if we can keep up this terrific standard…Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured. Love, Trev. PS: Perhaps we could get together for lunch some time soon to discuss this. The Pickwick Club would seem appropriate!’

Stories appeared in the newspapers and Trevor Nunn had to confirm, rather wearily, that no more Dickens adaptations were planned. He even told The Times that a lot of people had written back to him refusing his offers or, more embarrassingly, accepting them. Eventually, Campbell’s cover was blown by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and he emerged from a silhouette to make a confession, claiming that he’d been inspired to perpetrate the hoax in order to focus even more public attention on the excellence of the RSC’s work.

There are two things theatre is particularly good at: telling stories and making mischief. And Ken was an arch exponent of both. The Ken Campbell Road Show was planned to be an advertisement for the lively new work at the Bolton Octagon, but Ken made his own offshoot enterprise in pubs and clubs far more interesting and enjoyable than the stuff they were actually putting on the Octagon stage itself. This subversive campaign was rooted in a philosophy, deeply and joyously antagonistic towards all manifestations of official culture or indeed political correctness, and it burns through his work from start to finish.

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow (Bolton, 1969)

The Great Caper of my book’s title is also the title of a play at the Royal Court which recounted the Search for the Perfect Woman across continents as far as the Lapland tundra. This was an orgy of tall storytelling that mystified most critics but delighted a few, notably Ronald Bryden, who described the play as an alternative version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with Warren Mitchell as its Phileas Fogg and Ken himself, appearing on the stage where he had once been rejected as a ‘career’ director, as his Passepartout.

Pranks and wheezes were pursued not only for the sheer hell of it, but as a means of challenging the status quo and subverting the laws of propriety. It’s amazing how little theatre does this nowadays in any serious way, and Campbell was the past master. In Walking Like Geoffrey, the inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham pretend to be mad in order to avoid paying their taxes, while a member of the aristocracy tries to ‘pang’ himself into another universe. He approached the task literally, just as Bob Hoskins in the Road Show used to invite his partner to stretch a huge length of very strong knicker elastic across the heads of the audience before unwittingly releasing it full on into the innocent mush of his cooperating partner. Sylvester McCoy used not only to put ferrets down his trousers, but also bang nails up his nose and explode small bombs on his chest.

And throughout his career, Ken was daring his friends and colleagues to go further than is strictly allowable, in both art and life. His solo shows were a perfect amalgamation of heightened, creative reminiscence and speculative narrative propulsion, brilliant compilations of words and images that leave you breathless with excitement and helpless with laughter. And he liked nothing more than watching a daring improviser compose a sonnet forwards on the spot while counting backwards in sevens from five hundred.

It simply can’t be done: which is the only point in doing it.

Michael Coveney is chief critic and blogger for Whatsonstage.com. To purchase your copy of his new book – Ken Campbell: The Great Caper – hot off the press at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p (usual price £14.99, UK customers only), click here and quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also send a direct message on Twitter to @nickhernbooks quoting ‘THE GREAT CAPER’ and we’ll get back to you speedily to process your order!

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney

Also, to coincide with the book’s publication, Michael Coveney will be joined by special guests Richard Eyre, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Nina Conti and Daisy Campbell (Ken’s daughter), to talk about the maverick comic and his legacy, on Friday 8 April 2011 (5pm). Tickets cost £5 and can be purchased via the Royal Court’s website.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week for the week beginning 4 April 2011. For more information visit the BBC iPlayer website here.