Once upon a time, I decided to write a musical – I think it was about Noah’s Ark (I wanted to do Joseph, but someone called Lloyd Webber got there before me). Unfortunately this masterpiece never saw the light of day, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing, but also largely because I was only 10 at the time.
Anyway, since then I’ve seen many, many musicals that did get finished – some recently, others years or even decades before. But, as I discovered to my cost, great musicals don’t just pop fully formed into existence; they have to start somewhere.
Other forms of theatre have scratch nights, where companies can perform an excerpt from their work in progress, in return for audience feedback. Producer Hannah Elsy observed that there was no such thing for musical theatre, so she organised one at independent arts venue Rich Mix, featuring 20-minute snippets of four musicals currently in development.
The evening began with Paper Hearts by Liam O’Rafferty, a folky actor-musician show with a bit of a Once vibe about it. The story features a struggling writer who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend and lost his job in a bookshop – but a novel writing competition might just save the day… Being a fan of both folk music and books, I was excited by the potential of Paper Hearts, and really enjoyed the excerpt presented. That said, the acoustics were a bit frustrating, as the singers, performing without microphones, were frequently drowned out by the band, and so it became almost impossible to make out all the words, or to follow the story as it switched back and forth between modern day UK and 1940s Russia.
Next up was A Major Catastrophe! which was written by Brunel graduates George Gehm, Amber Kusak, Sam Ody and Glenn Clarke, originally as a dissertation piece. A cheerleader, a geek and a grumpy British guy have been living in a bunker for five years since a virus wiped out humanity, while the geek’s dad, a scientist, looks for a cure. It’s a fun story with some catchy songs and strong vocal performances, although the British guy’s lament about the horrors of living with Americans might not be to everyone’s taste. With a bit of plot and character development, this could be a really entertaining show.
The evening’s third performance was Summer Nights in Space, written by Henry Carpenter and directed by Hannah Elsy. It’s the story of John Spartan, an astronaut who’s finally achieved his dream of going into space, but found it’s not quite all he hoped it would be. With tongue firmly in cheek throughout, a clever, funny script and a commanding performance from Freddie Fullerton as John get the show off to a flying start, and we were left on a cliffhanger, wanting to know what happens next to our flawed but loveable hero.
Finally, we were invited to stand and cast aside our chairs for Wasted, a Kevin Spacey Foundation Award-winning rock musical about the Brontës, written by Christopher Ash and Carl Miller. From Emily, a goth before her time, to Branwell, who desperately wants to be something, even if it’s just a sexy corpse, the show gives the literary family’s angst a modern twist that’s fun and fresh. Some prior knowledge is probably needed, as the songs reference events in the siblings’ lives and there’s no spoken script to provide context. (Maybe, in keeping with the ‘rock gig’ vibe, some banter with the crowd could help with this.)
This might have been the first musical theatre scratch night, but let’s hope it won’t be the last. All four shows had great potential and showcased some fantastic talent. I’d happily watch any of them in full to see how they develop in the future.