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Interview with composer Howard Goodall

Composer Howard Goodall is one of Britain's most successful contemporary composers working across a wide range of mediums from choral music, TV themes and musical theatre. His music has been celebrated internationally, and recorded by numerous recording artists around the globe.

His latest musical Bend it Like Beckham recently won the Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical Production, and receieved excellent reviews when it opened at the Phoenix Theatre in 2015. Despite the success, the show will end its West End run on 5 March 2016, before mounting an Indian tour - the first West End musical of its kind to do so.

We spoke to the composer, who is known for theme tunes as diverse as 'Red Dwarf', 'Blackadder' and 'The Vicar of Dibley', as well as musicals such as 'The Kissing Dance', 'The Hired Man', 'Love Story' and 'Girlfriends' about the process of writing a new musical, and the challenges posed by adapting a film for the stage.

DOH: Dom O'Hanlon
HG: Howard Goodall

DOH: Howard, how does it feel to have won this award for Bend it Like Beckham, despite the fact the show recently posted its closing?

HG: It's brilliant – you have to get used to the fact when you write musicals as I do, that you may write some and not get recognised for them. Writing a new musical is about one of the hardest things you can do, so I'm really chuffed. Also, if you look at the market and you've written a show where every note that the audience hears will be brand new, and it's competing in a market where the music is already very well known – either musicals based on songs or those shows that have been on so long everyone already knows every number - I was very conscious of the fact that we were doing something quite new.

DOH: It's a tough market for a brand new musical...

HG: I was aware and conscious of the fact that we were trying to do a brand new piece, the example of history is that new shows take a while to 'bed in' and find an audience – and they do, if they're any good. And how fantastic to get this award, it's really nice to get a pat on the back to show that we're worth pointing out. I'd also say, even if we hadn't won any awards and only run just one night it would have still been a fantastic experience. I've absolutely loved every moment of it – I loved the wonderful company. For me, the fabric of the piece has been a joy to work on. Much of the work has involved learning – learning about the structure and style of new's just been a fantastic experience.

DOH: Despite it being a new musical, wouldn't you say it's your most 'commercial' title to date?

HG: I would have thought so – and the scale, it's certainly the biggest. I remember seeing on the opening night that around 150 people have worked on the show. I've had three shows in the West End before but nothing of this scale and audience reach and that's a new thing for me. What we've really noted is the diversity of the audience – much a less traditional theatre-going audience, and it's brilliant. That has been exhilarating and nerve-racking – bringing new people to the West End, not trying to tap into an existing stream of people – you're talking to a brand new audience. That brings all sorts of joys. A lot of the things you and I would take for granted, a lot of our audience wouldn't necessarily take for granted.

DOH: What's the process like working on an adaptation of a screenplay as opposed to a dramatic source such as 'A Winter's Tale' or 'The Kissing Dance'?

HG: The way I work, I take in the source - so the film. I look at what are the main emotional moments and themes, and then don't keep going back to it. Once the piece has begun to work in its new form, it sort of becomes itself, you can ask questions about structure and shape but it becomes very different in the theatre. In a film you can inter-cut in real time between one scene and another- you can't do that on stage. The only way I could think of doing that was in the music – the music could tell you two different things were going on at the same time, as could the choreography. What you're actually doing is painting the images in the audience's imagination because you can't possibly do it in reality. You create the new musical architecture and you have to forget the film, they're different mediums. You worry about how the characters will work in new settings, and if you worry about it, it just won't work. A film can do an extreme close up on a character – on stage you've got to give the audience that close up musically and show them through song what's happening in the character's head. So I don't usually go back to the source – you might for a song lyric to see what they say, but mostly once you're inside the new form, you follow that.

DOH: Did you find you ended up with a trunk box of songs?

HG: Odly enough we had a trunk box for just one character. Lots of songs that we didn't use. Maybe ten? We had loads of songs for them that we just couldn't place, and we had to find a way into how that character could interact musically. It's proof that you shouldn't be too precious – amongst those ten songs some of them are perfectly okay, but the one we ended up with is certainly the right one. It's not like you sit there every night and think you've got it wrong – it was the only one that worked in that moment. We definitely got the right song in that process. There was a moment in the character that needed to be sorted out and it needed to be done by one song in one place – and we kept writing songs that were perfectly valid but just didn't do that job.

DOH: Meanwhile your other musicals are having quite a revival on the London Fringe – The Union did a whole season, and Ye Olde Rose and Crown have 'The Kissing Dance' coming up.

HG: Yes – my career has been a lot of doing things in small spaces. I write to be very versatile but it also puts a lot of pressure on the piece. Big shows can often fall apart if they're designed to specifically be big, you have to go through the work and keep it tight.

DOH: That's how good shows stand up in small spaces.

HG: Absolutely. For example 'Chess', when it was on in the West End it never found its dramatic coherence. When it was revived in a much stripped down version they were more able to show the dramatic story – it's quite liberating. You have to be very clear about what aspect of the show works and follow that through. I've written quite a few now and it's very nice that they get done and get done very differently. My pieces find their way – be free.

DOH: Are you currently working on new projects or musicals?

HG: The next immediate thing is the Indian tour of 'Bend it Like Beckham' which will certainly be a voyage of discovery. I'm also working on some other projects...

DOH: Multiple irons in the fire....

HG: Exactly.

Howard's musical Bend it Like Beckham is running at the Phoenix Theatre to 4 March 2016.

An earlier musical The Kissing Dance is running at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown Pub Theatre in north London until 28 February 2016.

- Edited by Dom O'Hanlon

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