Interview with The Go Between composer Richard Taylor
Composer Richard Taylor has suddenly found himself at one of the busiest points in his career. Whilst one musical Flowers For Mrs Harris is preparing to begin previews at the Sheffield Crucible, his earlier musical The Go Between is set to begin previews in London's West End on 27 May, some fifteen years after first being written.
Starring Michael Crawford in the leading role, the journey to the West End has certainly been an interesting one, and meeting Richard mid rehearsals for both productions I was keen to find out about the show's journey to the stage.
DO: Dom O'Hanlon
RT: Richard Taylor
RT: I think you always take on a project because it's personal in some way. It's about a boy who is a fish out of water and I think that's something we all identify with at some point. It's taken so long to get it off the ground as a show and its journey to get it to here, to London, has been such an interesting one, it has got an added personal resonance. Fifteen years ago when we started this show, producers were saying things like "the English class system - audiences don't understand it, it's gone out of fashion". In that time we've had 'Downton Abbey' which is if nothing else an A-Z of the English class system, so suddenly that's back in vogue and time opens up again. The main part in the show of course is Michael Crawford, but his younger self on stage is a 12 year old boy who drives a lot of the scenes. Fifteen years ago pre-'Matilda' and 'Billy Elliot', it was a time where people weren't sure that a young boy could drive a scene and really hold an audience's attention for two hours. In a way time has really caught us up, and that's not an issue any more, instead there's an excitement about it.
DOH: Do you think those shows have raised the standard of child performers?
RT: To be honest it's amazing that we've never had anything like the pool of kids to choose from like we've had in London. We've been doubly blown away this time by the talent on offer. It's a tough part, maybe we've seen around 300 children, it's quite difficult to narrow it down to the ones who are perfect. We have 6 boys all together and it's a lot to maintain. They're young enough that they've probably all got a couple of years yet before their voices break!
DOH: Was Michael Crawford getting on board the turning point for the production?
RT: Michael has been interested in it for a couple of years, and the producers have been with it for five years now. It's like turning a tanker, I'm new to this and am learning as we go along how it all works. Trying to get Michael's availability to align with the right theatre availability is often quite tricky, and that's the thing. This is a very particular type of show – it's a chamber musical, it's not a wide-screen blockbuster. It's very intimate, we needed the right theatre to put it into. There's always been about two or three theatres on the list and our absolute top has always been the Apollo, so we were delighted that it happened.
DOH: Had you always wanted him to play the role? How did that come about?
RT: I've always wanted Michael – I've been a huge fan since I was little. I caught 'Barnum' when it was televised and I watched it and watched it until the video wore through. I guess his voice has always been in my head, but I never thought we would get him. We produced it regionally and the producers asked us about the casting and said "aim high, go away and come up with a list of people who you'd like to approach". My list had one name on it, and that was Michael Crawford. I saw him in 'The Wizard of Oz', and the second he walked on that stage and turned towards the audience I just saw Colston. It's that twinkle that he has in his eye that takes him back to being a little boy – that magic he has as a performer. I said "that's who I want!" There were lots of gasps and rolling of eyes, and it was a full year later that I got the phone call and I literally could have been blown down – a crazy phone call. One of those red letter days, quickly followed by the day that I met him and we worked through the score.
DOH: So that must have been a dream come true! Were you very nervous to meet him and start work?
RT: He makes it very easy – they always say don't meet your heroes, and so I was nervous. From that initial handshake he ceases to be Michael Crawford and just becomes Michael standing in front of you. I heard Bill Kenwright once say that he doesn't wear the cloak of a big star despite being a big star, and it's absolutely true – he was just someone else standing there. He was equally nervous, I was nervous being with him and that was great that we were both nervous together, and we can work from that. We sat at a piano and sang through it slowly, he listened to it and just absorbed the music, so it was just an absolute pleasure. We played around with some keys and really quite quickly he latched on. It's sort of in his DNA in a way – he started off singing Benjamin Britten when he was a boy treble. The story resonates with him, some of this score is very tricky and in a sense he's come full circle, he's going back to where he has started.
DOH: Did you find yourself adapting any of the material since he came aboard?
RT: This has kept evolving but it has evolved since Michael came aboard. It hasn't been rewritten, there's barely a note of it that's been changed, but in terms of nuance and accompaniment. He's such an incredible actor when he's singing, all the cogs are turning – he's a consummate performer. So I found things like the accompaniment needs to do a lot less than perhaps it did before. Often the accompaniment is very busy to show the thought process of the character – you don't need to do that with Michael, because the thought process is all there to see. The accompaniment can be stripped right back because he's doing all that work. That's informed Flowers for Mrs Harris – I don't think this piece would be what it is had I not spent the past years working with Michael.
DOH: What was it about the source novel that made you decide to devote so many years working on the musical version?
RT: I didn't think it would be years of my life when I started out, if I did I would have run away very fast! It's a very complex novel, dealing with the innocence that you lose when you grow up, and people always think that when you grow up you gain experience and you grow, and this story deals with what you lose when you're an adult and cease being a child. It's a fascinating idea, that of looking back and thinking your life has been wasted. There's so much theatricality in it. I never wanted to just put the novel on the stage in a linear way, and I also thought that it had to feel like L. P. Hartley was in the room with us and he wasn't writing a novel, he was writing a stage piece. Ideally I want people to come and see this and have no idea that it wasn't written originally as a stage musical. It's a time travel story really and that's what brilliant about it. It's fantastic to put different times on the stage which we do.
DOH: Did you set out adapting the book to be a commercial West End musical?
RT: It is extraordinary that it's getting a commercial run and that's hats off to the producers. It wasn't really written as a West End piece and that's why this is such a bonus, and I'm curious to see it take on that life. If I had set out writing a piece for the West End I think it would be quite a different piece. I think it's otherworldliness might make it quite an unusual feature for the west end which I hope will be a very welcome one. It's a great time for British musicals – 'Bend it Like Beckham', 'Mrs Henderson Presents' – there's no shortage of British musicals coming through now which wasn't the case a few years ago.
DOH: Do you think enough is being done at a grass-roots level to support new writers?
RT: I think it's getting a lot better – we worked with Perfect Pitch, and they were invaluable in their support – if it wasn't for them this piece would still be sat in a draw. They are working really hard to try and give opportunities to give composers a platform and real practical help to make it work, that's what made this happen, so Perfect Pitch I can't big them up enough.
DOH: As a composer of musical theatre, what's your biggest frustration with the industry, or something you'd like to change?
RT: I always say we should have as many words for musical as the Eskimos have for snow. There are just so many different types of musicals. If someone says they're going to see a play, no one will say "I don't like plays", or would assume a type of play, they would ask "why type of play?" If you say "I'm going to say a musical", that's often the full stop. People will say "Oh I don't like musicals" or assume that it's a big frothy fun night out – and there's nothing wrong with that, but there are as many different types of musicals as there are plays. It's a very broad church, musical theatre. I think any story can be made into a musical, and thank goodness that modern ones are going towards darker subject matter. Every story is different – I'm a big fan of Grand Designs, and Kevin McCloud always says you have to listen to what the building needs, don't just look at the ground-plan – every building has a different set of needs, and I think it's the same with any story which you want to turn into a musical. You've got to listen to what the story wants rather than shoehorn it into a formulaic set of boxes.
DOH: What do you hope London audiences will get out of The Go Between?
RT: Hopefully they'll think it's a delicate jewel of a piece. It has got a lot that is unique to it, all those time scales that we're playing with – it's quite complex but it's a fascinating study of memory. It's got one piano, which doesn't mean it's a cut price production – it's an orchestra of ten fingers. One piano represents the highs and lows of one man's experience – the highs and lows of life. The piano player is like another character on stage. It's a unique piece in the context of the current West End.