In an interview with The Sunday Times this weekend it was rumoured that the Almeida Theatre's current production of ...
Miss Atomic Bomb interview with writer Adam Long
Looking at the upcoming openings in London's West End, there's a significant lack of original pieces of musical theatre. Whilst the London fringe continues to lead the way in terms of brand new work from emerging writing teams, the West End and the commercial sector sadly lags behind when it comes to exploring truly original stories and concepts. Comparing the Broadway and West End seasons, there's a significant lack of trust in musicals that are not based on films with popular titles or the back catalogues of famous bands or musicians. Our New York counterparts take a bigger risk when it comes to giving commercial life to original titles, but the risk is significant, and one that threatens to stifle artistic development within the form.
Miss Atomic Bomb is an example of extreme creativity and tenacious faith from a fearless producer. Whilst the St James Theatre in Victoria is certainly more intimate and less intimidating than a traditional West End house, the risk is just as high considering the economics of breaking even with a reduced capacity and shorter run.
Speaking with writer Adam Long, one of three composers behind Miss Atomic Bomb which shares the music, book and lyric credits across its three person creative team, Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long, I was interested to see how that equal divide worked. “I consider myself a songwriter but not a composer” Adam explains. “Gabriel has the composing chops and he's also very funny. In the end we just credited ourselves across all three areas of the show because by the end your couldn't really tease out who had been a songwriter and who had written lyrics – it all sort of blended across three aspects of it.”
Writing an original musical is not a task for the faint hearted. Look at the back catalogues of any established composer, and it's their truly original work that sticks out as being the anomaly on their record. Anyone Can Whistle is Sondheim's best example of an original musical narrative not based on a book, play or film, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game is probably his most original work not adapted from a previous source. In both cases these shows pail in commercial comparison and are kept alive by fans. “We were really naïve when we took this on” Adam says, “it hadn't really occurred to us that nobody does brand new things. When you think about the economics of it, producers have to put so much money into resourcing a show and when you've got a choice between something brand new or something that's got a proven thing behind it like a movie or a back catalogue of a band – but it doesn't always work.”
The absurdity of the situation is certainly something that Miss Atomic Bomb has going for it. Set in Las Vegas in the 1950s, the musical looks at the nuclear testing in the Nevada desert – something that quickly became a tourist attraction and spawned themed hotels, comedy personalities and beauty pageants. “We first got the idea about five years ago” Adam tells me. “I knew from my time working in the anti-nuclear movements in California that there are loads of interesting stories - Miss Atomic Bomb is probably the least bizarre – but the beauty contest really piqued our interest and the more we researched it the more we found how mysterious it was. No one keeps records of it, everyone suspects they grabbed women randomly stuck a dress on them and got them to pose in front of a mushroom cloud. It was a very shady time in Las Vegas because the gangsters were running everything and the military were out in the desert trying to be top secret – but at the same time they were broadcasting it on national television because they wanted the Russians to know what they were doing. We just thought this is brilliant subject matter for musical comedy.”
The tone of the musical certainly feels double edged, with the comedy masking the darker elements of the story and the situation, one that no doubt will be brand new to many audience members. “We had both been to see Hairspray and as we came out I said to my wife, you know what's interesting about Hairspray – it appeals to a broad audience” Adam explains. “People can come along and clap and sing, but there's also a message underneath about racial segregation – so if you want to think about it then you can. But equally if you want to check your brain at the door and have fun it works on that level too.”
The creative team certainly seem to hope that Miss Atomic Bomb works on a similar level, allowing audiences to understand multiple layers of the story, unearthing a background context that is as shocking as anything going on in America in 2016. Whilst there is a distinct political message underneath the drama, the elements come together to form a particularly traditional model of musical comedy. “The farmers reminded us of The Wizard of Oz, the soldiers reminded us of On the Town and the gangsters reminded us of Guys and Dolls” Adam laughs.
“We didn't start with the structure but little by little the structure seemed to grow organically. We did two workshops and at each workshop we gauged how people would react to it and started to realise that a certain kind of song needed to go here and a certain kind of song needed to go there. I had never really studied musical theatre but I studied as we went along. Organically things seemed to slot in where they traditionally would. When we showed the script to Bill Deamer, who is the world's greatest experts on musicals, he just immediately clicked with it and saw that this was a classic musical theatre structure but we've sort of moved it into new territory."
Looking around the rehearsal room at the talent available both within the cast and the creative team, I wondered how bringing more people onboard had helped shape the material and how much freedom the actors had been allowed in creating their original roles.
“We have all of these creative people in the room and it's about getting their input but also keeping the integrity of the characters, the plot and the script. It's been very dramatic – some tempers and tantrums, but in the end it looks like it's now coming together.” Anyone with even a passing interest of how the great musicals of the past have been constructed will have their own favourite backstage story full of tantrums and creative differences, NBC even devoted a whole TV series to it with 'Smash', so it comes as no surprise that it hasn't always been smooth sailing.
“You can write lines and you can write characters, but your actors have to make them come to life. There are a lot of questions that actors will ask you – if something doesn't quite sound right for example. With Catherine and all members of the cast we want everyone to feel that they're the star of the show in their own way – we've tried to make sure that at every moment there's as reason why people are doing what they're doing, so it's been about assimilating a lot of different creative input from a lot of people.”
“I think the support has been there in the industry. There's been a lot of heads turning and scepticism – lots of people saying “what the fuck do you think you're doing – are you insane?” As this has gained momentum and people have seen we're serious about it, people have come out of the woodwork to help us push it along but it's tough! Nobody's going to get rich off of this, we've been lucky to find a producer like Tonia who is taking a huge risk with it.”
The well quoted statistic that only 20% of new musicals end up turning a profit and succeeding is neither comforting or helpful, but it does help contextualise the hard work and effort that goes into every element of a production. Sometimes it's as much about the process as it is the final product, and the creative team are under no illusions that the four week run at the St James will be final, polished product. Musicals are never finished, they're thrown up in whatever state they happen to be by opening night. As a creative, it's important to know when to step away from a project, but they are rarely ever finished – just not worked on any more.
“We'd love to go on” Adam laughs. “If you ever looked at the original script we definitely wrote it for a big Broadway production. That was the way we had to write – let's assume there's no limits, we can have any budget that we want. If it's a success at the St James we'd love to see it have a life beyond – the West End, Broadway, Las Vegas even. It would be really provocative if Japan was interested in a production, as they're the only country who have actually had atom bombs dropped on their country. It would have added poignancy there.”
How will he feel on opening night, I ask? “At this point I feel it's a show I want to see, so I guess you could say it's the most long winded, expensive and difficult way of getting a ticket to something you want to see...”
Miss Atomic Bomb is running at St James Theatre until 9 April 2016.