Rachel Bellman shares her experience of working with and watching those at the forefront of a new non-traditional musical .
Over three years ago, eight drama students devised twenty minutes of a musical as part of their MA Musical Theatre course, and on June 13th of this year, that musical will have its world premiere performance at the Wilde Theatre, South Hill Park. Between then and now, the musical From Up Here has undergone many rewrites as it has been developed by Perfect Pitch Musicals, an organisation committed to doing exactly this – supporting new musicals on their journey from the first draft to production. The original writing team was initially whittled down to four people, and three workshops and a showcase later, Aaron Lee Lambert took over as sole writer.
Back in May, I sat in on the first two days of a workshop in central London, where the world premiere cast, many of whom have starred in the West End, had the chance to work through their songs with director Luke Sheppard and music director Tom Attwood before heading to South Hill Park in order to get the show on its feet. The cast learned all the songs in the show in just two days, one and a half if you consider the fact that they knew their parts by the read-through on Sunday afternoon. Musicals are notorious for the sheer amount of time required to develop them. “This production will be the culmination of a long process to develop this non-traditional musical”, says Andy Barnes, Executive Producer of Perfect Pitch, but every previous workshop, reading and meeting has been “essential to help its continued growth”. In terms of the bigger picture, this show may finally be approaching the finishing line, but in keeping with nearly every great musical ever written, that hardly means that the work is over, and throughout the workshop every lyric and note was under scrutiny. The atmosphere in the rehearsal room was relaxed but energized as the five cast members sat around the piano and explored their characters, getting to grips with the often very difficult songs. For ‘Positive’, a hilarious but fiendish song about the consequences of a one-night stand, the lyrics were tried out spoken à la Rex Harrison, sung operatically, and tested in terms of rhythm and scansion in order to find the right emphasis and the right comical tone. During the workshop, lyrics were cut and rewritten, and new rhymes were thrown about and then thrown out (alas, ‘prescriptive’ and ‘contraceptive’ do not rhyme).
As an intimate, five person piece, From Up Here is worlds apart from the musicals that you usually encounter on the West End. Rather, it fits into the emergent genre of modern chamber musicals that resembles Stephen Sondheim more closely than it does Rogers and Hammerstein and that have begun to spring up ever more frequently in London’s fringe venues, using intimacy to their advantage as the songs delve deep into the inner psyches of the characters. Musicals such as Lift, also developed by Perfect Pitch, the entirety of which is set in (did you guess?) the infamous Covent Garden lift. These musicals tend to focus on real characters in real situations, and to be more experimental in form than their larger counterparts.
“We want different things from thirty years ago”, says Andy Barnes. “More relevant things.” As for From Up Here, “it’s not a subject that a typical musical would address, but it pushes the boundaries of what a musical can be. Structurally, it’s different.” Set on the Brooklyn Bridge, the musical follows the lives of five strangers, exploring their relationships and choices as their paths cross over the course of a year. The scenes segue fluidly from one to the next, and the songs support these seamless transitions, flowing in and out of the characters’ interactions. “We have to make sure that the structure of the show allows the music to inform the piece”. It is clear from the read-through that this is exactly what has been achieved. Though many of the songs would work in and of themselves, they are ultimately tied into the narrative fabric of the piece, and each one provides vital depth and development to the characters. Surprisingly for a piece that began as the work of eight different people, the entire musical is incredibly unified, and while the music hints at influences from modern American musical theatre composers such as Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel, the score has its own distinct ethereal beauty.
From Up Here runs from the 13th to the 15th of June at South Hill Park, and for those who are unable to catch it in the theatre, it will also be streamed live online on June 14th.