Toby Huelin is no newcomer to the musical scene of Ox. Having been Musical Director to both the largest-ever (The Producers) and the fastest-selling (A Theory of Justice, The Musical) Oxford productions, his upcoming musical In Her Eyes is set to be of a similarly successful tenor.
IHE is a Toby Huelin original; the show met with great acclaim in its Jersey 2013 premiere, and Round II is shaping up to be even more spectacular. Love, heartbreak, lies, trust – an entirely female cast pulls together to give a sixty-minute portrait of the downward spiral of an impassioned seventeen year-old girl.
We chat to four of the team behind the new musical to find out more…
Toby Huelin, Composer
I was asked by a school at home to write a show for some of their students around Easter time last year. After much agonising over the concept for the show, the book, music and lyrics were written in Trinity term last year, with subsequent revisions and additions for this new Oxford production.
The plot was inspired by a similar situation that my family and I were talking about over dinner one day last year – it wasn’t something directly related to anyone we knew, but I think the show deals with a lot of issues such as parent-teenager relationships, bullying, friendships and so on that are universal to school situations (and beyond).
Another trip to the Ed-Fringe?
Possibly… watch this space! I’m very keen for the show to have a further life after Oxford, whether that be at the Fringe or in some other location.
I hope, a moving, relevant and intimate story which makes the audience think and hopefully says something – for the show to stay with them past leaving the theatre. I hope they’ll be humming some of the tunes too!
Lucy Fielding, Director
In Her Eyes is a musical that challenges the genre, combining a heart-wrenching story with complex music. It shifts between traditional musical-theatre moments, which seem to poke fun at the genre, reminding the audience that they are watching a musical, and much more serious moments that are almost operatic to listen to, as we hear the narrator’s struggle to piece the events together.
There is a really nice contrast between the innocence at the start of the musical, with the protagonist, Freddie, singing naively about her new boyfriend, and the school girls enjoying the start of the summer holiday, and the coldness and heaviness of the final scenes, in which Freddie is driven away by the lies and rumours that surround her. At the end of the show, everything becomes very still and intense, making the earlier frivolities seem trivial. Another favourite scene is one in which Freddie’s mother laments the breakdown of their relationship. If this scene doesn’t move you to tears, nothing else will. Heather Young captures the pain of Freddie’s mother so well, and her frustration is evident. Musically, Toby conveys the idea of rumour spreading by using intricate textures to highlight how quickly rumour can spread and be distorted. The questions ‘Did you hear about Freddie? Do you know all the things she’s been up to?’ are cleverly relayed from girl to girl, coming in at different points in the bar, so the overall effect is that we can no longer distinguish what is being said, but can just catch the occasional ‘Freddie’. This is representative of how easily the truth can be distorted until it is unrecognisable.
One of the trickiest things for the cast has been learning the music! Toby’s score is complicated and dissonant, and many a laugh has been had as the cast try to maintain their own part whilst other, completely different tunes are being laid on top! One of the main challenges has been to bring out the role of the narrator. She is present from start to finish, and sits alongside the audience, voicing aloud her thoughts and almost conjuring up the memories we see played out on stage. We see the show in her eyes, through a series of events which she relates to us, and a number of scenes which she imagines, her thoughts being influenced by the rumours she has heard at school. There are moments in which all the thoughts in her head start playing all at the same time, and she struggles to return to her train of thought. At this point she almost breaks out of her bubble of thoughts, and nearly disturbs the action. Her role is fascinating, and Ellen Timothy plays her incredibly well, singing some of the most difficult music with ease.
Heather Young, Mother
Unique Selling Point?
Firstly, it’s a student written musical – not only is the text written by a student but so is all the music and all the orchestrations. In addition, the concept is entirely original and the story isn’t based on any existing text or stimulus. It’s really different to be working on an entirely original conception. I think what makes it stand out from other musicals specifically is the fact that it is by no means a jazz hands musical and it completely fights that stereotype.
Totally! It’s nice to have the opportunity to work with an all female cast which is quite a rarity. The subject matter, whilst not cheery, is certainly thought provoking – I should think almost everyone can remember problems caused by rumours and bitchiness at school. It seems like such an everyday occurrence, and IHE throws a different light on it and forces the audience, and us as the cast, to think about the ramifications of such behaviour.
It’s very different to any other musical I’ve done due to it being a fusion of very modern musical theatre trends and a more operatic style.
As the mother, I get to sing ‘She Leaves Home’ towards the end of the show, which is effectively a monologue for the character of the mother. It has a beautiful melody and is really very moving – I defy anyone not to at least well up! I feel very honoured to get to perform this number.
Ellen Timothy, Narrator
IHE is such an exciting mixture of music, blending classical, musical theatre and contemporary styles, which makes it feel very unique. It’s also a brand new work, composed and written entirely by Oxford students, so that’s really exciting.
Definitely! It might be very sad and dark in places, but that’s what makes it powerful and cathartic for both the performers and the audience. Also, it helps that all of the cast and crew are really lovely, so there’s lots of laughing in rehearsals too.
The cast of IHE is quite a lot smaller than most of the productions I’ve been in, which gives it a really intimate and intense atmosphere. Also, we’re doing the show in the round with audience members on three sides of the space, so that adds an unusual and interesting dynamic. The audience and the performers are kept in very close proximity (my character, the narrator, even sits amongst the audience for the entire show), so there’s none of the usual separation from what’s happening on stage.
I really love the reprise of ‘All of my life’, which includes a duet between Freddie and her mother. The melody is simple, but so beautiful and effective with its soaring harmony. ‘Did You Hear’, which is the climax of the show when everyone sings together for the first time, is also very striking.