BWW Interview: Composer and Lyricist Robert J Sherman Talks BUMBLESCRATCH
Robert J Sherman's work includes musicals Love Birds and Bumblescratch. The latter, set during the Great Plague and Great Fire of London and told from a perspective of a plague rat, received a gala concert presentation last year at the Adelphi Theatre starring Darren Day, Jessica Martin and Michael Xavier. The cast recording is now available on CD from SimG Records.
Was music always a part of your life?
Yes, I come from a long line of songwriters. My father and my uncle are The Sherman Brothers - they wrote for film musicals including Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book. My grandfather put the brothers together - he himself was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter who wrote for everyone from Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra. And actually my great-grandfather was the court composer to Emperor Franz Josef, so Shermans we go way back!
My earliest memory is of wanting to be a songwriter. My father would bring home records from films he was working on, and I remember dancing around to this music. He wasn't just writing songs, he was writing children's songs, so, as a child myself, it was music that I could readily identify with.
Did you do a lot of music at school?
I really blossomed in high school. I really enjoyed marching band and was eventually elected drum major, and I was also in the madrigal singers. There was a tradition that each year, a student would write the graduation song - in my year, I stepped up.
Was your father a big musical influence, or did you want to differentiate yourself?
My father was a very loving person and sensitive to what it was like to be the son of a prominent songwriter. He never pushed me - it was always something I wanted to do. I was impressed by his work, but I didn't strive to imitate it. There's no doubt though, considering the arc of life until now, that he was my great mentor. I also have fun referencing his work. For example, in Love Birds there are four penguins singing in a barbershop quartet - they were a very deliberate homage to the penguins in Mary Poppins.
Were you particularly influenced by any other composers?
Absolutely. One example comes to mind: I did a show called The Penguin Pirate, which was an animation musical, and there's definitely a Gilbert and Sullivan influence, not least because it's piratical. G&S are the great-grandfathers of musical theatre. We're all here because they did what they did so well. I'm a big advocate for songwriters knowing musical theatre history - every writer owes himself an education. You can't move forward without knowing the past.
What was the genesis of Bumblescratch?
Talking about history - I had just moved to London and was deeply intrigued by the layered history found in every building and road, every street corner of the city, and I wanted to capture that in some way. When it occurred to me that the Great Plague and Great Fire had never been the subject of a major show, it struck me as an opportunity not to be passed up. London in the 1660s lends itself to the themes of redemption and rebirth - and that's what Bumblescratch is all about.
And great timing with the 350th anniversary
I'd actually written the show several years earlier, but the big anniversary definitely fed into the impetus for the charity night, and then doing the album since we had everybody together. By doing the show when we did we were also able to raise money for Variety: The Children's Charity.
Are plague rats a hard sell?
Several producers asked me to change the characters from rats to humans, or to hedgehogs - there's actually a theory that hedgehogs (not rats) were the cause of the Great Fire. And you should know, I'm not a fan of rats, but the whole point of the story is that redemption is available, even for the seemingly unredeemable character.
Melbourne Bumblescratch, the protagonist, is just such a villain, an ugly, gruesome beast. The audience is compelled to think, "How's he going to get out of this? How are we ever supposed to like him?" Sure, he has his fun, but he's no Fagin - indeed he's only reluctantly nice, and only to one character - and he's certainly not a Jean Valjean-styled saint. Writing Melbourne as I did was taking a real chance. But I think he works.
Did you deliberately look for an unusual take on the subject?
That's a simple rule when I write: I look for interesting characters who find themselves in unusual situations. Bumblescratch is a pretty intense, heightened drama. That's why I chose to write it as a sung-through musical - I didn't want to lose that intensity for a moment. Musical theatre can facilitate great expression and depth, and reveal the soul of a character - even a character to whom we might not initially be drawn.
Was there much tinkering during the rehearsal process?
Not that much - it's hard to change things once they are musically embedded. Because of a very truncated rehearsal process, all of the orchestrations had to be completed prior to the rehearsal period. This show was more to give a taste of the piece. But even in this format, our talented director/choreographer Stewart Nicholls can make a concert look like a West End show.
Was it a conscious choice to do the music, lyrics and book all yourself?
I do tend to delve into things myself - I enjoy the challenge. Once I have something down on paper, then I'll bring it into a director whom I trust. And I very much welcome their input when I do. Theatre is always collaboration - you can't make a musical by yourself. Everyone ultimately pitches in. I might have ideas on costume design, and the costume designer might well come back with a really good point about a character. Tasks are rarely as segregated as their titles imply.
When did the idea of a recording come up?
From the onset it was my intention to do a recording. We already had this outstanding group of handpicked musicians comprising our orchestra, some of the best musicians in London. We also were blessed with brilliant new orchestrations by Rowland Lee, so it would have been a real shame not to record it. As I said the live show was never meant to be a full staging - at least not at this point; this was a concert, and there's still lots of development to do - but with the CD we've got a really first-rate demonstration of the show's potential.
What did the cast bring to it?
We were very fortunate to have four great stars and an absolutely brilliant supporting cast. Leading the pack was Darren Day, who of course was one of the original Josephs, the twice Olivier-nominated Michael Xavier, whose character Hookbeard acts as Melbourne's conscience, the very talented Jessica Martin, and this terrific little boy Ilan Galkoff playing young Perry. They bring such justice to the score - as a songwriter, I couldn't be happier. Hearing great singers performing your music - there's nothing like it. It's a euphoric sensation.
How much research did you do?
Again, a real joy. I burrowed my way through the streets of London and read quite a number of books, including Peter Ackroyd's biography of London, also linguistic books to get into the language of the time. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable was particularly interesting and useful. The 1660s was an era of great linguistic invention. Like young Perry in the show, I too was new to the city, so everything was new and exciting. That's what I wanted to get across in the writing.
Faith is an important aspect of the show - did that seem right for the time in which it's set?
Faith is always a tricky subject to broach in a musical. But because Bumblescratch takes place during an era of increased death and disease, faith is necessarily a part of the story. In this era, some found their faith strengthened, others were left questioning. During a moment of crisis, Melbourne acknowledges that he has been a scourge upon humanity, but then realises that he too is a creation of God's. This changes him. Because the story takes place in 1660s London, a faith realisation is more likely to be framed in the Christian terms - to write it otherwise would do a disservice to the thinking of the time.
There's a lot of resonance in that hopeful message for us right now
I actually wrote the liner notes for the CD about a week after Trump won the election and I say exactly that. It was a deeply depressing week and my notes reflect the state I was in. But, I write, if Melbourne, a plague rat, can find his way to redemption, then maybe we can too.
Would you consider it a family show?
Yes and no. It's funny, because of my dad and heritage, people often assume my work will have that element. I'd say it's a show for a modern family, the way something like Matilda is a great family show even though it's about the abuse of children. It's got a little of that Roald Dahl gruesome in it.
What's the next stage for Bumblescratch?
I would love to bring it to a regional theatre and do a proper six-week development, and then, after a short regional run, hopefully transfer it to the West End - that's the goal. It's such a British story in so many ways. I think it could become a part of the curriculum - the best way to learn about our history is through stories.
Do you think there's enough support for new musicals?
No, not enough. I can understand why investors and producers are attracted to shows based on books or movies we already know, but room should be made for original shows too. They're the future lifeblood of the theatre - that goes for producers, investors and also for audiences. Audiences are also timid to see an unknown show. It wasn't always this way - writers would regularly create original stage musicals and they'd often be hugely successful. Actually the musicals that are most ground-breaking and that have had the most lasting success are the ones, ironically, taking the most chances at their inception.
Any advice for budding songwriters?
Write something that you can actually get produced. It may seem like a contradiction from what I just said, but until you have work on the stage, you're missing a major piece of your education. It's easy to live within your own writing, because we writers do enjoy writing. We love to live in our own private worlds. But a serious young writer needs the experience of interfacing with producers, directors, actors. They need to get feedback, read reviews. So write a two-hander and get it produced - whether it's a success or failure, it'll be a success for you because you'll have learned so much from that experience.
The London Concert Cast Recording of Bumblescratch is now available at: dresscircle.com, amazon.com and amazon.co.uk