BWW Interview: Creators Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary Talk The ADRIAN MOLE Musical
Playwright Jake Brunger and composer Pippa Cleary have been creating musicals together since they met at Bristol University in 2008. Their work includes Jet Set Go!, The Great British Soap Opera and an adaptation of Sue Townsend's beloved The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾. The latter begins a London run at the Menier Chocolate Factory this week.
What was the first musical you saw?
Pippa: I saw a show called Divorce Me Darling when I was eight and I can still remember the songs they were so catchy! Shortly after that it was probably Oliver! and then Salad Days. All these got me writing little shows with my cousins, which they did not thank me for...
Jake: I was so obsessed with The Sound of Music film as a child that my parents took me to see it at the Birmingham Alexandra Theatre in 1993 starring Christopher Cazanove and - incidentally - a very young Amanda Holden as Liesl. I was six years old and I can still remember the hillside floating downstage with Maria on it!
How did you begin creating your own work, and when did you realise it might be a career?
Jake: I wrote my first play when I was 16, and rather precociously - and very Adrian Mole-like actually - I sent it off to Nottingham Playhouse, my local theatre. Lo and behold, they actually put it on! Indhu Rubasingham (now AD of the Tricycle) directed it. She was this hotshot Royal Court director at the time - I couldn't believe it, it was like a dream come true.
I then met Pippa at Bristol University and we wrote a show called Jet Set Go! in our final year, which was nine years ago now. There was never really a question of doing anything else but write to be honest.
Pippa: I wrote my first musical Someone to Love Me when I was 17 and amazingly my school let me do a small production of it, which was such an invaluable experience starting out. Later when I met Jake and we went to Edinburgh with Jet Set Go! I was flyering down the Royal Mile and promoting the show to this guy and he said he'd already seen it the day before and then proceeded to sing me all the songs! I almost burst into tears that he could remember them and decided this was definitely the career for me.
What was your first impression of one another when you met at Bristol?
Jake: [laughs] We both remember our very first writing session vividly. We were in a basement room of the Bristol University Music Department, with no windows and just a piano, and we were so polite to one another! We barely got anything done, and were very frustrated because we both knew what we wanted, we just didn't know how to express ourselves.
At our next session we started shouting at each other and banging our hands on the piano and it's pretty much been like that ever since - we basically shout at each other until one of us gets our way!
Pippa: Jake exaggerates! It took a good few months before we started shouting at each other. But yes, our first impressions were definitely that each one of us thought we both knew better than the other. I saw an interview with Alan Menken last year talking about his relationship with Howard Ashman and he described their working relationship - very similar to ours with lots of shouting, arguing and intense discussions - so I now feel reassured that this is just good practice and we don't need therapy.
What did you learn from taking shows to Edinburgh?
Jake: Oh, so much. Edinburgh's like a microcosm of the whole industry; you learn to sell tickets, to entertain, to get bums on seats and to tell stories efficiently, as the running times are so short. The whole industry's there in one city, it's insane.
We were very lucky, though, in that lots of influential people came to see our tiny show: producer David Pugh, who picked us up and commissioned us, our publisher - Josef Weinberger Ltd - who ended up licensing the show, the Royal Court - who invited me to join their playwriting group - and the ADs of Theatre503 and Jermyn Street Theatre, who transferred it to both their theatres. We were 20 years old and in Edinburgh terms we genuinely felt like we were transferring to Broadway! It was a surreal time.
Pippa: I think also what it's mainly about is what you can learn from having an audience reaction. Feedback is incredible and so much nicer as a writer to work with.
How do you normally choose projects?
Pippa: Sometimes we instigate the idea, as with Adrian Mole, and sometimes ideas are brought to us. For our Singapore shows, for example, they give us a list of the sort of children's stories they'd like to be adapted, and we make our way through the list to see which jumps out. Either way it's a lot of fun starting out on a new show, and it's usually clear within a month or two whether the idea or concept is working or not.
Jake: We have wildly different personalities, but luckily similar tastes - we mostly like the same TV shows and musicals, and are avid consumers of both; we're constantly seeing or watching things and talking about them. Our only real criteria, I suppose, is that the voice of our work should be British if possible. We don't take ourselves too seriously either - our work tends to have a bit of a sideways knowingness - and I guess our ultimate aim is to entertain, for people to come out and have had a good night.
Do you work simultaneously and together, or separately trading off sections...?
Jake: I will write bits of script by myself, and then read them to Pippa. I get to about the third sentence before she's stopping me and telling me I've got it all wrong. She'll then play me a tune that's she's written and by about bar three I will have stopped her and told her she's got it all wrong. I'm jesting - slightly!
But it's our total honesty and frankness that makes our relationship work: we don't let each other get away with anything. We've worked together for so long now - nine years - and most of the time we actually write very swiftly and very productively; we scat round the piano together and are mostly completely on the same page.
Pippa: We often work by starting off together in the room and then we'll go away separately and think about musical ideas or script ideas and then come back together a short while later. If it's working, it usually happens quickly. If it isn't, we spend hours and hours on my sofa analysing until we eventually work out why and go back to the drawing board.
Jake: There's actually a number called "The Competition" in our show Prodigy, that you can check out on Spotify. It's about seven minutes long and we wrote it in about 2.5 hours. I use that song as an example of how we write because it's the most indicative number of how when we're on the same page about something, we can absolutely soar through it - we knew exactly what we were doing, and it all just came together instantly.
Other numbers, however, like "Intellectual Boy" in Adrian Mole, are much harder - days upon days of tweaks, edits, new sections, keys, revisions, etc. That song's gone through so many incarnations!
I'm sure there are benefits and challenges to a long-term partnership! What most inspires you about one another, and what drives you mad?
Jake: We spend a scary amount of time together when we're busy. In 2015 we had four shows open in a year (Mole, Prodigy, Treasure Island in Singapore and Red Riding Hood in London) and we really were together most hours of the day for months on end. We needed a good old break after that, but even if we're apart for a week we miss each other.
I love Pippa's intuition best of all; her instincts are usually entirely right, and she often sits at the piano and plays a great new tune completely unconsciously. We do hit walls of exhaustion when we work though - and we tend not to write for more than half a day at a time - so we know when to hit the gin. But at the same time as working we chat, gossip, laugh, cry and know absolutely everything about the other, warts and all. She knows where the bodies are buried.
Pippa: Jake's wit and humour are incredible - and I love watching him stand up and basically act out a whole show playing all the parts when he's in the zone improvising and trying to work out how a scene should go.
Of course sometimes we do want to kill each other, and over the years we've learnt to try and nurture our partnership a little like a marriage - sometimes it's important that we hang out as friends socially and not talk about work, and other times to have a break from one another before we both crack from the pressure! But underneath we both love each other very much and Jake pretty much feels like part of the family.
When did you first encounter Adrian Mole, and what made you think 'musical'?
Jake: I'd actually played Adrian in a local amateur dramatics production of the play when I was 13! It was a character and story I knew well, and it had so many parallels with my own life: I was terribly spotty, wore glasses, read pretentious books and wrote plays in my spare time, just like Adrian writes his poems. I also had a parental divorce storyline running alongside my school life that mirrored Adrian's quite closely.
Everything for Adrian is such high stakes, high drama, so it's already at a naturally heightened state to allow characters to transition from dialogue into song. Although it feels incredibly episodic given the month-to-month nature of his diary, there's actually a very traditional structure to it... but I don't want to give it away!
Pippa: The way the diary is written - so expressive, so heartfelt - naturally translates into song ideas. It was easy to find Adrian's voice through song, as he feels and cares so deeply about things. It's been a joy from start to finish with this show.
How did the project come together?
Jake: Sue Townsend's agent said she'd had requests for it to be made into a musical all the time, but she saw a youthful glimmer in us that meant we might be the right team for it. She asked us to write the first 15 minutes, and then get on a train to Leicester so we could play it to Sue. We did, and when we first met her she brought her husband and her son with her - she was very family orientated.
After we'd finished presenting it to her - me and Pips playing all 10 characters between us(!) - she sat back and said "Well go and write the rest of it then", and sold us the rights the very next day for a pound. It's one of those stories we will look back on for the rest of our lives and never quite believe. We're terribly, terribly sad Sue didn't live to see press night - it's quite genuinely heartbreaking, but we're so lucky to have the full support of her family and husband Colin.
Pippa: After we'd written that first 15 minutes, I remember it was incredibly nerve-wracking having to play it to Sue herself. But she was the most wonderful, warm and amazing person ever and so supportive of us. We literally couldn't have been luckier!
Which elements were most important to you to retain in the show?
Jake: For me it's always been about a teenage boy, and although it might be the Eighties, it's his adolescent puberty that transcends everything else. Technology aside, children are still children; you still feel the first pangs of attraction, you still die inside when you see a spot on your face, and you still think you're far more mature than you are - those things are consistent no matter what. It's amazing how much the actual kids in our show are going through these things themselves - despite it being 2017, nothing's changed.
Did Sue Townsend have much input?
Pippa: She was incredibly helpful throughout the whole process, and of course she's been with this character for most of her life so she immediately knew if something jarred and wasn't within the world of Adrian. We would play her the show, and then she would go away with the script and make little tweaks to words and sentences that Adrian or other characters wouldn't say. We're so grateful for the work she put in, and the knowledge that she was happy with the show before she so sadly passed away.
Jake: Sue was a playwright herself - that's how she started out - and she knew that the process of creating a show was different to a novel, so she gave us pretty free rein and was always very happy with what we'd done. It gave me great pleasure when she tried to cut lines in the script that I had to delicately point out were actually her own lines... and when she chuckled through new gags I knew were my own, I felt an enormous wave of relief.
What's it been like working with all the kids?
Jake: They're completely adorable, and sickeningly talented. Like seriously, these kids' CVs are as long as your arm - a lot of them were in Charlie and Matilda - and they're completely unfazed by anything.
They're so professional, too - well behaved, and so polite! Luke [Sheppard, the director] has them on the floor at the front watching the others rehearse, and then he'll switch them in and out of the rehearsal constantly, so they're all creating all the time - there's absolutely no 'one actor version' of this role; they all make it collaboratively. It's amazing.
Pippa: I adore working with them. They bring such joy and enthusiasm, and as Jake says are incredibly supportive of each other. It's also so brilliant to hear the lines spoken by children who are the genuine age of the characters, as it makes it all so real. The infectious energy they all bring is wonderful - I can see they're having a ball and loving it, and you can't ask for more than that.
I read you wanted to make it a British-sounding score - what does that mean to you exactly?
Pippa: I am a massive fan of American musical theatre - but I do get frustrated that it seems to form the majority of musical theatre produced over here. There is so much in British culture and history that should be celebrated. Billy Elliot is my favourite musical of all time and I think its Britishness is part of the reason.
When actors audition for a show, more likely than not they'll sing a song by Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken etc., and not look to the portfolio of British musical songs. I really want to bring British musical theatre to the forefront, and yes I do believe there is a difference in style. When you're singing in a British accent, your voice naturally wants to go to different places compared to when you sing with an American accent.
To be honest I just wrote the songs as I wanted to write them without trying to make any sort of statement either way, but I strongly believe the final score we have now does have an intrinsically British sound, and I am incredibly proud of that.
Has the show changed much prior to the Menier run?
Jake: Yes - lots! We had a run at Leicester Curve two years ago and learnt tons - where gags didn't land, where people fidgeted, where we needed an uplift or new song. We've also changed the running order of songs and scenes in Act I so it zips along faster, and cut a whole character too. There are two new songs in the show, including a big walloping disco number in Act I, and it's just generally tighter and slicker throughout - we hope!
Pippa: We've been brutal in terms of cuts, listening to feedback and reordering and re-structuring the show to make it feel tighter and more effective. We can't wait to see how audiences take to the new changes. It's a dream come true to be here at the Menier.
Jake: There's been this slightly odd hearsay around the show that it was something of a damp squib in Leicester, which is so not true - we got four stars in The Times, Telegraph and Guardian. The Menier is the perfect London home for its next steps though: small and intimate. When Adrian talks to the back row of the Menier, it's the equivalent of something like the second row of Curve.
There's always discussion about the health of UK musical theatre. What's been your experience?
Jake: The sad fact is there's just not a lot of money around for new musical commissioning, and ultimately for productions, either. It's no one's fault, it's just a harsh economic truth.
As a new playwright, you can write a five-hander that's commissioned for as little as £2,500, and that can get produced relatively cheaply in a studio theatre, but with a musical you're always going to need a band, and generally a larger cast, so theatres understandably get anxious. The risk factor is far higher, and in straitened financial times, theatres can't afford the time it takes to develop them - sometimes years.
Adrian Mole only happened because Paul Kerryson [former AD of Curve, who commissioned the show] took a huge leap of faith on us - we were 24 at the time and only had a couple of fringe shows under our belt - but he gave us our chance by marrying us together with a popular, attractive box-office title. So I think that's the way to make it work: put new writers on titles that will draw an audience.
Pippa: You often see it in the US actually. Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer, A Christmas Story, for example, were all written by relatively emerging teams who have now gone onto bigger things. It's about producers taking a risk on emerging writers.
Jake: Yeah. We'd love to work in British theatre again, and we hope it's just a matter of time before we find that hooky title that theatres can trust will sell. For now, however, most of our work is abroad; we have another show opening in Singapore later this year (with a short warm-up run at The Other Palace), and then a new show opening in Berlin next year that we're writing with Pocahontas/Mulan book writer Philip LaZebnik.
Which writers/composers have most influenced you?
Pippa: Not to sound stereotypical, but for me it's Alan Menken all the way! Disney was my entire music catalogue when growing up, and I still play all the classics now, analysing them in minute detail and trying to glean from the genius what works so well.
Jake: I personally love joyous, happy, bouncy musical theatre. There was that amazing era on Broadway a few years back with Hairspray, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Avenue Q, Wicked, The Producers all opening within a couple of years of each other. Those are the voices and humour and style I love to write in.
But the main influence for me has always been The Witches of Eastwick. I was 15 years old and saw it six times in the West End - not easy to do when you're growing up in Nottingham. I was honestly obsessed - the original cast recording is just perfection. I've become good friends with Rosemary Ashe, who played Felicia, since she was in Mole at Curve, and sometimes I have to just pinch myself that sat in front of me is the woman who sang Evil. If you don't know that song - get yourself to iTunes NOW!
Do you have any dream future projects?
Jake: Right now we're genuinely just happy to work; we're really not precious about what it is or where it is. We love writing - it's essentially a hobby that's become a career. Just so long as it continues to make us happy and we can do good work, that's enough for us.
Pippa: Not especially, just always to be challenged and excited by new projects and teams. As soon as you start feeling you're falling into a rut, it's time to change it up a bit.
Finally, what advice would you give to budding playwrights and composers?
Jake: I guess I'd say just try and get your show on in front of an audience; whether it's a reading, basic fringe production or a book-in-hand workshop. You need to see a show in full - even if it's very simply - to learn how to develop your work. It's hard for people to read new musicals off a script with a CD - it needs to be presented live.
A lot of people also get stuck writing standalone songs for cabarets, which is absolutely fine - and of course some fantastic songs have come through that process - but it's only in the context of a whole show, and seeing them in their entirety in front of an audience that you'll know if they work and if you're any good.
Pippa: I agree. Get your show on somehow. For me, I performed 30-minute musicals I wrote at the age of 10 to my family, roping in my brother and cousins to play all the characters and using my parents as dramaturges in our living room.
Friends are more often than not happy to help. We cannot thank enough the many actors, singers, MDs and players who have come over to my flat out of the goodness of their hearts (and wine!) to learn a few new songs, record a demo or just generally workshop for the love of the work.
But despite all that, my mother is still Jake and mine's number one go to for dramaturgical advice! We call her about five times a day and shout various things down the phone at her to see which one she likes the best.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical is at Menier Chocolate Factory 14 July-9 September. Book tickets here
Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography, Alastair Muir