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BWW Interview: Alex James Ellison Talks FIVER THE CONCERT at Southwark Playhouse

Alex James Ellison, co-writer of the award-nominated show Fiver, chats about its online revival and what's next for this smash-hit show

BWW Interview: Alex James Ellison Talks FIVER THE CONCERT at Southwark Playhouse
Alex James Ellison in Fiver

Last year, Alex James Ellison co-wrote, directed and starred in his new musical, Fiver.

Following a sold-out run at the Southwark Playhouse, and several award nominations, it's getting a revival with the same cast at the same venue. This time, it's going to be a live-streamed concert version with an abridged script and a brand-new song.

We spoke to Ellison about making a hit musical, what advice he'd give to other songwriters and what's next for Fiver.

For those who missed it the first time around, what's Fiver about?

Fiver follows the journey of a five-pound note and the difference that it makes to different people. `

It starts by being given to a busker, and he gives it to a homeless man who buys something from a shop, and then someone gets it from the shop and puts it in a birthday card, and it goes on a journey.

The story is told over a period of 15 years, and you see all kinds of people who come in contact with it, and you get a glimpse into their life.

You co-wrote the show with Tom Lees. How did the idea come about?

Tom and I were looking for a cool concept to tie together lots of individual songs. It was the first show we'd written together. We both had ideas for songs and wanted to find a neat way to link all of them together.

One day we were in the pub trying to think of cool ways to do this, and we had money in our hand and suddenly thought, "I wonder where this money has been before? I wonder who's had it and what it's been used for", so it started like that.

There are a lot of different musical genres within the show. What inspired you to bring so many different musical genres together?

We just wanted to explore all the different possibilities that we could. We didn't want it all to be the same. Because each person is completely different in Fiver, we wanted to reflect that through the songs.

BWW Interview: Alex James Ellison Talks FIVER THE CONCERT at Southwark Playhouse
Alex James Ellison and Aoife Clesham
in Fiver

You not only co-wrote the show but also co-directed and starred in it! That must have been very challenging!

Yeah, it was challenging. We're very lucky because a lot of our amazing cast already happened to be my friends. So it was a team effort of directing them and explaining what our vision was, then we very much trusted them to put their own spin on the characters. It's a show with multi-roles; every character is different and so you to trust them a lot with it.

It was always in the back of my mind that I was going to be in the show. We did actually offer the part to other people first so that I would have just directed and produced. In the end, it worked out that the best idea was to keep me in amongst the action.

I play the busker who oversees everything. There's a lot of opportunity in the show for me to actually watch the other performers do their thing, which is quite cool. During the run at the Southwark Playhouse last year, I was sitting in the audience watching all the action take place. That was amazing because I got to see it every night as well as be a part of it.

The initial run last year got nominated for several awards, and was compared to In The Heights in one review - how did it feel to receive such high praise for your first musical?

It was amazing and unbelievable. We didn't think that sort of stuff would happen. We managed to sell out the whole run, and we got award nominations from WhatsOnStage and West End Wilma which was amazing, we were all so happy.

How did the revival come about?

It's all come about so quickly! About a week and a half ago, we didn't even know we were doing this.

We originally just put a tweet out saying if we get 500 likes, then we'll do a live-stream concert. Since the run closed about a year ago, a lot of fans of Fiver have been tweeting us, asking when we're going to do a revival and a cast recording.

Since we went into lockdown, those questions changed to ones about doing a live stream. So finally, we've been able to make it all happen. We got in touch with the Southwark Playhouse, and they were really keen for us to do it.

I think one of the most important things for us was that we do everything live. Some streams are pre-recorded or do it once, and then it's rescreened multiple times, but we were really keen to give a live feel.

That's what Fiver is all about: the audience is there, with us and present; so if things go wrong or we mess up, they experience it. That's a part of Fiver, and we're really lucky to be able to do that.

BWW Interview: Alex James Ellison Talks FIVER THE CONCERT at Southwark Playhouse
The cast of Fiver

The revival will star all of the original cast. Are you excited to be reunited?

Yes, very excited. We haven't been together since the last night of Fiver last year. We've already had some Zoom calls to get the ball rolling again.

It's such an ensemble piece. What I love about the cast is that they all fit. They have their shining moments, but then they're also doing backing vocals for each other and do bit parts here and there too. To have us all back in the room is going to be amazing, even if we can't hug each other!

Will there be anything different in the revival?

Yes. We've written a new song for the concert, based on feedback from last year's run. There's a little section in the middle of the first act where we had quite a few ballads together, so we thought we'd chuck in a little bit of humour and a little bit of energy for that section.

Also, because it's a concert version, it won't be in full costume. We'll be including the dialogue to link the songs together nicely, so people can still follow the journey of Fiver.

Have you got a favourite song in the show?

Yeah, my favourite song is probably "Whisper It to Me", which seems to be most people's favourite song.

It's about a school kid who is writing letters to his teacher. It starts in a friendly, appreciative way, saying how grateful he is, but as the letters go on throughout the show, it turns a bit darker and stalkerish. By the end of the last letter, it's intimidating and really uncomfortable to watch, which is what we wanted it to be.

Working on those five letters as one piece was my favourite thing to work on.

You're no stranger to writing music, and you've also released singles of your own work. What inspires you when you write songs?

When I do my live gigs, I try and put my personality into the whole performance. It's not just about the songs, it's about the instructions of the songs and telling the stories. For that reason, a lot of my songs come from stories or personal things that have happened to me.

Often, I have an idea for a song walking down the road. I'll start singing random things and then record it on my phone. My phone voice memos are just filled with ideas!

What advice would you give to people who were thinking about writing their own musical?

I'd say do it as much as you can. Get as much practice as you can. If things aren't working, change it. I think very often in Fiver we approached a song one way, and then halfway through we'd change it or chuck the odd idea away and carry on with a new idea.

I think as a whole, the industry is good at supporting new musicals. It's important to nurture creatives from the early stages of their career and champion new musicals to give people like us a platform and a way of doing it.

It is really hard, and it's hard to find the money and a venue who will let you put it on. It is a lot of filling out forms and writing proposals, but get your head down and get on with it.

My mum would also advise me to mention that you should always have another job as well. I didn't quit my job from Fiver. I kept my other job because it's not a life-changing experience putting on your first musical. Hopefully one day it will be. Just keep working hard and get as much creativity out as you can.

What's next for Fiver?

Our next step is going to be a cast recording. We definitely want to get a cast recording out as quickly as possible.

After the live stream, we're going to have a lot of footage and recordings from the sound desk. So, I think we're looking at getting a cast recording out within the next couple of months.

We've also been talking to producers about doing a proper production. So, there are lots of things that we're looking forward to doing. That said, it's all up in the air at the moment. As soon as theatre is back, we'll also hopefully be back.

Tom and I are also working on other projects, which will hopefully be surfacing next year at some point.

Why should people watch Fiver?

People should watch Fiver because if you saw it before, I hope that you'd want to watch it again!

If you haven't watched it before, then you should, because we have the best cast in town doing live performances. We're also doing an interactive interval where people can tweet in, and we'll do shout outs and requests. We'll also give people a behind-the-scenes view of what we're up to at the Southwark Playhouse.

It's a brand new, fresh musical with an original score, amazing individual performances from all of the cast and it's not to be missed!

Fiver the Concert will be available to watch online on 27th - 28th November.

Photo credit: Danny Kaan

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