Interview: Composer Richard Hartley Discusses THE STRIPPER

By: Jul. 11, 2016
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Prolific composer Richard Hartley has written for stage and screen, including film scores for The Romantic Englishwoman, The Lady Vanishes, Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing, Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, and an Emmy-winning score for Channel 4's Alice in Wonderland. He's also worked extensively in theatre, but is perhaps best known for his partnership with Richard O'Brien, which began in 1973 with the iconic Rocky Horror Show - Richard Hartley arranged the score and performed in the original band, and went on to arrange music for the film adaptation.

Another of the pair's collaborations, musical The Stripper, is now being revived at St James Theatre, opening tonight. Originally developed in 1982 from a pulp fiction Carter Brown novel - sleaze and sleuthing gumshoe set in Sixties California ­- it received a UK tour in 2009, but the St James version promises to be a very different experience, with its studio space transformed into a wholly immersive club.

How did you get your start in music?

I joined a band called Denny and the Witchdoctors when I was 15 or 16 - the rest were slightly older. It was soul and rock n roll, with some circus thrown in, and we toured a bit - went to Paris for a week, and then returned again two years later. I realised I was OK at playing keyboard, but thought there was probably a bit more than that.

I then started doing arranging - putting strings on reggae records to make them more 'available' for radio (basically more white). From that, I got a deal with Chappell, doing arrangements for musicals, and I met Jim Sharman. We took the music auditions for the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar together, which worked well - I'd started with rock n roll and come into theatre, and this was something of both. Really, theatre was a bit of accident, but it's worked out well.

When did you meet Richard O'Brien?

Jim asked me to do some incidental music for this Sam Shepard play at the Royal Court, and Richard was in that. We got on right away - we'd grown up listening to the same records. He told me he'd written a rock musical, and he brought out this Foolscap notebook full of songs. Jim's heart was really in the fringe, so he made a deal to get three weeks in the Upstairs space during a gap to try out Rocky Horror. Nicholas Wright got Richard White to put in a few pounds, and as luck would have it the previous production was a play that took place in a cabaret, so we used their set.

It was just meant to be on for three weeks, and it was a manic process - songs were chucked in overnight whenever we discovered a gap. We realised late on we didn't have a dance number, so Richard went away and came up with an idea for "Time Warp", and we rehearsed that as we were building it. Not all the cast had great singing ability, but everyone went for it.

Sebastien Torkia as Al Wheeler
in 'The Stripper'

How did you divide the musical responsibilities between you?

Richard plays the guitar, so he'd come in with the bones of the piece, we'd work on it, and the arrangements grew from there. There were no egos involved. I can read and write music and he can't, but that really didn't matter. Richard writes very quickly once he's in the groove - he doesn't sit there for months. I can be quick, especially with songs. Often it's best not to keep messing with it - the first cut is the deepest!

How did The Stripper come about?

Richard's a big fan of Carter Brown. There's also a pulp fiction B movie starting point, which is something we both really like. Sydney Theatre Company commissioned a project, and Richard chose The Stripper because it's slightly unique in the Carter Brown catalogue - Hal Wheeler, the detective, actually goes on this journey of self-discovery, so it's got a heart and a centre, it's not just throwaway. Richard adapted the book and we started writing the songs. The one that really says the most about the show is "The Lonelier Legend" - it's about people drifting from the country to the city in the US, and things not working out the way they hoped.

What sort of music did you draw on?

We thought we'd go to the swing end of it - it's not out and out jazz. More like Keely Smith, Bobby Darrin, Sinatra, where big band bridges pop in the late Fifties/early Sixties. It's definitely more of a swing beat than Rocky Horror - lots of crooning, toe-tapping songs built around a strong bass line.

Did you write incidental music as well as numbers?

Yes, we did lots over the years. We've given the current production team all of that - there's movie-like underscoring and all sorts. I've always had that cinematic approach, like when I worked with Richard Eyre at the National. He was one of the first to say you could add layers, rather than insisting the text stands on its own.

Sebastien Torkia as Al Wheeler and Hannah
Grover as Sherry Mendez in 'The Stripper'

How do you get the balance of fun pastiche and real engagement?

The Stripper's a similar thing to Rocky Horror, in that characters might appear to be one-dimensional, but actually there's an arc. This one even more so. It's got two lonely people - a detective and a stripper, very film noir - who collide and discover things about themselves. B movies at that time were full of these desperate, isolated people. It's got fantastic lyrics - Richard's really excelled himself. Very witty, and perhaps more sophisticated than Rocky. Though there's still catchy tunes and moments of excess - this is Richard's take on pulp fiction, not a carbon copy.

Did you try to steer clear of it being exploitative or misogynistic?

If you look at the Carter Brown covers, it's all girls with big tits, but actually the pieces of that era aren't exploitative. The novels and the B movies, there's glamour and burlesque, but real heart too. This is also a chamber musical - it's not Rodgers and Hammerstein - so it's intimate.

The venue seems like a great fit for that

Definitely. I went to see a run-through with Carter Brown's son, Chris, and thought it was a really good fresh take - it felt very modern. And having a club space when most of the action takes place in the Club Extravaganza is spot on.

How does writing for theatre compare to screen?

Theatre's an evolving process - things change, you've got human beings in the room. With film, you're watching a screen and it's only you, possibly the director. You can try things in theatre, see what works - there's more freedom. It's not a fait accompli. Working with Richard Eyre, we would spend four weeks putting music in, the next day it might not feel right so you can do something else, you can change it right up the last moment. And when I perform the music, it's different every time - you're moulding it to what the actors are doing that night.

Another thing is you have to be a bit more explicit and to the point in theatre - you can meander more in film, but in theatre it starts to take away from the narrative. People wonder what the music's doing - there's no hiding place.

Are directors and producers normally open to ideas?

I've been very fortunate with the people I've worked with. Richard Eyre's rehearsal process was probably one of the best experiences of my life - it was so great to see how things are put together, and I learned a lot from him. He was very open to input, but he had a real grasp on what he wanted to do. On film, I've worked with people like Bertolucci and Nick Roeg who love music - they see it as part of the fabric of cinema. You don't feel like an unwelcome intruder in the scene.

Michael Steedon as Jacob Arkwright
in 'The Stripper'

Are you more interested in narrative music than catchy numbers?

In Rocky Horror Richard did think about getting someone famous to sing "Sweet Transvestite" and make it a hit, but you couldn't really imagine Radio 1 playing it in the morning! Though weirdly "Time Warp", which parodies the popular dance instruction pop songs, became a hit as one - you go to weddings and they always play it. It outsold ABBA in Australia in the Eighties.

But really we're more interested in layered music throughout than one big thing. When we came to do the film version, I added stuff like slowing down the tape and getting some of the cast to sing in a different key, an octave higher - I wanted it to sound like the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. That's why the chorus sounds so big and has this weird element. There's more Oz on "I'm Going Home" - it's got a solo violin counter melody that nods to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

It's been a bit of a rocky (no pun intended) time for new British musicals

I don't think it's about the work, more that there aren't many venues where you can put on chamber piece shows like this. It's all massive West End stuff, and you can't take the same risks - try out something different, or a bit trashy and pushing the envelope.

What do you hope people take from The Stripper?

I hope they have fun, but I hope they'll be moved by it as well. It's off-centre entertainment - you can't really ask for more if people come out thinking that was different and interesting and two hours well spent. And it's not a creaky rehash of what we did years ago - they've been given free rein to reinterpret it. It's a small cast - actually it's the first musical I've seen with as many in the band! - and there's nowhere to hide, either for the performers or the audience, which should be fantastic for both. Richard called to ask me what it's like, and I said "Remember the Court Upstairs? It's like that." We've come full circle.

The Stripper is at St James Theatre until 13 August

Picture credit: Origin8 Photography


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