BWW Interview: Darren Clark Discusses His New Musical Theatre Website
Composer and lyricist Darren Clark has just launched a new website that acts like a hub for new musical theatre with roots in the UK. The website hosts the work of a new generation of writers, and aims to become a place where artists and performers can connect.
We had a chat with him about what the industry looks like at the moment and where British musical theatre sits within the larger theatre panorama.
How did you get into musical theatre?
My brother was in shows when I was young and I was in school - he was in West Side Story and things like that. I always saw him on stage and it looked like fun. I got into theatre that way, along with my mum only having two tapes in the car: Les Mis and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So apart from Paul Simon, that was the only thing we'd listen to.
I'd always loved listening to musicals, but didn't realise that people wrote musicals. I'm originally from New Zealand and not a lot of that goes on there. When I moved over here when I was 25 - for no other reason than to chase a girl - I sort of started doing the folk singer-songwriter circuit in London, the festivals, all those sorts of things, but kept on doing amateur theatre - just performing in it. Then someone suggested to me that I mix it up and write a song for a show. That was at Putney Arts Theatre about 13 years ago now.
I thought it was wonderful: the audience were actually sitting down and listening to it, as opposed to a pub where no one is listening to you at all. I loved the rehearsals, I loved performing. So I started as a performer and writer, then gradually came around to the idea that writing is much more suited to my personality, because it means I don't have to take such good care of myself.
Then it was a gradual process of finding a place to train, which for me was the BML [Book, Music and Lyrics] course, getting involved in competitions, finding other likeminded souls, picking up with them, and eventually quitting my real job at the Royal College of Music in the visa and scholarship department. I'd saved up some money - I'm not really a spender apart from guitars - and that was about ten years ago. I gave myself a year to start making some money off it before my savings ran out, and fortunately I applied to a couple of jobs, got those, relationships continued, and other people started getting involved.
What's your favourite thing about being a musical theatre writer? And your least favourite?
My favourite thing about my job is the collaboration involved. And it's also my least favourite thing. It's exactly the same thing. I love collaborating with people because you get so much back, and you always end up going in a direction you never thought you could have gone. Someone points out something and you realise that it's something you'd never think of, it makes the work better. That's when it's a good collaboration. When it's a bad collaboration, that's just the worst, it's horrible.
Sometimes, you end up working with people who don't necessarily know how to collaborate in a healthy way, and there's too much ego, too much "me" in it. Unfortunately those personalities tend to infect everyone else in the collaboration, so even though you have a couple of good collaborators, if even one is slightly egotistical you start thinking of yourself that way too. Partly because of that, sometimes I work entirely alone. I write stories, I write poetry, I write songs just for me, purely because there's no one else to complain about.
What's the state of the British new musicals scene?
As I said, when I arrived here I didn't even realise there was a new musical scene or that people were doing that. There's this whole lively underground scene of writers and performers and directors and people who are dedicated to make new musicals, but the general public don't know that they're there. If you pick up that rock, you'll see that under it there's a thriving buzz. But you need to find the rock in the first place. I think part of the reason why it's still underneath that rock is because there's still very little trust.
Some of the organisations we have here are so good at supporting theatrical works, but there's a prejudice against musicals. People think that they can only do one thing, that they're all about jazz hands etc. They think it's either massive melodrama like Les Mis or it's the jazz hands. There's not the understanding that musical theatre has as much variation and possibility as within as any other theatrical medium. Because of the predominance of that type of shows, it's not a viable higher artistic output. And I absolutely believe it is, I see it all the time.
The work that my colleagues are producing - and that some producing houses who take the risk are putting on - is extraordinary. Musical theatre is capable of amazing things. You see it from America. If you look at New York, it's created things like Fun Home and Hamilton. We are not doing it. Part of the reason is that no one is putting the money in it. Until there is trust from the people with the money, it's going to be an uphill battle.
Partly, it's also an education in public terms too; until the public understand what musical theatre can be, the producers aren't going to trust us and the fact that they can sell it - because of course it's all about making money. I think the scene is healthier than it's ever been, but I also think there's a long, long way to go.
Do you feel like new writers and composers get the support they deserve? Especially considering that big musicals are too often American imports...
Musical theatre is highly respected in America. There's a huge number of writers to look up to: Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Jonathan Larson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek and Paul, Adam Guettel, William Finn, Flaherty and Ahrens - the list is endless...
And many set up huge awards that are part of their legacy in order to help support the next generation of US musical theatre writers. Some of the awards offer truly life-changing amounts. I was lucky enough to be a finalist for one of them and, had I won, it would have given me US$60,000. Which is a lot of money! And that money wasn't to go towards a show or any production of any kind - it would have just been for me to live on, to buy a house, to do what I needed to do to support myself as I learn to become a writer.
In the UK, the situation is different. We don't have quite the same legacy system as in the US. Obviously, as a young-ish writer I have no experience of what the writing community was like back in the 1970s and 80s, but certainly the British musicals that survived from that period were almost exclusively created by a small pocket of people who came to dominate both the West End and Broadway, and they've certainly given back and invested in the theatre community over the years.
Cameron Mackintosh, for example, supports the Cameron Mackintosh Composer in Residence Awards, which is attached to venues, and also helps to finance the wonderful MTI Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award, which is attached to a winning show and mentored by the brilliant and generous Stiles & Drewe, whilst the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation has generously supported performing scholarships and drama schools.
I know there are countless other ways in which people of that level support and invest in the theatre community here, but I'm currently unaware of any awards that provide the kind of substantial financial assistance to writers that are available in America. It may well be that these sort of awards existed in the UK in the past. If they did, it would be great to see them make a comeback! Because when you look at the alumni of those big American awards such as the Kander & Ebb Award and the Kleban Award, you can see how that sort of financial investment directly translates to high-quality work ending up on Broadway.
What those sort of prizes give you is the most valuable gift: time. Time to develop as a writer and to work on your craft without the constant worry of where money for the rent is coming from. I think that's why we see so many American imports in the West End, because their support infrastructure for developing new work and new writers is more advanced than ours. Right now, in the UK, there's this strong community of dedicated writers. We're getting our shows on with the assistance of some fantastic, daring producers and we're being taught our craft by places like the BML workshop and through masterclasses run by Mercury Musical Developments. But we could always do with more help!
Do you think that the expectation of the public has an impact on what people write?
I'm sure it does have a hand in what people write, but I don't think it has an impact on what most of my colleagues write - which is why we struggle to put our stuff on. It's not so much what people want, it's about whether they know that musicals can do something else. There's an overused phrase even by people who are writing their first musical: they say they "hate musicals". It's as ignorant as saying "I hate books" because you don't like thrillers - and that's insane.
Just because the only musicals you've ever seen are the jazz hands and tap-dancing ones, it doesn't mean that there aren't other ones out there - it's just that you've shut yourself off to the potential of it. There are such wonderful pieces, like Flowers for Mrs Harris done by Vicky Graham Productions at Chichester last year; it was the opposite of that, and it's beautiful. SIX isn't what you'd say is a typical musical either - it's a brilliant concept. It's about enhancing the perception of what musicals can be.
Where do you see the industry going post-lockdown?
There's been a fear from a couple of producing houses I've been speaking to regarding what we'll do once lockdown eases and the theatres can reopen. What happens to new musicals? To new work? It was already a risk before - what happens when it's even more risky? It started to sound a bit like they were going to stop doing the good work they'd begun. That's my great fear. I think there are ways around it. What I'd love to get across is that a new musical is not just its first production. So many times, we just get one shot.
From my experience now, there are so many high-quality shows that only had that one production. What makes a new musical so risky is that no one knows about it and that it takes time to get it right - to re-rehearse it and make sure that the writing is good. There's plenty of stuff out there that's already been written and is still considered new musical theatre. The shows that have had one run already, or two runs, which already have a little bit of a name for themselves, they should come back.
I think that's an area they should look at if they want to keep supporting new writing. If they can't push for a brand-new musical, they should license the other ones. They could help put those new names out there to promote the new generations of writers. That would be help in a substantial way that has never happened here.
Where did you get the idea for the platform?
I started getting together with this group of writers, a couple of years ago, to talk about what we needed to do in musical theatre in order to change the landscape. We had different ideas, but one of the first things that was on my mind is that we needed somewhere where people can go to find our stuff. It can't just be darrenclarkmusic.co.uk, because no one knows who I am. So what I thought would be good is to have a place where we have all these writers and their best songs so that we can start showing people that the work is of the quality that it needs to be.
I think that, for a long time, there was a certain perception in the industry - and perhaps not entirely an unfounded one - that in the UK we weren't creating enough of the high-quality work that America was creating. I wanted to have a place with high-quality work by high-quality writers. There are 20 writers on there - if all the people who know these 20 writers go to that site to look at their work, they'll see these other writers and songs. One of the things that the site does is that each of the writers recommends another writer who they admire. The idea is that this creates a rabbit hole of musical theatre and you end up exploring these other people you didn't know.
Ideally, we also want this to be seen by performers and by students, so that when they're in their showcases and cabarets, their Christmas shows, auditions, instead of choosing the classic, they choose something new. The people who are sitting on those panels, the audiences of the cabarets, might like the songs and ask who wrote them. Then, a conversation starts about new writing and new writers. We're here and ready to go - they just need to give us a chance to do something extraordinary. That's what the site's designed to do. It's a showcase of music and it also sells backing tracks. I wanted it to be a useful site in terms of how you can search - by genre or voice type, or by style of song - so that the songs are easily found.
How did you compile the catalogue? Did you know all the people who are in it?
I did know all of them. Some are friends, some have become friends over the years, and others were just writers that I'd admired for a while. It was an excuse to get in touch with them, too. I started with a small pool of writers - I just contacted them to see what they thought and if they wanted to be part of it. As people got back to me and said that they were interested, I had to go away and start thinking about it as a business model, how it would all function.
I did that by having conversations with other writers - in particular, Ed Bell and Jen Green met up with me in a pub and we discussed the details. Adam Lenson has also been very useful. Lots of people's thoughts and ideas have gone into it - they've all shaped it. After that, when I started approaching people with a more solid picture of how it was all going to work, they were actually able to tell me whether they wanted to join us or not.
Then I had to build it and see how I could avoid its taking up all of my time, because I want to write - that's what I want to do. This is a mean to that end. It helps us to get bigger-profile jobs so that we can write more of what we want to write, as opposed to what we might have to sometimes.
Can other people join?
Absolutely! I've been thinking about that a lot recently. In particular, in relation to what's going on in the US. We need a representation of the minorities in musical theatre, and I'm very keen to hear from other writers. It's just a matter of keeping the quality high whilst also extending a hand down to the next generation and to tell them that they're really promising. They just need to write us, send us a couple of things; it might not even be quite ready for the site yet, but they need to know they're on the right path.
It took a long time for all our writers to get where they are, so I don't want it to be a place where anyone can sell their stuff. I want to make sure that no matter what song people pick from the site, it's going to be a quality song. But I'm completely open to writers' submissions, and I have a page on the site which is for that purpose specifically.
You also have a competition going on! Tell us about it
Yes! It's for performers and students: they're able to go on the site, download a song, film themselves singing it, submit it, and then whoever gets the most likes on Facebook wins a prize. The prizes are £100 from Adam Lenson's Amplify Fund.
There's also downloads from our New UK Musicals site, and the one that I think is the most useful for performers is that Adam does a concert series called Signal and he's running a special edition just for the launch of our website. It's going to be full of West End stars singing brand-new songs, and the winner of the competition will be performing alongside these big names. Hopefully, people will enjoy that! Honestly, even if they don't get anywhere with the competition, they'll have a new piece of music for their repertoire anyway.