BWW Interview: Joe Stilgoe Chats THE MIDNIGHT GANG, Chichester Festival Theatre at Home
Joe Stilgoe is a well-known pianist, singer and songwriter. Over the past few years, he's turned his hand to composing musicals such as The Jungle Book and The Midnight Gang.
The Midnight Gang, based on David Walliams' novel of the same name, is currently available online as part of the Chichester Festival Theatre at Home series. We spoke to Joe about his career and how he's spending lockdown.
How are you finding lockdown? Is music playing a role in your routine?
I find lockdown is a mix of frustration and sadness. For the second time this year already, we are being led seemingly over a cliff. Not to get too political, but it's not a good situation for anyone.
Saying that, we're enjoying family time, and small pleasures go a long way. Music is keeping us sane. I'm doing a show every day from my shed, plus my daughters are singing and dancing all day and enjoying watching gigs and theatre online in the evenings.
Who inspired you most growing up?
My dad and his performing partner Peter Skellern. They had a double act for years - Stilgoe & Skellern. I saw them so many times and it was always great.
How did you get involved in writing musicals?
Three years ago, I was asked to write the songs for a new version of The Jungle Book. The audition involved being sent a guide lyric and I sent something back the same day. Being quick - and having a fairly good broadband connection - got me the gig.
I had actually been doing a workshop of a new original musical that year at Lyric Hammersmith, so I guess it was already on the cards that I would be heading down that road.
Does your creative process change when writing for the stage, compared with other projects?
I'm much more thorough with the lyrics. There's no room in theatrical lyrics for anything inconsequential, inaudible or extraneous. Otherwise, why would the characters be singing them?
With songs I've written for other singers for records, or myself, you're not writing to a story, script or adaptation, so the parameters and choices are endless. I like the confinements dictated by the story and characters in theatre.
Oddly, I used to treat music as the most important aspect of songwriting, but now it's lyrics, lyrics, lyrics - when matched with the RIGHT music, of course!
For those unfamiliar with The Midnight Gang, can you tell us what it's about?
The Midnight Gang is a book by David Walliams about children in a crumbling old hospital run by a bunch of classic nasty grown-ups. Each night, the children act out their dreams with the help of the kind old hospital porter.
Bryony Lavery and I adapted the book into the stage show you can see now, which is almost a musical. The characters are brilliantly drawn and were such fun to write songs for. A particular favourite is a tango number between the incredibly nasty Matron and Mr Thews, a cruel headmaster.
This wasn't your first time working with CFT. Any particular highlights from working on The Jungle Book?
I loved working on The Jungle Book - which actually started at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton. After the run there, we ran two weeks of rehearsals and workshops. We added two more songs and it became the show I'd always imagined. It really worked on the CFT stage - and I do hope it might return there one day. Another production was due to be staged in Oldham in April but, obviously, that's been put on ice with everything else.
How closely did you collaborate with David Walliams on adapting The Midnight Gang?
David was sent all the music, lyrics and script and occasionally had a few suggestions, but he wasn't involved as one of the creative team on the adaptation. He was a great person to call on if we had questions, and he was there on the first night to introduce the show and meet the cast.
Do you have any more musical adaption plans? Another David Walliams book?
I've got a long list. David and I were planning something, but we'll have to wait and see...
I've just done an adaptation of Julia Donaldson's book, ZOG, which was touring the UK, and we're working on the second ZOG book for Freckle Productions. There's also an adaptation with Mark Ravenhill; two projects with Bryony; and other projects with Jason Manford, Hadley Fraser and something for Chichester. As ever with theatre, everyone is spinning many plates at any one time...
Any other projects you want to tell us about?
I'll be doing a tour of my daily shed shows next year. We can't plan more than that, but it will feature the shed!
Any advice for aspiring performers and composers?
Do the work. I drifted slightly in my twenties: I only performed in the evening and watched cricket or Bargain Hunt in the day. Looking back, it was a lovely life, but I wish I'd written more and got better earlier.
Saying that, it's wonderful discovering that you do actually get better with practice and the hard work pays off eventually. Also, work with the best people you can, and ask them questions. Nobody minds being asked questions about themselves in the right context.
How do you think we can best support the arts industry at this time?
I'm still trying to work that out. People don't have the money they did as nobody is earning normally, so the best thing to do is to support as much as you can. Become a friend of your local theatre or donate to arts charities.
When the economy is back up and running, the arts community will not forget the love, support and generosity the British public (not the Government) have shown, so the standard of theatre and gigs will be INCREDIBLE!
Is there anything or anyone in particular that has brought you comfort or encouragement in recent weeks?
Matt Lucas. Firstly, because he's a comedy great. Secondly, because of the "Thank You Baked Potato" song, and thirdly, his latest Boris Johnson impression. He's a joy and is doing great things to keep many people going.
Why should people stream this adaption of The Midnight Gang?
It's a joyous, funny and heart-warming theatrical adventure about children overcoming NASTY GROWN-UPS! And that doesn't ever stop in life, does it?
Photography credit: Joe Stilgoe and Manuel Harlan