Guest Blog: Director Adam Lenson On New Musical THE SORROWS OF SATAN
I spend a lot of time thinking about musicals; it seems to be a medium rife with contradictions. Some people love musicals and others hate them. Some musicals run in the West End for decades while some barely splutter onto the fringe. Some are hummable and others wouldn't dare.
I've noticed that the landscape of British musical theatre is divided. On one hand we have the large, commercial West End musical. On the other, a new brand of art-musical, one often built on a loathing of the tropes of West End musicals. The two polarise one another and seem to leave nothing in the middle.
As such, musicals seem to either exist to fit into that commercial narrative or to resist it. To be a Musical or to ignore musicals.
I've made a concerted effort over the past few years to focus my attention on making new British musicals. To try and understand how to create them without mocking or deriding them. To make shows that understand The Combined power of music and text and which attempt to be original and progressive while still relying on an understanding of the history, structure and craft of shows that have come before.
I met composer Luke Bateman four years ago when directing a pantomime for eBay (yes, really). Luke was the musical director and at the end of the job he sent me a script for a new musical he was working on with librettist Michael Conley called Personality.
Personality is a large-scale, main-stage musical set in the world of British light entertainment, based on a novel by Booker-shortlisted author Andrew O'Hagan. I loved it and was struck by its intelligence, wit, pain and humour. We did a number of readings of the show, but despite its obvious quality it hit a wall. We were told that the show was too hummable to be subsidised but also too clever to be commercial. The polarisation of the medium again seemed to assume that a show had to be one or the other to be worthy of production.
Knowing that Bateman and Conley deserved to have their work heard, I posed them a question; could you write a two-hander? A show that could be produced in the near future. Something that a smaller budget would allow to flourish and shine.
A cast of two became a cast of four. But the resultant piece, The Sorrows of Satan, manages to show not only the sort of wit and intelligence that defines their collaboration, but also that a small cast doesn't necessarily mean a piece has to have a small theme. The Sorrows of Satan manages to be thematically more expansive than its scale might suggest. It deals with epic themes of fate, artistic integrity, morality and authenticity.
Baked into the piece is also some of the meta-narrative of our journey together over the past four years. A question of art vs success. Hummable vs unhummable. Clever vs commercial.
The Sorrows of Satan tells the story of a writer who has been working on an avant-garde musical play. The piece is filled with serious scenes and difficult, repetitive music. A rich benefactor has agreed to pay for a reading, but he wants the tunes to be more tuneful and the jokes to be funnier. He wants it to be popular rather than clever.
Soon the writer is stuck in a Faustian struggle between his integrity and his dreams of love, fame and fortune. Life begins to imitate art, which begins to imitate life. It is set in 1920s London when the forms of theatre, musical revue and musical comedy are beginning to fuse to form the first pieces of musical theatre.
People hear the word 'musical' and make assumptions about what it has to look like, sound like and be about. But they don't do that with plays. Plays can be anything, so why can't musicals?
We are all trapped like the protagonist of The Sorrows of Satan between traditional assumptions of the musical and the need to either adhere or resist. But I wonder if the solution is to ignore assumptions and preconceptions. Instead we simply have to tell a story that needs to be told, and use craft, skill and passion to make it the best that it can be.