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Guest Blog: P Burton-Morgan Talks IN THE WILLOWS and New Musicals Amidst Tricky Times

The artistic director of Metta Theatre on putting the pandemic to creative use

Guest Blog: P Burton-Morgan Talks IN THE WILLOWS and New Musicals Amidst Tricky Times

The writer and director P Burton-Morgan, along with designer William Reynolds, founded Metta Theatre in 2005 to help develop new British musicals, often with a social and political focus to connect the work up to the concerns of today. Earlier this month, Metta, in collaboration with Perfect Pitch, released the studio cast EP of their hip hop musical In the Willows, adapted from the Kenneth Grahame classic The Wind in the Willows. Burton-Morgan has put the pandemic to artistically fertile use, as is explained below.

When I thought of translating three of my new musicals into cast recordings (plus a few music videos thrown in for good measure), I was anticipating a short-term stop gap before returning to the familiar territory of developing musicals live, in a room with other people and eventually in front of a live audience.

Obviously I'm not giving up on that hope, although such a scenario doesn't feel as if it's around the corner either. A year on and five cast albums later - each recorded one single musician and vocalist at a time (even the six part a cappella harmonies in mine and Ben Glasstone's The Rhythmics) - and I've come to realise that this is not simply a digital calling card to share with venues and potential co-producers (not to mention prospective audience members) but an artistic development tool in its own right.

Guest Blog: P Burton-Morgan Talks IN THE WILLOWS and New Musicals Amidst Tricky Times
P Burton-Morgan

On Feb 1st we released our latest - a six-track EP of In the Willows by me, Keiran Merrick and Pippa Cleary. Some of you may remember the show from its 2019 premiere and 16 week smash hit UK tour. Despite the accolades there was still a lot of room for improvement. Of course there was, it's a new musical and they take time: rewrites, more time and more rewrites.

Often when you're so deeply inside a project (I began writing Willows in 2014!) you lose objectivity, and our EP co-producer Andy Barnes (one of the producers of Six) brought fresh ears to the piece. He could hear the show's potential, but he could also hear where the hugely contrasting musical voices of its two composers (the voice of richly layered harmony / epic show tunes and the voice of killer beats / sick flows) led to an occasionally incoherent soundworld.

Of course we could have workshopped the orchestrations live in a room (although not very easily with what ended up being a recording full of samples and DJ-scratched trumpet) but working on it as a recording allowed us both the luxury of time, even if it did delay the release date by five months. We were also given the chance to add and subtract sounds and ideas until we had reached a point where three writers, four orchestrators, two producers and one very patient sound engineer were all happy with the end result (see the music video for the song "Head Above Water" from the show below).

Huge props to the aforementioned engineer, Sam Featherstone (who also mixed the Six cast album), for his patience. Hopefully what we achieved after all the back and forth - cutting strings, ramping up the horns etc - is something unique and unified that honours both the distinctive musical voices in the show. That discovery, in turn, came through the process of making the EP. Even if we'd had the luxury of an orchestrations workshop, we wouldn't have got to that place without the focus of a release date.

Another bonus of developing these albums digitally and remotely (thanks pandemic) means you can be flexible about scheduling and can thus assemble the cast of your dreams. Hi there Sharon Rose and Hiba Elchikhe (two of our singers on the Willows EP).

Once the work is out there you then have the gift of Spotify analytics to show you song by song how the piece is being received. I'm not suggesting writers should start cutting songs from their shows that get fewer streams than the rest, but it is illuminating to see the cold hard data. That scrutiny certainly highlights which songs are really hitting the mark. One of our songs ("Miles and Miles") from the eco-rock musical HouseFire by me and Felix Hagan has over double the number of streams than any other song on that album - which gives you pause for thought (see the music video for the song "Miles and Miles" from the show below).

We were lucky enough to get together physically in a room to workshop HouseFire in December, squeezing a session in during that brief gap between lockdowns. We even held on to our EP cast (handy because they already knew the songs), and it was a giddy joy to be back in the room again - for many of us the highlight of our year. So I'm not suggesting that we abandon conventional workshopping, but in the meantime there's still a lot to be gained from these digital, remotely created alternatives. In the meantime, listen and enjoy.

Find out more about Metta Theatre and these shows online here.

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