Our House: Constructing a New MusicalDate: 28 October 2002
As Madness musical Our House premieres this week, book writer Tim Firth recounts the months leading up to opening, from his initial split-story inspiration through casting, cancelled previews & 300 Whatsonstage.com theatregoers.
30 October 2001 - The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn.
For me the musical constitutes the best and worst that theatre can be; the most transporting articulation of a story or a sausage-string of tunes joined by a series of thin twists. As a kid of thirteen I sat in the eighth row of Evita and decided I wanted to write. My early influences were musicals, not plays - Jesus Chris Superstar, Blood Brothers...yet you couldn't drag me to sit through Kismet or that one with Tommy Steele as a leprechaun. I hate what can happen to dialogue when it approaches the vortex pull of an upcoming song. "Ah I see you've bought your little dog with you. I used to have a dog. Little fella. God I miss him. Let me tell you". Cue song about dead dog. My gravest concern in this undeniably cart-before-horse situation of pre-existing songs is to avoid the sausage-string.
To rewind. A retrospective diary up to this point....
December 2000 - See Madness in concert as a punter.
January 2001 - Asked if I'd be interested in collaborating with them. Pros: The songs are endemically theatrical. Cons: The phrase "the latest in a line of". And a sense of in-organic-ness. Having said that, I can't be snobby. Most musicals are based on pre-existing stories. This is just the reverse.
A story that merits a musical is rare. They have to be truffle-like; small, uncomplicated, pungent. The genetic components of Madness are wit, emotional honesty, irreverence and a muscular sense of place. I keep coming back to the notion of the "house" and to a series of oppositions - Sun and Rain, Rise and Fall. Also I can't get out of my head a scenario where the car in "Driving in My Car" is "not quite a jaguar" and then a flip to where it is exactly that. A story is starting to emerge of a life lived two ways.
Potential directors. First choice, Matthew Warchus (MW). I tell him how I'm not interested in doing a "fly past" of songs so passionately that I realise I'm shouting slightly and he's moved his chair back.
Back to October 2001 - And now MW and I are in the Tricycle workshopping a story about a young Camden lad who commits a petty crime to impress his girl which goes wrong and the musical then follows the two paths his life would've taken had he done the right or wrong thing that night. Rob the designer has just pointed out that by weird coincidence the Northern Line splits in two at Camden Town.
January 2002 - We've cast the lead boy. Michael Jibson hasn't even finished at drama school. I love the way he diffidently tries to suggest a girl he's at college with for the girl lead.
February 2002 - Case the Cambridge Theatre with Philip Bateman the Musical Director. The audience is largely Dutch. I'm sitting there thinking "how the hell are these guys going to understand a split story?". To make things worse, as soon as the leading lady starts singing a ballad, an entire row of Canadian students get up to have a beer in the stalls bar. A frightening night.
March 2002 - Still no lead girl. Problem is that there are loads of great West End singers out there, but Madness are not "West End". If someone comes on and sings "My girl's mad at me" in the same way they sing "Bring him home" then the audience will be straight out of the theatre, and I'll be with them. No vibrato. That's the key. In performance, set, costumes, every aspect of production - no vibrato.
April 2002 - Get a call from MW. He thinks he's found our lead girl (Julia Gay). I travel down from Cheshire to see on stage the girl Michael suggested from his college.
July 2002 - Read-through. The cast appears to be entirely from the North. Told this to Suggs who said it's perverse that this musical tells more about the history of the band than their biographies because it's the story of all their own childhoods.
August 2002 - I was told very early on that musicals aren't written, they're rewritten. We've already arrived at the comedy ritual of "Tim's homework" where everyone sits in a semi-circle with pencils poised. I have to feel unrepentant about this. In a musical, a line of underscore can suddenly render pages of dialogue redundant. An explosive dance affects everything in its wake.
Later that month... We're not going to hit the first preview date. The show is more of a movie on stage than anyone expected. MW tells me he is going to petition the producers for an extra week of previews. This would entail moving back the opening night a week and cost a fortune.
The final run-through in the rehearsal rooms goes surprisingly well and immediately after it MW petitions for the extra time. He gets it. The producers say that tonight they got their first glimpse of what the show could be. They talk of not spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar.
4 October 2002 - Dress rehearsal. For the past two weeks, the cast have worked on each scene in isolation. Running them together at speed, people are vomiting with exhaustion in the stage-right toilet. Suddenly, way up in the fly-roof, the massive descending Act One set crashes. Cast flee into the auditorium.
7 October 2002- First preview. I can't believe the audience (including 300 Whatsonstage.com theatregoers on our October Outing) are in when the last time I saw the production the cast were running for cover. I sit in the eighth row as the lights go down with a thousand people round me and realise that, for half this cast, the last show they did was at drama school.
8 October 2002, 1.40am - As I watched them cope tonight with all the teething problems, I just felt immensely proud of them. It helped that the audience had gone bananas (including 300 Whatsonstage.com theatregoers!) by the end of the first number. Their confidence grew and it will grow more. The script will tighten. My original aim was that people who don't know Madness would think these songs had always been written for a musical. I don't know if I've achieved that. But on leaving the theatre, the band tell me they're more proud of this show than of their first No 1. So that's something.
Our House opens at the West End's Cambridge Theatre on 28 October 2002, following previews from 7 October.