Going large: How to stage a musical about obesity, with a company of 120Date: 18 May 2012
It's not everyday you get to see an epic musical on the subject of obesity, performed by a company of 120. But that's precisely what's happning with Epidemic, which opens this weekend (20 May 2012) in the Old Vic Tunnels.
Led by producer Steve Winter and writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, the show is based on interviews conducted with over 250 Londoners, while Old Vic New Voices has assembled a company of over 120 volunteers aged 16 to 60 to bring it to life.
Here, Winter, Malcolm and one of the actors, Bill Noce, tell us more about this most ambitious of projects, which runs until 27 May.
Steve Winter (Director, Old Vic New Voices):
Next we needed to find a company of volunteer actors, singers, dancer and musicians to make it happen and so the audition process began with120 places on offer we saw just shy of 1000 people. Auditions were inspiring, surprising, exciting and occasionally just downright strange. People are passionate not just about the project, but also about having the opportunity to make a statement, and this can be extraordinary to see. City workers sang with taxi drivers, first time mums danced with ex-offenders and everyone threw themselves together, all ages, all cultural demographics and all backgrounds embrace each other’s eccentricities and encourage each other to be themselves.
We are always astounded by people’s honesty and so thrilled when we find someone special like the cheeky 16-year-old whose mother has been in and out of hospital all his life, whose care is down to him, whose life has not yet begun and who sees the opportunity to perform in our production as something he's not sure he even deserves? You say welcome, and just hope you can live up to his expectations.
“And so for weeknights and weekends for six weeks, our play slowly came to life. Ten brand new songs from Suzy Davis and our “Elastic Gastric Band”, and a story developed from workshops by the brilliant Morgan Lloyd Malcolm focusing on our hero Marlon, who steals a community care bus and two of its hapless passengers, setting off to the sea. Next week we open at Old Vic Tunnels with all the last minute nerves, tensions, worries and excitement one can expect from backstage crew of 70 and cast of 50 who have never put on a show before.
Come along, won’t you? It’s gloriously infectious.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm (Writer)
The story we came up with is pretty epic and possibly a bit too ambitious but hopefully it's as entertaining and scary and silly and sad and bleak and funny as the stories we heard whilst researching. I admit we've perhaps used a bit of poetic license with some of the story touches... it definitely heads towards the 'camp' end of the spectrum at times but hey, it's a musical!
The Epidemic company
Essentially the show centers on journeys; both physical and emotional, and as a writer it's been a journey for me not least because it's the 'biggest' show I've every written. A challenge and a joy but what has been the most wonderful thing is just how enthusiastic and engaged each and every member of the cast and production team has been from the start. It's not just been about putting on a musical, it's also been about engaging in the subject matter and why it matters to us all. And these issues really do matter, they really could be the making or breaking of us. I hope our musical inspires further discussion and thought. I truly feel that the subject deserves that.
Bill Noce – playing Lawrence
and effective outreach to the community, on an important and timely theme, thereby providing both discourse on social issues and an artistic experience of the highest order - for the audience and those of us fortunate enough to be a part of the project.
Bill Noce in rehearsals
I must admit when I heard the premise - a musical, based on the theme of public health - I wasn't sold, even though I knew of Old Vic New Voices’ reputation of inventive and relevant community projects; I had a small part in PLATFORM, the 2010 production, and found it a strikingly different and thoroughly engrossing experience; but really, a musical about disease and public health policy?
But I should have known; never underestimate the power of art to address the human condition, our issues of life and death and, in this case, health. Epidemic holds up the mirror to poke and prod, to spoof and to satirise, albeit with affection rather than condemnation; Puck's comment in A Midsummer Night's Dream of "Lord what fools these mortals be" comes to mind. Epidemic is a story about a few memorable characters on a journey, meeting other people and growing and learning along the road; in a way, all the stories we love are about just that.
“I’m in a somewhat unique position, specifically cursed and gifted, as a cast member of this show: The character I play is in a situation so close to my own, I often confuse who I talking about - Bill, or Lawrence. Both of us, real and literary, have a massive battle with obesity and depression. Bill has learned, Bill has grown and searched his soul, by walking in Lawrence's shoes, saying his lines, feeling his thoughts. Throughout the rehearsal, I have come to know myself more, examined my struggles, and - due in no small part to being in the company of the absolutely delightful people in this cast and crew - dramatically relieved chronic depression.
The lead character in this play is a young mentally Ill man; I lost my younger brother, a suicide, 28 years ago, when he was about the same age as Marlon, the boy in the play. I see the same look in the eyes of the actor, the brilliant Joey Ellis, as I did in my brother those years ago. It is searingly painful sometimes, and I've left the stage more than once to have a good cry; but in the end, my experience on stage with the character of this troubled boy is a powerful catalyst, bringing an acceptance and healing which decades could not grant me.
I've blogged about my feelings, my turmoil and soul-searching, and I am surprised at the number of cast members who have come to me to tell me they are having similar experiences to me. We are receiving a charm, a blessing - with tons of laughs and love along the way.