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Guest Blog: Is it a musical, or a play with songs? And does it matter?

As Klook's Last Stand opens at the Park Theatre, its writer Che Walker reflects on the difficulties of categorising shows with music (or should that be musical shows?)

Che Walker in rehearsals for Klook's Last Stand with Sheila Atim and Ako Mitchell
© Arnim Freiss

When I was nine years old, my father directed Guys and Dolls at the tiny Half Moon Theatre, with a cast of seven, including Maggie Steed and Robin Hooper.

I watched it every single night, and never got enough of it. I loved it. Everything I've worked on - even the 'straight plays' - has been a response to this perfect piece of writing.

Whether something is categorised as a 'musical' or 'play with songs' seems to be somewhat driven by the exigencies of marketing a show in the crowded London scene. Perhaps audiences arrive with different expectations if they buy a ticket for a musical. I certainly don't think any of the shows I've worked on fit the mould of a cheerful night out you could take your grandmother to (unless your grandmother is Patti Smith); if only they did!

My two shows at The Globe, The Frontline and The Lightning Child (inspired 20 years ago when studying The Bacchae while listening to Parliament's "Mothership Connection" - the lyrics of which should be studied for GCSE English, Mr Gove), featured music composed by Arthur Darvill, who also composed the songs for the musical adaptation of my play Been So Long at the Young Vic.

Lovesong took original songs from the extraordinary career of UK Soul Legend Omar - who also performed and toured the UK in 2010.

And now Klook's Last Stand - with songs by Omar and the gifted young composer Anoushka Lucas - is premiering at Park Theatre.

So what is a play with songs? What is a musical? Does it matter?

Perhaps the distinction between a 'musical' and 'a play with songs' comes down to the work that the songs are doing. Sometimes a song is in the service of the character's rhetoric - they burst up out the scene because the stakes are so high and the situation has become so urgent that the character has no option but to launch into amplified sound with rhymes and a backing band.

"We've aimed to create a theatre piece that interweaves these elements seamlessly, like it's one long movement of music"

Some other songs work as soliloquies; the characters' private thoughts, shared with his/her new confidante, the audience. Other songs - definitely the case in The Frontline - operate as a kind of greek chorus, where we pause the action and reflect on what we're watching and what we feel about it.

It looks like all the shows I've worked on in the last five years use songs in all the ways described, so I'm still confused.

Klook's Last Stand is mixture of drama, spoken word and jazz. We've aimed to create a theatre piece that interweaves these elements seamlessly, like it's one long movement of music.

Is it a play with songs? That's what they tell me. Personally, I don't have time to think about it. I've got a story to tell. A good one, I think, with maybe just a hint of Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown in it. I hope you come and see.

Klook's Last Stand premieres at the Park Theatre on Friday 13 June 2014 (previews from 11 June) and continues until 6 July