Guest Blog: Comic songwriter Alexander S Bermange on bringing his Wit and Whimsy to the stage
Alexander S Bermange, the resident comic songwriter and performer on BBC Radio 4's ''Broadcasting House'', discusses creating ''Wit and Whimsy'', his cabaret show returning to London's St James Theatre in February 2014
Having reached the point where I have written over a dozen musicals, music and lyrics for many other projects, and countless stand–alone songs in diverse styles, it is perhaps not surprising that over the years many people have put the idea to me that I devise a cabaret-style show bringing together my "greatest hits" (I use the term "hits" loosely).
But I have always resisted. I must admit that I have long had a bit of a problem with small-scale productions that largely consist of songs from musicals that are performed without the context, "relevance", or resources (in terms of costumes, sets and orchestrations) that they may have already acquired in their original theatrical form. They often seem to me to be something of a "public audition".
But I knew that many of my comic songs – for which I have been fortunate enough to acquire a reputation – would be perfectly suited to such a setting. A shared experience listening to songs that were always intended to be performed by voice and piano, in an intimate environment in which every subtlety could be enjoyed, seemed to be the optimal way to see and hear some of my work in this genre.
This genre was in fact one that I effectively "fell into". Throughout my childhood, my primary interest had been musical theatre, and during the sixth form and my time at university my writing had been in this area – outside of my shows, I hadn't created any stand–alone comic songs (or stand-alone songs in any style, for that matter). Then, towards the end of a year I spent in Hamburg as part of my university course, my father came to visit me, bringing with him a recording of a recent radio programme about American comic songwriting legend Tom Lehrer ("The Elements", "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park", etc), which he played to me in the car. I found Lehrer's work brilliant – original, funny and clever all at the same time. Yet his style didn't really impact on my own work – well, not at that point, at least.
Fast-forward to a year later. I had finished at university, and during the few months that followed (apart from being featured on an ITV show entitled Young, Gifted and Broke!), I was introduced to (and accompanied on the piano) a number of artists (many of them members of the West End musical theatre fraternity) who were doing solo concerts and cabarets - many of them performing numbers from Lehrer's oeuvre, and more often than not lamenting the fact that Lehrer had long since stopped writing and that nobody was creating the kind of material that he would be if he were still at it! And around the same time, an acquaintance of mine who had seen me on Young, Gifted and Broke suggested that I try my hand at writing some comedic musical material. I took all of this as enough of a hint, and decided to see what I could come up with...
During the next couple of years, alongside my work in musical theatre (which, ironically, seemed to be largely "serious", my tending to be attracted to dark subjects), I churned out quite a number of comic songs, some to insert into concerts and cabarets that I was working on with particular artists, some for other projects, and some just "for fun". I tended to be drawn towards contemporary subjects that I could try writing about with wit, "cleverness" (without being too cerebral), and playfulness. I liked setting myself challenges, such as writing a song about someone who wants to represent his country at the Eurovision Song Contest, with the titles of 45 Eurovision songs "hidden" in the lyric. I enjoyed looking for the humour in everyday annoying situations, such as being confronted with an endless list of possibilities by an automated telephone answering system ("press one for this, two for that…") or being driven into a rage by troubles with your computer.
Before long, I had accumulated enough to be incorporated onto an album entitled Weird and Wonderful, which consists of many of my character–based comic songs (numbers that, in the words of the album's strapline, "celebrate weirdos and weirdness" – as indicated by song titles such as "He Left Me For My Granny" and "I've Fallen In Love With A Sheep"), performed by 16 leading musical theatre artists.
The release of the Weird and Wonderful album led to many of the songs on it taking on lives of their own, through performances, recordings, and national radio broadcasts by other artists, from Kit & the Widow to Britt Ekland, and through their frequent use for showcases and auditions, no doubt because many of them offer opportunities for performers to assume the role of a specific – and often, more than a little eccentric – character and display their comedic skills.
Shortly after the album's release, I received a call from BBC Radio 4's Sunday morning programme Broadcasting House. It was the week when a theatre and a ballet company had announced that they would be staging Newsnight – The Opera and Princess Diana – The Ballet, respectively, and the Broadcasting House team wanted to incorporate Broadcasting House – The Musical into that week's programme (three days later). I duly created this (it was obviously more of a mini-musical!), and, since there was no time for a "singer" to learn it, I performed it myself live on the show. People seemed to be responsive not only to what I had written but also (to my surprise and delight!) to how I interpreted it.
So, as Broadcasting House (and, later, the BBC World Service's programme Weekend) kept calling on me with songwriting challenges based around topics ranging from elections to Cup Finals to specific politicians, I kept writing and performing them. As a result of having a day or two at the most (and an hour or two at the least) to write them, I became used to having to work to tight deadlines (which has come in especially useful when writing for projects such as The 24-Hour Musicals at the Old Vic at the end of last year). Some of these creations, by virtue of the fact that they are intended to be topical, are only of temporary relevance, and so I was also seizing every opportunity to come up with "timeless" comedic material, alongside my musicals (large–scale productions of which were becoming frequent in Europe) and my music and songs for other West End and touring theatre productions.
Then, in the spring of 2012, a High Court judge, who had been kind enough to show great enthusiasm for my work for some years, asked me if I would give a performance of around half an hour at a dinner he was organising for a large number of members of the legal profession. I was a little hesitant. Deep inside, I had felt for some time that I should be performing more of my comedic material live. But I only had two or three songs of mine that I had ever given public performances of. However, he was asking me long enough in advance for me not to feel too nervous about it (yet), so I agreed to take the plunge.
The reaction was terrific, and I remember having a little moment of "epiphany" whilst waiting at Farringdon station (not the most glamorous of locations for such a meaningful experience) for my train home (which I recall missing as my thoughts had distracted me from noticing that I was in fact on the wrong platform). At the time, I was in pre–production for Thirteen Days, my (largely "serious") musical set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the Arcola Theatre. Yet I told myself that alongside this and my other theatre work I needed to be finding more opportunities to perform my comic songs. So began the creation of The Wit and Whimsy of Alexander S. Bermange.
I desperately didn't want to put together a show that was merely a celebration of my own ego, but rather one that had artistic merit, and that would be like the musical equivalent of a stand–up comedy show (but with me sitting down, at the piano, rather than standing up). Having observed the benefits of a director's contribution to a cabaret from those that I had seen and worked on, I approached Michael Strassen, whom I had known since his days as a performer and whose more recent work as a director I had come to know not only through his award–winning productions at the Union Theatre but also through his work on Ruthie Henshall's solo cabaret.
I was delighted when Michael agreed to come on board to help me build a show around my comedic material. When we were discussing possible spaces in which to premiere it, he told me about the St James Theatre studio, which he had recently enjoyed a performance in, but which I had yet to discover. I visited the venue and immediately fell in love with the attractiveness, sophistication, and welcoming environment that the space offered. I felt that it would be a perfect home for Wit and Whimsy.
Although I originally intended Wit and Whimsy to be based around my existing comedic material, I thought that I would use the event as an excuse to come up with a brand new song. And then another. And another. And another. And so on! Which has left me in the fortunate position of having a large selection to choose from (not all of which will obviously make it into the show, which otherwise would last longer than The Ring).
Preparing for the show has been a huge learning experience. And I don't mean that in the normal use of that phrase. What I mean is that it has involved a huge amount of word-learning! To be honest, I have always wondered why performers have seemed to have such terrible trouble learning some of my lyrics. OK – I can understand this with some of my songs, such as the one about a trainspotter on the London underground that lists the tube stations, but why others presented such problems was always something of a mystery to me. Suffice to say that I have been giving myself a taste of my own medicine.
I was keen to involve a couple of leading ladies to work their magic on some of the songs that required more of a physical performance than those I would be singing at the piano, and am delighted to have West End regulars Julie Atherton (whose credits include Kate Monster/Lucy in Avenue Q, Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act and Sophie in Mamma Mia!) and Cassidy Janson (whose credits include Kate Monster/Lucy in Avenue Q, Elphaba in Wicked and Maggie in Lend Me A Tenor) on board.
I have known both for several years, but this will be my first time working with Julie, and I only first worked with Cassidy earlier this year, on the Landor Theatre's production of my three–person musical The Route To Happiness, in which she played the role of Trinity.
Wit and Whimsy is designed to be a comedic musical creation that brings together some of my most popular work with a generous selection of my brand new material. It aims to offer a colourful glimpse into slightly warped and wacky, yet hopefully wonderful, worlds that I look forward to hopefully having the pleasure of transporting you into.
The Wit and Whimsy of Alexander S. Bermange is returning to the St James Theatre on Sunday 2 February at 7.30pm. The CD 'Weird & Wonderful - A Collection of Comic Songs By Alexander S. Bermange Celebrating Weirdos And Weirdness', is available to download from iTunes and all major digital platforms, and on CD from dresscircle.com