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How to make a musical: From page to concept album

Writer and WhatsOnStage critic Michael Davies kicks off a regular blog about getting his musical adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles off the ground

Tam Mutu with recording engineer Conor Manning and Tess creators Michael Blore and Michael Davies

Good musicals don't just appear, fully-formed, out of the ether. They have to be worked on, crafted, redrafted and thoroughly tested before they can be unleashed on an unsuspecting – and all too often unforgiving – public. This occasional blog aims to lift up the rock of that process and shine a little light on what crawls around underneath.

I never meant to write a musical. I was coming off the back of several years working on television scripts, radio plays and, most recently, stage plays. So why did I find myself embroiled in a full-scale, heavily-orchestrated musical with no commission, no producer and no idea how much of my life this was going to consume?

There are many reasons to write a musical. Fame, wealth and the adoration of a delighted public are high on my list

First things first. I make no claim to being an expert in writing musicals. Most of my lifelong connection with theatre has been as a critic, so in a professional capacity I have seen quite a few of the beasts in my time, and I would definitely call myself a fan. I figure that's a reasonable starting point, and everyone has to start from wherever they're at.

Enter the second protagonist in this little enterprise, my co-writer Michael Blore. Let the record show that writing a musical together was his idea. There are many reasons to write a musical. Fame, wealth and the adoration of a delighted public are high on my list, although awards and artistic credibility are up there as well. But what really got me hooked was the challenge.

When you're writing something – anything – you've got to love what you're doing. It's always palpable, that sense of drive behind a passion project, and always noticeable when it's absent. Don't get me wrong: commerciality is vital if you want your project to get made, but if it's there on its own, without the passion behind it, it'll stand out as clearly as a pimple on prom night.

So we found a story we were passionate about – Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles since you ask – and set about writing it. Two years later, we thought we had a draft.

We decided to make a concept album. Well, it seemed to work for Tim and Andrew with Jesus Christ Superstar

In many ways, writing it was the easy bit. The next biggie is this: how do you get it staged? Some might call us naïve, spending years preparing a full-blown musical without any guarantee of it being professionally produced. But, to quote screenwriter William Golding, who wrote some of my favourite films such as Marathon Man and All the President's Men: "Nobody knows anything".

Knowing nothing, we decided to make a concept album. Well, it seemed to work for Tim and Andrew with Jesus Christ Superstar. We could have workshopped it. We could have put on a concert performance. There is, after all, an array of supportive organisations helping writers of musicals get their work out there in this kind of way. In the end, we wanted something more permanent and more illustrative of the actual show we had written.

With the help of some extraordinary people and a hugely talented line-up that includes Siobhan Dillon, Tam Mutu and Simon Bailey, that concept album is finished. While it's not going to be commercially available, we are inviting followers to listen to it on the Tess website in a bid to drive demand towards getting it staged.

And we are under no illusions: what comes next is the hard part. But now that our baby is out there, we are fervently hoping enough people will like it and want to get on board so that we can take our Tess on the next stage of her journey, all the while learning, at the coalface, just How to Make a Musical…

Michael Davies is an award-winning playwright and WhatsOnStage critic. Visit www.tessthemusical.com or follow @MusicalTess on Twitter.