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What does it take to write a musical theatre song?

The winners of the Stiles and Drewe Prize for Best New Song are announced on Sunday. Ahead of the announcement, three nominees explain what it takes to write a hit

Caroline Wigmore
© Chris Walker

Caroline Wigmore

Nominated song: "Watching the Door"

What is your song about?
Most of us have at least a vague idea of who Rip Van Winkle was: the guy who slept for 20 years and woke up with a huge beard. This is a song sung by his exhausted, pregnant wife, Wanda Van Winkle - she loves and loathes Rip, hopes he will change, but isn't sure how much longer she can keep holding on to hope.

How hard was it to write it?
There is an important musical theme in this song that only last a few bars, but hopefully serves to remind the audience of Wanda's heavy heart and also her toughness. Once I had that leitmotif down, the rest of the song seemed to follow naturally.

What do you think makes a good musical theatre song?
My favourites will always have a strong melody, will draw me in to the character and the story, and will in some way get my attention because they sound a bit different from the status quo.

Are there enough new musicals in Britain at the moment?
There are not that many producers who are taking chances on new writing. Most of us writers get trampled by musical revivals and juke-box musicals. Marketing for new musicals couldn't be harder and audiences don't like to take risks on new shows. I think we need more ingenius marketers and producers to get excited about this art form and find creative ways to help it to thrive.

Darren Clark

Darren Clark

Nominated song: "My Wicker Man"

What is your song about?
The song is from The Wicker Husband, a new musical based on a short story by Ursula Wills Jones. The story follows The Ugly Girl, who guts fish for a living and is treated as an outcast by her village. One day the villagers humiliate her at a local dance and, distraught, she runs to her only friend, a willow tree, where she sings about how life might be different for her if she had a husband.

How hard was it to write it?
I wouldn't use ‘hard' to describe the process I went through in writing this song. I'd definitely use the word ‘patient' though. I wrote the first iteration of this song almost immediately after reading The Wicker Husband, two and a half years ago. It started off as a very naive piece of work because it was purely a strong emotional reaction to that moment in the story. As a consequence I came away with something very raw, but extremely unpolished and incoherent both musically and lyrically. The melody of the first two lines from that first version is all that remains in the current song. The lyrics went on a tremendous journey through several iterations.

What do you think makes a good musical theatre song?
I try to remember the following principles: It should follow the logical truth of a character's thought through to it's inevitable conclusion. It should be written in the authentic voice of the character. It shouldn't try to do too much but it should try to do something!

Are there enough new musicals in Britain at the moment?
The London Fringe is buzzing with new musical work but there is a huge lack of essential support from the West End commercial theatre sector which means that the work is not being exposed to the larger theatre-going audience. But there are some brilliant companies out there championing the work of new writers such as Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network, BML (Book, Music & Lyrics), Theatre Bench and Perfect Pitch.

Tim Connor

Tim Connor

Nominated song: "Back To School"

What is your song about?
‘Back To School' is from a one-woman song cycle called Heart of Winter. Kate, a primary schoolteacher in her mid-twenties, is mourning the end of a significant relationship. The outside world reflects her emotions, gradually turning from winter to spring as she regains her self-confidence. The basic premise is inspired by the Wintereisse poems, with a nod to The Last Five Years and Tell Me On A Sunday.

How hard was it to write it?

It was tricky and took a really long time. Working out the right stresses, rhymes and punch-lines took several goes. I continue to tinker with them.

What do you think makes a great musical theatre song? 
"Write for character." (Julia McKenzie)

 Are there enough new musicals in Britain at the moment?
There can never be too many! There is a lovely, encouraging community of writers with lots of exciting project on the go.


The West End gala for the Stephen Sondheim Society Performer of the Year and Stiles and Drewe Prize is hosted by Julian Ovenden at the Novello Theatre on Sunday 15 May.