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How to Make a Musical: Seeing is believing

The latest instalment in our series of blogs by writer and WhatsOnStage critic Michael Davies about how he is getting his musical version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles from page to stage

Tess the Musical

Opinion is divided on the television show Glee: some credit it with a resurgence of interest in all things musical theatre among the young; others find it makes them a bit queasy. What's hard to deny is the new life it has breathed into that 1980s anthem of optimism, "Don't Stop Believing".

And at the risk of sounding like a remaindered self-help book, I'd venture to suggest that's not a bad motto for anyone trying to make a musical. After all, if you stop, who else is going to pick up the mantle of believing and wear it on your behalf? No agent, director or producer is going to have half the passion for your project that you have yourself. Conversely, if you don't stop, your belief in yourself and your material can prove infectious and carry all before it, like an uplifting tidal wave of conviction crashing over the shores of cynical realism.

OK, enough of the bad metaphors. Did I mention the importance of persistence?

Last time out, I described how two separate independent producers were interested in staging different iterations of Tess – The Musical as part of its development process. To quote the show, "Long ago – feels so long ago" – we had meetings with each, exploring their visions for the piece and how to take it forward.

We are on the cusp of seeing the first workshops take to the stage

Well, on the understanding that this musical malarkey is a long game, I am delighted to announce that we are now on the cusp of seeing the first of these workshop productions take to the stage. On February 8 and 9, in the hallowed surroundings of the Royal Shakespeare Company's studio theatre The Other Place, Michael Blore's sumptuous score (oh, and some words) will be presented to an audience for the first time. You can come along if you like – tickets are at www.rsc.org.uk/tess

It's all been a bit bizarre. On the back of those initial discussions, we agreed to put the show into the hands of Night Project Theatre, whose past productions have included The Hired Man and Sweeney Todd. Producer/director Ian Page had clear ideas about how he wanted to do it so Michael and I decided to take a back seat, allowing Ian free rein on casting, design and staging. Our only direct involvement has been a bespoke orchestration that has kept the composer rather busy for the last few months: otherwise, it's out of our hands.

We have no idea what to expect when we see it next month

This has the up side of letting us see and hear the show in a workshop environment with clear-eyed objectivity, asking the kind of tough questions that might be harder if we'd been involved. On the down side, of course, we've had no control and have no idea what to expect when we tootle along to TOP next month.

The second producer is also fascinated to see how our musical could be interpreted. We already have one version in the form of the concept album (what do you mean, you haven't heard it? You can listen to it now completely free). But seeing the show on its feet will be a different thing altogether. The optimist in me is hoping for a barnstormer.


Michael Davies is an award-winning playwright and WhatsOnStage theatre critic. Visit www.tessthemusical.com or follow @MusicalTess on Twitter and other social media. The workshop production of Tess runs on 8 and 9 February at the Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.