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Guest Blog: From 'Music City' to Musical Theatre

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Matthew Strachan is an award-winning composer and songwriter best known for the soundtrack to the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, for which he was recently inducted into the ASCAP Hall of Fame.

He has written scores for three musicals and is performing an evening of his own songs at the St James Theatre on 24 November 2012. His latest album - 25 Year Songbook Part II - was released this month.

Here, he tells us about his recent trip to the home of country, Nashville, and why it's connected to his work in musical theatre. He also welcomes the introduction of a new category in the Whatsonstage.com Awards - Best Original Music. Get your nominations in here!

October is a nice time of year in Nashville. It's 75 degrees, sunny, and, friendly. It's my first visit in seven years. I've been here two weeks and been back together with all my old writing pals. But how did a middle-class Englishman end up writing songs in the capital of country music? And what's it got to do with British theatre?

It would be fair to say that I grew up in musical theatre. A lot of my childhood was spent sitting in dressing rooms and green rooms watching my dad, Keith, work as a musical supervisor and arranger for West End shows. When he worked on the musical Elvis back in 1977 I was seven. And it's because I wanted to play Elvis songs that I started figuring out the piano. He also wrote musicals so as a kid I saw new shows being put together first hand. But I didn't make my own foray into writing musicals until some way into my own career as a composer. And odd though it may seem, I arrived there via Nashville, Tennessee.

I'd always written songs. I started when I was about 14 and realised quickly that lyrics were important to me. I loved writers like Randy Newman, Leiber & Stoller, and Kander & Ebb and the characters and stories they created. After some success as a composer in TV and film, I decided that I wanted to return to songwriting: in Nashville where storytelling is king.

Nashville is a sort of songwriting Mecca - and not just for country music. Writers from all sorts of backgrounds - including pop, rock, and jazz - travel there from all over the world. And unlike anywhere else in today's music business there's still a Tin Pan Alley culture. Every day songwriters meet for three-hour appointments from which a song will emerge. And every day music publishers pitch these songs to recording artists.

It's a pretty scary experience to sit in a room with a stranger and try and conjure a song from nowhere but it gives you discipline and technique and the starting point is almost always a title or a concept. There's no point in turning up with a chord sequence or a riff. I know because I tried it once and got a blank look and a long walk home. I worked in Nashville for almost three years before starting a family and deciding to stay in London full time.

Pretty much as soon as I got back I knew I wanted to write a musical. Why? Partly because it was in the blood. But mostly because of my time in Nashville. I'd got used to starting a song from a storytelling point of view and now I wanted write something bigger. Since then I've written music and lyrics for three shows with my wife (author Bernadette Strachan) and we've been lucky enough to have had two of them produced. And I'm not sure I would have arrived here without having stopped in Nashville along the way.

The world of musical theatre is every bit as daunting as 'Music City'. But I'm glad to be in there, writing new pieces alongside other composers. And it's great to have new music being recognised by the new Whatsonstage.com Awards category of Best Original Music. Nominations are open now so choose your favourite score and get your vote in. Then listen to some Taylor Swift.

- Matthew Strachan


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