Alan Ayckbourn is most associated with writing plays, yet it might surprise you to know he has also written a significant number of musicals.
The musical play is something Alan has consistently returned to throughout his long writing career, although these works have rarely received much attention.
Except perhaps for Jeeves, the 1975 West End musical whose place in the history is assured due to it being the first – and only! – Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber flop, which closed after just a month.
But Alan’s musicals have come a long way since then and it tends to be ignored that even Jeeves had a happy ending when it was successfully rehabilitated in 1996 as By Jeeves, which went on to success in the West End.
But if Jeeves is the most famous Ayckbourn musical, it is also the least representative. Since 1980, Alan has been writing musicals – or more accurately musical plays – which have largely been predicted on Alan’s desire on utilising songs and music as a tool to propel plots forwards rather than – as in the case of the original Jeeves – more as ornamentation.
The first ‘Ayckbourn’ musical was Suburban Strains (1980), written with the composer Paul Todd; then the musical director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough. The plot of a woman looking at the relationships throughout her life is typical Ayckbourn, but as quite an introspective piece, he was looking for an element that allowed his characters to reflect and express their thoughts.
“The music actually helps me as a playwright; it’s given me that necessary kick beyond naturalism. You have an equivalent of the soliloquy, no need for a boring old drunk scene to make characters say what they feel. If you suddenly bring in a shaft of music from somewhere, they can actually play the subtext. Generally the English prefer to hint round the truth, which is fun and leads to a lot of comedy, but for me it’s been very interesting to find this other dimension.”
Although Suburban Strains did not set the world of musicals alight, its success in Scarborough whetted Alan’s appetite to write more and quickly led to a second collaboration with Paul Todd.
Making Tracks (1981) is set in a recording studio and was inspired by Alan’s time as a radio drama producer for the BBC. Although it has rarely been produced subsequently, the playwright believed the experience was a positive one.
“The idea was there, but I was thinking of it as a play, and it never really took off – but it makes sense as a musical. It’s certainly a progression from our earlier work. One is never thoroughly happy with anything, but this time the words don’t seem to get in the way of the music. It is the most fun we’ve had with a musical – Suburban Strains was a bit sad, and this is lighter, more up-tempo, and fun.”
Making Tracks was also notable for incorporating the live band into the plot by making them an integral part of the story; often one of the biggest difficulties for Alan when writing musicals is where to put the band. Perhaps not an obvious dilemma, but when you consider his plays are premiered in an intimate theatre-in-the- round with little space for even a small band, you can appreciate the problem.
Alan and Paul would also write 10 revues together between 1976 and 1986 and Alan has said that the pair probably created several hundred songs together.
In 1992, Alan teamed up with the composer John Pattison to write Dreams From A Summer House. Undoubtedly inspired by the success of his ‘family’ plays and his increasing confidence in letting more fantastical elements enter his writing, it sees Ayckbourn suburbia colliding with fairy tales utilising music to allow the two genres to meet and merge.
“What I really can’t bear is the convention by which people with no prior warning suddenly give vent to a song, and then stop again with equal abruptness. I wanted a play that will be part- sung and part-spoken, but with the singing justified by the action. There will be no numbers as such, but long speeches set to music.”
The fairy tale characters can only communicate by singing, hence the suburban characters find themselves bursting, quite awkwardly, into song in order to communicate. Unfortunately, plans to take the play into the West End never came to fruition, but set the template for much that would follow.
The world premiere production was also notable for featuring the actress Janie Dee as a tone-deaf character unable to hold a note – at least until a surprise revelation at the conclusion! It would be the first of many collaborations between Janie and Alan who would subsequently become famed for her musical, stage and screen work.
John Pattison would also collaborate with Alan on A Word From Our Sponsor (1995), which is set in the near future where a community is struggling to stage a mystery play. The arrival of the Devil with the necessary funding – and a few artistic provisos – apparently being the answer to their prayers. It is interesting to note that Alan had the idea for this several years previously but couldn’t make it work without an extra element.
“I had the idea for Sponsor and I played around with it for a long time. I couldn’t quite make it live because it has these exotic elements. It suddenly occurred to me It was a musical idea, by putting it to music, you could make it more credible and meet its exoticism.”
Alan’s third and current collaborator Denis King joined forces with him in 2000 to produce the time-travelling musical Whenever. This stands as one of Alan’s most accomplished pieces and the songs drive a fast-moving family play forward.
The success of Whenever, which was subsequently adapted for radio and broadcast by the BBC, led to Alan and Denis teaming up for their most ambitious musical, Orvin – Champion Of Champions.
It was commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre and Alan and Laurie Sansom co- directed the play, which included more than 40 young people in an ambitious fantasy adventure that was the highlight of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 2003 summer schedule.
“At first, it was the sheer scale of the prospective canvas that daunted me. A lifetime of subsidized regional theatre had conditioned me to thinking mainly in cast sizes of five or six or, if we were very good and saved up our actor weeks, of ten maximum. But forty-five? For a start, where was I going to put them all? There was barely room for forty-five actors on our small Scarborough stage to stand; certainly not if we were expecting them to move as well. Well, it would save on a choreographer.”
Whilst the songs in Orvin are integral to advancing the plot, Alan had by now reached the stage where he did not feel a need to justify or explain why characters should sing. They just do.
“I shaped a story with a complex plot but one which, hopefully, would constantly be moved along with the help of our chorus. There would be a lot of action, thrills and laughs. Generally, there’d be little justification for introducing the songs. Characters would simply sing when they felt like it; and if they didn’t feel like it, then they wouldn’t – or perhaps because they couldn’t, or through circumstances, be unable to.”
Sadly the sheer scale of Orvin has meant it is not revived very frequently, yet it probably stands as one of the most successful of Alan’s musicals and also a unique opportunity to see a (very) large cast Ayckbourn creation.
Alan’s most recent musical also marked his final production as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre prior to his retirement in April 2009. Written again in collaboration with Denis King, Awaking Beauty opened in December 2008 and harked back to prior work by bringing fairy tale characters into suburbia and asked what happens after Happily Ever After? And is it really happy?
Alan’s remit to Denis King was to write a musical without instruments. Aside from an accompanying piano, the libretto is written entirely for voice and with its complex harmonising, it features some of the most challenging songs created by Alan and Denis. As unpredictable as anything he has written, it was a suitable send-off for the playwright demonstrating that the desire to constantly push himself and his writing was as strong as ever.
Sadly, there have been no musicals since then – although plenty of plays still (12 in fact). Yet there is no doubting that musicals are a form of theatre, Alan enjoys as he feels the genre offers a very broad canvas to both write and explore.
“I find that in musicals you have greater horizons on which to explore. You can use flashbacks and a cinematic technique. You begin with a small idea and suddenly new, additional ones impound on the others, pleading to take part in the complete work.”
The revised and updated article by Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was originally published by the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, as part of the Ayckbourn At 70 celebration during 2009.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.