Just the other day I was wondering aloud whether [title of show] was a last gasp from the planet of original new musicals. Of course, I was being deliberately provocative, asking whether its very original take on the art of writing new musicals had managed to write them out of existence.
And no sooner than I’d written those words, of course, than a new and completely original musical arrived in London to utterly disprove me, I’m happy to say. Believe me, I am only too pleased to be proved wrong in my thesis, and it is a thrill to be reminded that there are always new directions for musicals still to travel in and new talents to make them do so.
The Other School, premiered last week at the St James Theatre under the auspices of the National Youth Music Theatre, is important for lots of reasons, and not just because it was a cracking good show. First of all, there’s the speed of its creation: as composer Dougal Irvine describes in a programme note about the show’s fast birth with his co-book writer Dominic Marsh,
When The Other School opens on 14 August 2013 it will mark the passage of just ten months since Dom and I began writing the show. Most musicals take years to get to production, so it’s been both a wonderful opportunity and a challenge to imagine something on this scale with an original storyline in such a short space of time.
It was after Irvine had seen NYMT’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s 13 (directed by the composer himself) last summer at the Apollo Theatre that the idea was born.
My jaw dropped both at the show and the talent of the kids on stage, who would have looked at home amongst seasoned pros. I thought it would be a dream to write for an organisation like NYMT and my jaw dropped again a few weeks later when meeting their producer Jeremy Walker for coffee and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘So, have you written it yet?’ Better get cracking. Dom and I began work in October and finished the first draft just before Christmas. It was rough, it didn’t have an ending, but it was a start.
And last week, it reached the stage in a blissfully confident form that shows how speed can focus the attention usefully. That, of course, is how shows were always once written – and indeed is still the way Alan Ayckbourn writes today. He sets himself an annual deadline and writes to meet it.
But also what is striking is how the NYMT, who have been through this process many times before with original musicals that they’ve commissioned from Ayckbourn, Howard Goodall and others, are also so adept at harnessing the human and creative energy to make it happen. With young, resilient cast members and orchestra, aged between 12 and 23 and drawn from all over the country, they’ve been able to put it up in record time.
And here, with 17 original songs by Irvine and a book that is both challenging and audacious as it imagines an after-life school for children who have met an early death, the show dares to embrace a dark subject matter with a light-hearted spirit (in every sense) to create an alternative world that feels authentic, disturbing and complex.
In fact, with its school setting, it reminded inevitably of Matilda (a world that director Lotte Wakeham is intimately acquainted with, as her other day job is associate director on the West End and Broadway incarnations of that show). But it also summonsed memories of another great musical for me: Next to Normal, with its conversations about bereavement between the living and the dead.
Those are both great inspirations, conscious or not; but Dougal Irvine is also the real deal as a composer, writing alternately moving and catchy tunes in a modern pop idiom that are absolutely original, too. It’s also very refreshing to hear so many of the songs scored for a dominant guitar and strings sound (and to see the utter concentration and musicality of the 12-year-old cello player).
A faultless cast give it spellbinding energy and commitment, and execute Tim Jackson’s evocative choreography and movement with panache and style.
They always say of New York, New York that it is so good they named it twice, and The Other School was so good I saw it twice – on consecutive days last week. And as they say in [title of show],
I’d rather be nine people’s favourite thing
Than a hundred people’s ninth favourite thing
The Other Show is already one of my favourite things of the year. I’m sure there are more than eight more people who agree!