Can Elliot Davis and pop’s James Bourne turn Loserville into an original winner of a British musical? Mark Shenton finds out where the show came from and how it is being brought to the stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse
Sir Tim Rice remarked in a newspaper interview earlier this year about the current state of British musicals, “The crisis is not with performers, it’s with new writers. All the British guys who have written successful, good new musicals in the last 20 years have been getting on a bit. There’s Elton [John] and Andrew and I, but where are all the young guys?”
Actually, there are plenty of them around, as the regular showcases of new musical writers from organisations like Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Matters and Perfect Pitch (all of them now regularly funded by Arts Council England) show; but the problem is getting the shows produced and seen as opposed to merely written. The crisis is not of talent but of opportunity and visibility. So it is instructive to meet two young writers who will see three shows they have worked on reach fruition all in the next few weeks – that may be a happy accident of timing, but it also proves that there’s plenty going on, if only people looked for it.
James Bourne – once a child performer in the West End, who was in the original gang of the 1994 London Palladium production of Oliver! when he was 11 and returned to take over in the title role a year later – is nowadays best known as a founder member of the pop-rock bands Busted and Son of Dork; he has also written songs for McFly, the Jonas Brothers, Pixie Lott and The Saturdays, among others.
Now 28, he has joined forces with Elliot Davis, a writer and composer, on two original musicals, Loserville and Out There. Both shows were first produced by Youth Music Theatre (YMT). Loserville is currently getting its professional premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, while Out There is being reprised by YMT at Riverside Studios next month.
Meanwhile, Davis – who co-scripted the new Stiles and Drewe musical Soho Cinders – will see that show also gain its first complete production at Soho Theatre in August.
So there is new stuff happening from new writers. And as Davis says: “The personalities who’ve been writing and producing musicals for the last 30 years are still doing it – and they now own the theatres. People ask where the new writers are. Well, I’ve been a member of Mercury for a long time. But now we’ve got to get through the next stage: will the people who control the doors open them to give something a chance that may not be traditional musical theatre?”
All three shows that Davis is involved in do something else, too: they are not based on existing sources, whether films or novels. “Does everything have to be based on a film?”, he asks, rhetorically. And he remembers doing writing workshops with Broadway composer William Finn once, where the group was asked to go away and write something. “The next day people came back with Boadicea the Musical or Cleopatra the Musical. But I came back with this weird story about two caterpillars who wanted to be best friends and turn into butterflies! Film writers don’t, after all, say what musical can we base our next movie on. So I think it is lovely to try to do something original and to see if audiences respond to it.”
For Loserville, however, he had a different starting point: an album called Welcome to Loserville that Bourne, who happens to live in the same north London block as him, had written for his band Son of Dork. “James played me the album, and what I heard was great storytelling in three-minute sections. I said we should think about doing something together – I’m always looking for good collaborators, and James agreed to work with me.”
With the Son of Dork album as a starting point, they had some songs already written. “We didn’t want it to be a jukebox show, but wanted to be able to write new stuff. So I came up with an idea, and pitched it to James, who really liked it, and then I went to join him in Los Angeles, where he was doing his music stuff. We rented an apartment for five weeks, and wrote it in four.
He adds: “We didn’t want to keep songs in the show just because they were on the album but only if they actually belonged, so we ended up with five and wrote another six new songs. There’s also one more Son of Dork song that’s not on the album but was written for an Ant and Dec movie.”
They also had a deadline: Davis had already approached Youth Music Theatre with the idea of doing a show for them. “There’s nothing so time-defining as having an opening night – you know you have to do something.” Thus it was that the first version of Loserville played for a short run of four nights, presented by YMT, in Bracknell in Berkshire in 2009.
It was seen there by some producers, one of whom was Kevin Wallace, who told them, “Please don’t talk to anyone else.” He then showed his commitment by coming back to see the last performance again, “and we shook on the deal,” says Davis.
Their collaboration was born, and for his part, Bourne characterises it as “a little bit as if Glee had done an episode of Son of Dork songs.” But Davis emphasises: “It’s a traditional book musical; there’s a story, there are characters, and they all go on a journey, with what is a contemporary rock pop score. Every song is intertwined, and takes the characters to a different place.”
According to the publicity material for the Leeds run, the result is “a musical mash-up about dating, binary and staying true to your dreams.” Super-smart geek Michael Dork is about to revolutionise the world with a little help from his friends Lucas, Francis and Holly, as long as rich, have-it-all kid Eddie doesn’t screw it up for them as he sets his sights on stealing Michael’s perfect girl and taking all the credit for his ideas.
After writing and producing the first version of Loserville, it has taken another three years to bring it back to the stage now. In the meantime, though, they wrote another show together. “Afterwards,” says Davis, “I said to James, ‘that was fun, let’s do another one!’ I pitched three ideas, two of which I knew were rubbish, and came up with a story that is essentially an imagined fantasy about a guy who got kicked off the Apollo 11 mission, and disappeared for 40 years. He tries to build a rocket in his backyard, and becomes the inventor of commercial space flight. He also hooks up with his grandson whom he doesn’t know is his grandson. I wanted to do a three generational story about sons, fathers and grandfathers – so many musicals are about girls – I wanted to do one about guys.”
That show is Out There, which is coming to London’s Riverside Studios next month. “We’re also going to release it to the school and amateur market,” says Davis. The writing of it was, he adds, even easier than Loserville because they weren’t restricted by an album that already existed: “With Loserville, the starting point was an album that had songs on it; with Out There, we started with a story we both believed in, so we were able to get a much better idea of the flow of it from the get-go, finding where music was needed.”
Bourne says: “I call it the Rubik’s Cube of writing – you can have something change in the story on one side, and that means the sides get shifted. But when we were writing this from scratch, we were able to have less changes of the cube. What’s so brilliant and such a joy about writing musicals is that there’s a story. As a songwriter, a record company will call and say we need a song for this band, and you sit there and wonder what it should be about. With a musical, what is great is that there’s a concept in front of you, and if the story and concept is in place, the door to the lyrics is flung open and they’re just flying in your face. You’re not having to pull them out of thin air. They’re there already because the story is.”
On the other hand, the three-and-a-half minute pop song provides a much freer way to work. “You can do a day on a song, and if it works, that was a good day,” says Bourne. “And if it didn’t, tomorrow’s another day. But with a musical, it’s an investment of years, potentially – so you have to want it and love it.”
It’s clear that both do. “You’ve got to make decisions in your life,” says Bourne. “All the songs that I’ve written that have made the most money have been for bands that no one knew who the hell they were when the songs were written. You write songs because you want to, not for the money.”
And Davis notes: “We’ve not produced a successful income-generating musical yet – but maybe Loserville could be the one.”
* Loserville runs until July 14 at West Yorkshire Playhouse www.wyp.org.uk Out There runs from July 25-28 at Riverside Studios www.riversidestudios.co.uk Soho Cinders runs from August 2-September 9 at Soho Theatre www.sohotheatre.com; www.sohocinders.com