Richard Thomas started out fresh from Cambridge University as a singer-songwriter and comedian in the Tim Minchin mould, working the comedy circuit as half of an act called Miles (himself) and Millner that he first formed at university. I was a fellow student (and already a budding journalist) and Richard still claims that I gave him his first bad review.
But I’ve gone on to give him good ones since, and just as Minchin recently scored a big hit with his first West End musical Matilda, so Thomas has long diversified, giving up the comedy scene to write, emerging as a major writer whose work isn’t easily pigeonholed. Just look at some of the venues his work has appeared at: he’s had a musical at the National Theatre (the Olivier Award-winning Jerry Springer-the Opera) and written songs for a dance piece at Sadler’s Wells (Shoes), written lyrics and libretto for an opera at the Royal Opera House (Anna Nicole) and composed a series of five operas for BBC2 (Kombat Opera).
I like problems and fuck-ups. Opera lends itself, of course, to those extremities
Now he’s back onstage at London’s Soho Theatre, appearing with the influential drag performer David Hoyle, in an alternative Christmas cabaret called Merrie Hell. “I haven’t performed in 16 years,” says Thomas, “so I’m slightly terrified by this.” But he wanted to explore new territory again, both for himself and for Hoyle: “I’ve seen David a lot at the Vauxhall Tavern, and he’s a very inspiring, supremely original figure on the circuit. But this is quite new territory for him. We wanted to do a show that would harness all the fantastic things about him – the spontaneity and his improvisational virtuosity – but write songs for him to perform in which he wouldn’t feel straitjacketed by the cabaret convention.”
Watching them rehearse, it struck me that they are a fresh, British version of Kiki and Herb, the now disbanded New York cabaret duo of Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman whose career embraced Broadway and Carnegie Hall as well as downtown cabaret venues. “That’s a very flattering comparison,” says Thomas, before agreeing “it’s quite close”. Like Kiki and Herb, their show deals in the alienating, dangerous and provocative: “It’s a Christmas show dealing with love, death and war; it covers everything.”
Stage critic Paul Vale dubbed Hoyle’s “eclectic style and delivery” as “a form of car-crash drag with subversive overtones”. Talking of his attraction to real-life characters such as Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole and the worlds they represented, Thomas says, “I like problems and fuck-ups. Opera lends itself, of course, to those extremities. And the dark side is always so much more interesting than happiness. In contentment is death – if you want to see the cutting edge of anything, you’re not going to go to Kensington and Chelsea, you’re going to go to Dalston.”
By the same token, Hoyle has had a very dark past as a performance artist, known for some extreme acts – he was the Leigh Bowery of his day. “I knew him when he was emerging as the Divine David. But he threw away a giant career – he chucked it away and disappeared. Part of the reason I wanted to do this is that he is such an inspirational figure and deserves a wider audience. This is going to give him that opportunity, to hopefully harness his incredible energy and sometimes frightening qualities. I admire him, but I’m also scared of him.”
Being back onstage, too, will remind him of how much he owes the invaluable training performing gave him: “I had ten years dying onstage and winning onstage. I know what it is like to play in front of a crowd who are bored. That’s death to me, I can’t think of a worse crime than boring an audience. With comedy, you don’t hang around. You cherish the moment – you want silence and you want laughter. And the same is true in musical theatre – you’ve got to earn your ballad. With Anna Nicole, the challenge was to write a show that’s three-quarters comedy, then it morphed into a tragic thing – it was a fascinating journey to nail that.”
Anna Nicole, written with the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, was premiered at the Royal Opera House last year, and he tells me it is going to New York next year – it will play at BAM, in a co-production between New York City Opera, BAM and the Royal Opera House. It is scheduled to return to the opera houses in 2014. He is also in the midst of writing a musical version of the film Made in Dagenham, for which he is providing lyrics to David Arnold’s music, and Richard Bean is providing the script and Rupert Goold is signed to direct. They’ve already workshopped act one; “we’ve got a slightly dodgy second act, which we’re re-writing now – that’s always the way.”
Does he relish sharing responsibilities, as he did with Anna Nicole and now Made in Dagenham, instead of writing both words and music as he did for Jerry Springer? “It’s quite nice – it means the heat is taken off you a bit, and it’s lovely that you learn quite a lot from others, too.” He also likes to mix it up in terms of the genres he works in. “It’s quite nice to be able to flit across between musicals, opera and dance; but it’s all music drama to me.”
And he relishes the drama as much as the music. “With Anna Nicole we re-wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote. A lot of modern operas are rubbish because the librettist knocks it out and gives it to the composer to score, who writes it and nobody changes a thing.” But Anna Nicole was also created in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of an opera house, where there’s little time to hone the actual production: “We got one dress rehearsal before the opening night – it’s insane and absolutely terrifying. They had an invited audience of about 300 people to that, and it felt like we were dying on our asses. Then we opened to the world press! I was showing the classic animal symptoms of fear: I was short of breath and wanted to run away!”
The success of Anna Nicole followed that of Jerry Springer – the Opera, which inaugurated Nick Hytner’s regime at the helm of the National Theatre in 2003 and marked a clear line in the sand between the sort of musicals like Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and South Pacific that the theatre had specialised in reviving before. “It really opened doors for me,” Thomas says. “Everything I’ve done since then has been as a result of that.”
And now he’s also working on a new commission for the National Theatre. “The idea I’ve got for it is brilliant – but now I’ve got to get into the universe of the subject and play with it. I’ve got some stuff in terms of the techniques I want to use; I want to explore the whole relationship between text and music and the spoken word.”
At a time when lots of writers are nudging at doors to get their musicals on but finding them stubbornly refusing to budge, he is in the happy position of already having one open. “I’m very grateful for it and it was purely as a result of Jerry Springer,” he says. “I’m really lucky, but I also think that maybe producers are realising that jukebox musicals are not necessarily a winner and they present as many problems as they solve. So that’s good for people like me and Tim Minchin – we want to write original stuff.” There is, he also says, “a third possible project ahead, with a really amazing figure in British comedy,” but is unable, at this stage, to say more than that.
Merrie Hell is running at Soho Theatre, London until January 5