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Songwriter and lyricist Richard Stilgoe: ‘If I’m struggling to write a verse, I’ll hop on my JCB’

Richard Stilgoe (centre) with students from the Orpheus Centre. Photo: Stonelock Photography Richard Stilgoe (centre) with students from the Orpheus Centre. Photo: Stonelock Photography

With a career encompassing hit collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber and countless topical songs on radio and TV, the veteran lyric writer’s latest musical showcases the talents of disabled performers. He tells Emily Jupp about the value of harnessing young people’s imaginations on stage and why there’s no real secret to success

Richard Stilgoe, who wrote lyrics for Cats, Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera, began his career in music as the lead singer of a group called Tony Snow and the Blizzards.

His earliest claim to fame is that his band came second to the Beatles in a 1959 rock music competition in Liverpool. That said, only two bands competed. “The Beatles turned up with an amp that didn’t work and so we lent ours to them,” he says.

After his band realised they weren’t going to compete with the Beatles in musical terms or sales, Stilgoe went on to make his name on the BBC shows Nationwide and That’s Life!. He wrote and performed comedy jingles about current affairs before a chance meeting “in the green room between [Michael] Parkinson shows” changed the course of his career.

It was there that Stilgoe met, and hit it off with, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Two days later, his phone rang and he was asked to work on the opening number of Cats, which premiered in 1981. It marked the start of a golden collaboration between the pair, creating some of British theatre’s most enduring musicals.

Stilgoe says he owes much of his success to Lloyd Webber, whom he describes as a genius, and adds that his work lacked discipline until they started working together.

“If something happened in the news, I wrote a song about it, sang it on the television and then no one heard it ever again,” he says. “When you do it for musicals, people hear it thousands of times so you have to have more rigour. What you learn more and more is not to let the rubbish in.”

Lloyd Webber marks his 70th birthday next week and has just published his memoir Unmasked. But Stilgoe says anyone trying to emulate the composer won’t find the answers in his autobiography, as the key to his success cannot be replicated.

One of the things that makes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows work is that they disobey quite a lot of the rules

“I don’t think there is a formula,” he says. “One of the things that makes Andrew’s shows work is that they disobey quite a lot of the rules. If you want to fit into mainstream successful theatre, why choose Jesus, then an Argentinian dictator, then a show about cats, then a show about trains? It’s not exactly middle-of-the-road, is it? Each one took people by surprise because it wasn’t the same as the last. But the main reason he’s been so successful is he’s a genius, which definitely helps.”

Stilgoe founded the Orpheus Trust in 1998 in his former family home in Godstone, Surrey, offering performing arts experiences to young people with disabilities. The students, aged between 18 and 25, stay at the Orpheus Centre for up to three years.

According to the ancient Greek myth, Orpheus played his lyre so sweetly that he charmed all things on earth, “and our performers have the same effect”, Stilgoe says.

His new musical, Orpheus the Mythical, will celebrate the Orpheus Centre’s 20th birthday. It is being staged at the Other Palace, Lloyd Webber’s venue specialising in new musicals. Jane Asher, Rob Brydon and Bertie Carvel will join the chorus on different nights along with disabled performers from the trust and aspiring actors from Arts Educational Schools London.

Stilgoe leading a performance with students from the Orpheus Centre. Photo: Stonelock Photography
Stilgoe leading a performance with students from the Orpheus Centre. Photo: Stonelock Photography

“The interesting thing is always what happens when you mix everything together. It seemed to make sense to mix lots of myths into the salad bowl, so in the story there are the Gorgons, the dragons and Orpheus.”

Performance has huge benefits to the Orpheus students, who often go on to live independent lives after their time at the centre. “Angus Morton, who is singing Orpheus, has Asperger’s,” Stilgoe says. “But this weird thing happens when he is singing – he doesn’t normally process emotions, but he knows all about the emotions in the singing of the song.”

Stilgoe sees performance as a skill everyone should be taught, not just as a therapeutic tool for the Orpheus students. “So much of getting on a stage is about conquering nerves and, once you’ve done something like this, it helps you with stage fright,” he says. “The sheer terror of having a show to do obscures any nerves about working with different people.”

He is wary of the government’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects (known together as STEM) to the detriment of funding in the arts in education.

“If you don’t encourage people’s imaginations and creativity, nothing will be creative and imagined and that doesn’t just feed into drama and musicals, that feeds into science as a well. The more plays you do at school and the more applause you get, the more you are going to be a creative, useful person in the world, because more and more jobs are going to be done by artificial intelligence – but one thing AI can’t do is imagination.”

Stilgoe’s current favourite shows are the frontrunners for best new musical at the Olivier Awards: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Hamilton.

“Hamilton is a work of genius by one of the nicest people I’ve ever met [Lin-Manuel Miranda]. It is a wonderful history lesson, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a wonderful examination of now.”

When he’s not watching or working on musicals, Stilgoe likes to spend time driving his digger, churning up the land on his estate.

“If you are struggling with verse two, get on to your JCB and move the earth about, it helps get the oxygen pumping. I have written quite a few songs while driving my JCB.”

Stilgoe’s son Joe has followed in his footsteps, working on the music for a new version of The Jungle Book adapted by Jessica Swale and directed by Max Webster. “Joe has done the songs and it’s really good. It’s nice to have children and it’s even nicer to have children who go into your own business and do it better than you.”

CV: Richard Stilgoe

Born: Camberley, 1943
Training: Clare College, Cambridge
Landmark productions: Cats, New London Theatre (1981), Starlight Express, Apollo Victoria, London (1984), The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s Theatre, London (1986)
Awards: Three Monte Carlo prizes and two New York Gold awards for Used Notes, Who Pays the Piper? and Hamburger Weekend, Prix Italia for Who Pays the Piper? (1991)
Agent: Alex Armitage at Noel Gay

Orpheus the Mythical runs at the Other Palace, London, from March 26 to 31

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