Annmarie Lewis Thomas
How and when did you start writing for Musical Theatre?
I would say that I’ve written for MT since I was a teenager, the only difference was in those days I was writing the songs that had already been written (whilst being too young to understand what plagiarism was, I was definitely old enough to be culpable of it…nowadays I’m much more careful 😉 ). I was influenced by my mother taking me to see our local Church group performing G&S and by going to see touring shows like Joseph and Godspell (which both seemed to be on at the Swansea Grand with alarming regularity even back when I was a teenager)…so I remember at 15 trying to write the next Biblical hit, as clearly the shows that worked must have a ‘godly theme’. I then limited myself for a while to just writing songs, and getting some ‘success’ when one of them was heard and chosen for a multi school Gymanfa Ganu (which garnered me some publicity as an up and coming 16 year old). Whilst at college I continued to write a bit, and then was surprised when I left to find that people started to approach me quite quickly to write stuff (obviously unpaid for some time!). What I find interesting though is that I’d always call myself a MD and an arranger, but somehow felt embarrassed to call myself a composer (even though I’d been doing that longer than the former). It wasn’t until I took the plunge to write both the lyrics and the music for shows that I summoned up the courage to ‘out’ myself as a writer, but that was quite a few years even having something published.
What are you working on at the moment?
This is a really interesting year for me, as it’s the first time in around 15 years that I’ve only got one definite show to write….and that’s a panto (so I’ve got a while). Most other years I’ve averaged 2 or 3 shows a year (sometimes a few more). However I’ve now got quite an established back catalogue and I’ve been desperate to find time to go back and revisit some of them as I think that they might have/should have a further life. So this year my main collaborator…Nick Stimson and myself, have been in discussions with our agent to work out a strategy to attempt to do rewrites/workshops etc and get our shows back out there (in some shape or form). So by choice, it’s a year of musical reflection and reparation I hope. That said at this precise moment I’m mid arranging 25+ numbers for a rather large revue, so the reflection is on hold. Then in June I’m excited to revisit Around The World in 80 Days, which I wrote with Phil Willmott way back in 2002. The MTA needed a piece that had 3 strong male roles and lots of good female roles, plus a large ensemble, which could be the subtitle of 80 Days it’s so apt (as opposed to the fact that I also happen to have founded The MTA and therefore wanted to put on one of my back catalogue in this year of reflection!) Whilst I’ve supervised a few versions of the show since we originally did at BAC, I’ve never felt the urge to MD it again. However The MTA’s managed to persuade multi award nominated director Racky Plews to come and direct it for us, and having worked a little bit with Racky in the past (on another one of my pieces actually) I’ve opted to MD this version as a) I think that it’ll be so much fun in the rehearsal room, b) the original designer of the original tiny UK tour, Cleo Pettitt has come on board to rediscover it with us (which is really humbling, given that we really can’t afford her, but she’s literally insisted on doing it for us), c) it’ll give me a chance to rework the bits that I’ve never been really 100% happy with, and I’ll hopefully be able to update the arrangements too. We have a great new concept in place and I’m genuinely excited to start work on it – we had our first pre-production meeting Christmas week…and if nothing else, we know that we’re going to have a lovely old time of it. Oh and I also seem to have secured my ‘dream band’ for the show too…so whilst it’s officially supposed to be my ‘resting time’…I can’t wait to get into that rehearsal room.
Do you have a regular writing routine – a time of day when you write best?
The only thing regular about my writing routine is my ability to procrastinate. Due to my day job being rather demanding I can find a million things to do rather than start writing(so for those of you that don’t know I opened a drama college in 2009 called The MTA…which was meant to be my ‘crap job’ which would give me a place to teach in between MD and writing jobs, as ethically I was finding it really hard to find a teaching job that I agreed with, or indeed that the college agreed with me on! Anyway the ‘crap job’ has ended up taking up a large percentage of my time…like it can come dangerously close to becoming a ‘proper job’…but because our policy states that all the faculty including me, have to keep working professionally, I’ve saved myself from that peril) That said having set aside several weeks to purely procrastinate (this is not a lie…I schedule it into my plan), once I’ve started a writing a show, I’m literally working from first thing in the morning, up to the early hours of the next morning. I hate stopping once I’ve started, as you just get into the world of the piece don’t you?
When you have an idea for a new show, what is the first thing you do?
I have never instigated a show, other than asking a collaborator for a ‘comedy’, or ‘a period piece’. I am definitely not an ideas person. So with all my collaborators I am presented with the story or indeed an unfinished script. However I then really research the piece, checking out all the minutiae detail, looking for the material for my songs actually. This part of the process really excites me, and I know that if I’m rigorous with it the songs will eventually just flow when it comes to starting to write. I instantly ‘hear’ the sound of the piece, and will write a motif which sums it up for me. It’s very rare that the motif makes it into the show, but I hear it in every song.
What aspect of the craft is most challenging for you?
Starting. I hate starting a piece. I always write sequentially, but starting can literally take weeks. My partner despairs sometimes with me as we hit on the regular dialogue of “that’s it, I can’t ‘hear’ it”, “ I don’t have time to focus on it”, “oh my god the tickets have gone on sale and I haven’t written the first note or word”…and so it continues. Then suddenly I start and I absolutely disappear into the world of the show (much to my partner’s relief I should imagine)
What do you do when writers block strikes!?
See above……as I probably have it most shows until I’ve started it. So I pace, moan, worry…and then just crack on and write the piece.
What one piece of craft advice would you like to share?
Rules are there to be broken, go with what you believe, hear, and with what you like and let everyone else worry about whether you’ve broken a rule, because in my experience if your show is good, the audience won’t notice/care. That said I do believe that you owe it to your craft to know the rules in order to break them. Oh…can I give another one? Make sure that you stress the right syllable in a word. That is one rule that should never be broken..it’s just lazy (and why can’t writer’s hear it because the rest of the world can??)
Which Musical theatre writer has had the biggest influence on your career?
Arthur Sullivan (does he count?) His music is so witty (which I know became his own personal downfall), he’s such a good reminder that music can be funny too. I think that some composers writing comedy forget that, letting the lyricists do all the work, but music has the ability to really make someone laugh, and I don’t think that we exploit that enough. It’s a bit like the po-faced people sat listening to a piece of Mozart today and failing to hear just how funny he was (for his time that is)
If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change / improve in the sector?
Honestly I would like the UK writing scene to be more inclusive and less of a clique. I think that we’re getting better, but IMHO we have a long way to go. Interestingly I don’t think that it’s the writers that are forming the cliques, I believe that it’s outside influences. I work with so many writers, I’ve mentored a fair few younger writers, The MTA has a policy of supporting new writing, so I’m regularly in contact with lots of writers looking for workshop casts etc, and of course, a whole load of my mates are writers. Yet I don’t think that we’re quite gelling for some reason. When the US writers come over here, they are all so supportive of one another, and are all really fighting for each other, and all (appear) to really celebrate the success of the next one to ‘break through’ (whatever that means to you) whereas maybe it’s British apathy which means that we’re less proactive. Now as I say that I’m ready to be shot down as I can’t remember the last time I ever went to a MMD event, so maybe I’m completely wrong, and I’m the only one out of the celebratory group…yet speaking to other writers I do know that I’m not alone with this.
What are you listening to on your ipod at the moment?
I’m mid arranging a Revue so I’m really not listening to anything as I’m trying to create new versions of so many pieces, I can’t afford to listen to somebody else’s’ sound, yet I have 3 shows lined up to listen to in March the moment the show comes down.
What is the best thing about MMD membership?
Truthfully (and this refers back to one of my earlier answers)…it’s having the confidence to being able to publicly call myself a composer/lyricist. Somehow it validates the job title. I know that the ‘correct’ answer should be about this amazing network etc, but I’d be lying, as we’ve already established that I don’t take part in any of that stuff.
What were the circumstances behind you joining the MMD board? And how long have you been a board member?
I have to admit to have been hanging around since the very start of Mercury, so that’s 24 years ago. It all started because I worked closely with Brenda Cooper’s husband, and as Brenda was a founder member, she asked if I could take a financial role on the Board of Trustees.
How would you say your skills and experience compliment the other board members? We are very fortunate to have a great mix of skills and talents on the Board. Where I hope I bring value is because I am one of the only ones on the Board not involved in the theatre world as a day job. So I tend to see things from a different angle and hopefully contribute something extra and fresh (but not always positive!). Also, I have substantial financial experience and together with Roger this is obviously an important part of my role.
How has MMD changed since you joined the board?
It has grown substantially, in fact out of all recognition from when we started. I feel that it is now better structured, and far clearer in its objectives and how it helps people with their careers and ambitions. The support from ACE has been fantastic and has taken us up a notch in terms of what we can achieve.
What are your hopes for the organisation?
I would like to see us better and wider profiled out there. MMD is still not known by many aspiring writers and musicians, certainly not by the theatre going public, and it yet it has so much value to bring to the MT world. It would also be lovely to see some more MMD members have some major successes and become names to add to the rather short list of alive and kicking composers and writers known to the public at large. The list is far too short, and given that even greats like Kander and Ebb are not household names, it is not an easy ask.
What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child?
Wow, what a question, how much space have I got? As a child I was obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan. I used to buy tickets for D’Oyly Carte and then try to find people to come with me. I remember, aged 15, being amazed when a nice girl I really liked accepted my offer, and then how she realised with great disappointment, half way there on the tube, that we were not seeing Gilbert O’Sullivan. Musicals started taking over after University; probably seeing Leaping Ginger at the Royal Exchange in 1978, whilst studying at Manchester Uni, was a seminal experience for me.
Who are your heroes and why?
Sticking to musical theatre – In no particular order: George Gershwin, Sondheim, Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb, all geniuses. On the performing front, Garland, Sinatra, and today, well Maria Friedman is special. Beyond Musical Theatre, well I won’t go there as it will take too long, but if you want a quick irreverent variety, how about Winston Churchill, Frederic Chopin and Ian Botham.
When you were growing up what did you want to be? I don’t really remember although I recall a dentist phase somewhere. Certainly chartered accountancy (what I ended up studying) did not feature on the list, especially given what Monty Python (another obsession of mine) had to say about it.
What’s your favourite musical? I knew that was coming, it always does! Impossible, so I’ll name the top three – Guys and Dolls, Company, Les Mis.
If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you, would change / improve in the (musical theatre) sector? I’d somehow get vast numbers of bums on seats to see shows by unknown (or lesser known) writers so that they can see that Lloyd Webber is just one of many…
Why would you encourage writers to join MMD? Fellowship, collaboration, development, new ideas. It’s a nice place to belong and of course you make lifelong friends and colleagues.