How long have you been a member of MMD?
Since seeing “The Challenge” in 1992. I thought “I have to be a part of this!”
How and when did you start writing for Musical Theatre?
At 17, in Cape Town, I began writing the book, music and lyrics of my adaptation of a children’s novel by Beverley Nichols called The Tree That Sat Down. I wrote to him via his publishers and he actually gave me permission. I was thrilled! My main influence for that was the Broadway musical Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin. I completed it on my 20th birthday and, after qualifying as a solicitor, I went straight back to the University of Cape Town to do Drama and Arts subjects, and the Drama Department presented The Tree That Sat Down at UCT’s Little Theatre – one of only three well-supported theatres in Cape Town back then, and the only one with unsegregated audiences.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m pushing and pulling my two unproduced musicals: The Snark And How To Hunt It (book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus, music by Frank Lazarus), and 2084 (music and lyrics by Frank Lazarus, book by Norman Coates and Frank Lazarus). The Jermyn Street Theatre wants to present 2084, but I’m on an endless, uphill quest to find a producer. Do you know of anyone I haven’t tried? I’m deep in writing a new song for it, to replace a powerful number which I now feel is redundant.
Do you have a regular writing routine – a time of day when you write best?
I should, but I don’t. I like to get up late, but I enjoy working far into the night. Fortunately my neighbours say they are never disturbed. I don’t have set working hours because in a way I never stop working on something. Even away from the piano, it’s all going on in my head, so I always keep paper and pencil on me. I must look terribly pretentious on the tube when I suddenly get an idea and start scribbling away at lyrics, or furiously drawing bar lines and jotting down a new scrap of melody.
When you have an idea for a new show, what is the first thing you do?
When tackling the structure and the crafting of the book, I prefer to Start At The Very Beginning, rather than the middle, although I will by then have accrued a lot of material via the background research, odd catchy rhymes and phrases and bits of melody that might have suggested themselves, and a sort of unarticulated idea of the atmosphere, the look, the sound and the style.
The sound world of a new piece becomes very clear, very quickly. The subject matter, or the context, almost dictate the kind of sound required. The Snark And How To Hunt It is based on a Victorian nonsense classic poem by Lewis Carroll, so it’s worth having the music informed by that era, but not slavishly. Carroll once asked Sullivan to compose music for a stage version of Alice (Sullivan declined), so I couldn’t resist some nods toward Gilbert and Sullivan. (Too many would be tedious.) All the characters in the Snark have professions beginning with the letter ‘B’, so I initially began writing everything in the key of B – until I realized that too much B became B for Boring. But by then, as B is not any pianist’s favourite key, my fingers had been forced into unusual patterns, which added to the snarkiness and humour of the musical’s soundscape. Carroll plays lots of word games, so I’ve played musical games as well. For my musical with Dick Vosburgh, A Day In Hollywood/A Night In The Ukraine, the subject matter (Act One: Hollywood in the 1930s, Act Two: the equivalent of a Marx Bros movie) determined the need to capture a classic golden period – though bearing in mind that Broadway music and theatrical taste have somewhat broadened out since that era.
What aspect of the craft is most challenging for you?
I think it has to be the book.
What do you do when writers block strikes!?
Go for a walk in the magical neighbourhood garden up the road, or eat myself into a stupor.
What one piece of craft advice would you like to share?
Everything needs to grow organically out of the book.
Which Musical theatre writer has had the biggest influence on your career?
That’s very hard to answer. The first original cast albums I heard were Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma!, and those bouncy and dramatic songs instantly wedded me to the musical. So I suppose Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers got me going. So did The Pajama Game and Guys and Dolls. Frank Loesser has always been a primary influence, and Jerome Kern, Lerner and Loewe plus Harnick and Bock with She Loves Me and Fiddler On The Roof. And who has not been influenced by Stephen Sondheim? But when I hear soaring, aching music like George Gershwin’s for Porgy and Bess, or Leonard Bernstein’s for West Side Story and Candide I long to rise to that level, and am thrilled if I even climb a few rungs onto their ladder. Ira Gershwin’s lyrics constantly attract me, as do the skills of Larry Hart, Yip Harburg, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, but I would imagine that perhaps the biggest influence for everyone crafting book and lyrics for musical theatre, consciously or not, simply has to be Oscar Hammerstein. His range, from Show Boat to South Pacific to The Sound of Music (despite “a lark that is learning to pray” – a minor aberration) is astonishing, and however moving, funny and sweeping his musicals, they are always about something more than just entertainment. And of course he is matched by the musical genius of Richard Rodgers. I wonder how many football crowds know that You’ll Never Walk Alone comes from Carousel.
If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change / improve in the sector?
I would see to it that writers acquired higher standards of rhyme and content and became perfectionists.
What are you listening to on your ipod at the moment?
Being a certified techno-klutz I don’t have an ipod. But I do listen a lot to the classical music on Radio 3. I also try to keep my ears open – just a little – to have some idea of what’s going on in pop music.
What is the best thing about MMD membership?
It provides a support group and a distinctive world where I feel I belong.
Here’s a YouTube link to Doin’ The Production Code from A Day In Hollywood/A Night In The Ukraine as performed at the 1980 Tony awards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQqtmIrfUT8 – And this is the same number, which Frank performed as a solo in a later concert-revue in Cape Town: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RztBWYyZFo
If you would like to contact Frank feel free to email him on firstname.lastname@example.org
What were the circumstances behind you joining the MMD board?
As a long-time supporter of new musicals — both personally and professionally in my role as a full-time theatre critic — I was invited to join the board by Neil Marcus, then executive director, and Carolline Underwood, then chair of the board and was delighted to accept.
How would you say your skills and experience compliment the other board members?
I have a long-term view of new musicals and a professional stake in wanting them to succeed. I hope I am able to provide critical insight and professional contacts from my experience as a journalist both reviewing new work and interviewing many of its leading exponents, from authors and composers to directors, producers and actors.
How has MMD changed since you joined the board?
Receiving Arts Council funding was a major turning point. Not only did this mean that the arts funding establishment were finally taking musicals seriously enough to invest in their future, but the board also had to embrace a new spirit of partnership with our sister organisations who also receive funding. The arrival of our new executive director Victoria Saxton has also re-charged the organisation with the passion of someone who herself writes musicals.
What are your hopes for the organisation?
That we help to nurture the next generation of musical theatre writers to see them emerge on the world platform as Andrew Lloyd Webber has done. But also that musicals don’t have to aspire to global domination, too, to be good; small but perfectly formed shows can thrive, too, telling British stories to British audiences, like ‘This is My Family’ seen at Sheffield Crucible did, for instance.
What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child?
Seeing Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece THE DEEP BLUE SEA, on a school trip in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was born and brought up, changed my life. I don’t know how this story of unreciprocated love and yearning touched my 14-year-old soul, long before I’d experience the pain of such relationships myself, but somehow it resonated and turned me onto theatre that has become my lifelong passion and career. It remains one of my favourite plays to this day.
Who are your heroes and why? And have you met them and interviewed them?
Stephen Sondheim, of course; he has changed the musical forever, and every single one of his shows is either a masterpiece, probably crowned by Sweeney Todd which I saw in three different productions last year, from opera house to pie shop (literally), and each time gripped and astonished me. But my favourite is Merrily We Roll Along, for its ravishing score and painful reflections on life’s wrong turns, much as Follies is another favourite for the same reasons. I also revere Sunday in the Park with George for its incisive portrait of the artistic process. I once chaired a National Theatre platform with Mr Sondheim when he came over for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2004 — full transcript is here (http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover-more/platforms/platform-papers/stephen-sondheim-october-2004) — which I was invited to do at five hours notice, literally! So I didn’t have much time to prepare (or be nervous), and only met him for the first time about 25 minutes before we went out on the Olivier stage. It went pretty well — and I got a message via Jeremy Sams the next day that the boss said I did well!
I am a huge fan (and now friend) of Howard Goodall, too, who has written the greatest British musical of the last 30 years in my book, The Hired Man, and I also adore his scores for Girlfriends, The Dreaming and his latest show Bend it Like Beckham (don’t miss it at the Phoenix!) I also loved Richard Thomas’s score for Jerry Springer – the Opera and the innovative London Road with its music by Adam Cook. I have interviewed Howard many times over the years, to the point that we have become good friends. He most recently came to talk to my first year Musical Theatre students at ArtsEd, and spent an entire afternoon from 2pm to 6pm talking about the art and craft of writing musicals with them.
Amongst performers, I revere Barbara Cook — one of the greatest singers Broadway ever produced and still performing now at 88, her talent undiminished. I’ve interviewed her a couple of times — once back in the late 80s before she did the ill-fated RSC production of Carrie, and again this century when she was doing a concert season in London. And I am in awe of Audra McDonald, the greatest singer to be born in my lifetime. I’ve yet to interview her, but have met her a few times — once when she was seated in front of me at Broadway’s last production of Evita, I told her that I play her CDs to my ArtsEd students every week, and she replied, ‘I’m sorry!’
When you were growing up what did you want to be?
A theatre critic! I ALWAYS knew I wanted to spend every single night going to see theatre; and now I do. I usually see at least five or six shows a week, and sometimes as many as ten!
What’s your favourite musical?
Without a doubt, Guys and Dolls. It is simply perfection, in its storytelling and gorgeous score. It never, ever fails — even when it’s not done well, there’s something to take away.
If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change / improve in the (musical theatre) sector?
That regional theatres in the UK, like their counterparts in the US, took musicals — and especially new musicals — seriously enough to produce at least one original show a year, and not simply relegate the musical offering to an alternative to pantomime with seasonal revivals of Oliver! or Annie.
Why would you encourage writers to join MMD?
Writing is a lonely business — but you are not alone when you are part of a bigger community. MMD provides that network and sense of belonging, nurturing, networking and opportunity.
How do people get you to see and/or review their shows?
I am inundated with requests to review things — but I try to get to as much as I can. I’m unlikely to be able to review a one-off workshop or a week-long run of a show — a show would have to run for at least three to four weeks to warrant a review in THE STAGE, for instance. But depending on your casting/writers, I can sometimes be lured to shows that run for a shorter time. you can contact me via Twitter @ShentonStage; or via my webiste, www.ShentonStage.com