Wednesday, 8 January 2014

What Comes of Light: A Final Conversation with Samuel Adamson About The Light Princess


Samuel Adamson: Photo by Simon Annand


In 2008, I spoke for the first time with Samuel Adamson about The Light Princess, the musical adaptation of George MacDonald’s fairy-tale that the playwright was collaborating on with Tori Amos for the National Theatre. (That interview is here.) At that time, the show was still very much in development, with many challenging changes and revisions in store for Adamson and Amos as co-creators of the piece. Adamson and I discussed some of those changes, and much more besides, in a second interview, which took place last summer when The Light Princess was just about to open in the Lyttelton. With the show now up and running, and its leading lady already an Evening Standard Award winner, Sam and I thought it would be fun to make the set of interviews a trilogy by having a final conversation about The Light Princess, one that focuses, this time, upon the response to the show, the intricacies of its structure, staging and score, and its possible future life (including, yeah, that cast recording). So here, to quote the show’s Serjeant-at-Arms, is “what comes of Light.”

AR: Sam, at the time of our interview last summer you were in the middle of rehearsals for The Light Princess. Now the show’s opened and been running for a few months, I wonder what some of the highlights or significant moments of this post-rehearsal period have been for you. Any particular anecdotes or memories of this time to share?

SA: I think the first preview is a highlight, though it’s a bit of a blur. I’m not sure I can even remember where I was sitting. Presumably it was the back row of the stalls. We were running too long, of course. But there was a magical feeling in the theatre that night. It felt as if the audience was on our side and forgave us our imperfections. Admittedly, many first previews are like that. The audience is enjoying the fact it’s seeing something for the first time and the company is getting — or floating — from point A to point B on a wing and a prayer, so everything on stage and off feels crazily electric. We still had work to do and all of us worked hard after that, tightening the show in all departments. The ambition of the show was clear and the audience appreciated it. I’m sentimental about actors, so rehearsing with them, writing for them and watching them own the material, that’s also been a highlight. They’re a talented group and they love the musical and know they’re part of its DNA. Perhaps the real highlight for me is the survival of the show. By that I mean that it previewed, it opened — those things are out of the way — and now till 2nd February 2014 it exists, it grows, it strengthens, it finds its audience and they find it.

Almost everyone I know who’s loved the show has been to see it more than once, and one friend has seen it around fifteen times already. I know you don’t read reviews, but obviously responses and reactions are pretty much unavoidable in this game! I wonder if you had any reflections on the response/s to the piece. Or how much do you even concern yourself with this, once a show is up and running?

Well, that’s a lovely thing to hear — what writer wouldn’t be thrilled that somebody came to see their work then came again and then again? I’ve heard several stories of multiple visits and I’m delighted we’ve made something that those people like, something they want to experience, feel and investigate more than once. So that kind of reaction is loud in my head. Musicals come in different stripes, irrespective of what people who are closed off to them think. They use music differently, they tackle different subjects, they’re constantly breaking new ground. There are as many formal, tonal and narrative variations in new and existing musicals and operas, or pieces of “music theatre”, as there are in new and existing “plays” or other kinds of theatre. The form is as exciting and challenging and varied and provocative and political as any other kind of theatre. For me and for many people it’s no less valid to have a character break in to song as it is to have them speak; and how and why they break in to song can happen in any number of ways for any number of reasons. The Scottsboro Boys is nothing like The Book of Mormon is nothing like Passion is nothing like Street Scene is nothing like Lift is nothing like Spring Awakening; each should be interrogated critically on its own terms. With The Light Princess, we’re very deliberately and sincerely a fairy-tale: as I’ve said to you before, Alex, we pin our colours to the mast in the opening moments with the words “Once upon a time.” And those words are sung, and most of the following words are sung. Hopefully both musically and narratively we’re ploughing our own furrow. So to answer your question, it’s very nice when you hear that people like the work, it’s true to say that makes your heart sing a bit. Discussion and debate, when something is divisive — I also take that as a huge compliment. It’d be ridiculous of me to say that I’m deaf to all responses and reactions. With something like this, that’s impossible and in any case wouldn’t be healthy. I’m self-protective but I don’t live under a rock. To mix metaphors, the proverbial pinch of salt is a theatre-maker’s most precious asset. Without it, we’d all go mad and/or stop making theatre.



The Light Princess: Nick Hendrix (Digby) and Rosalie Craig (Althea) during "Amphibiava"


Let’s go back to MacDonald’s story just for a moment. Obviously you and Tori have retained some key elements beyond “lightness”: the Princess’s “pleasure in the lake”, for example. But aside from fleshing out the Prince’s role and the new characters you’ve included, one place where you really depart from MacDonald is in accentuating the psychological aspect of the text: lightness not as a curse but as an escape route; Althea’s way of avoiding grief and pain. For me, one of the most powerful aspects of the show is the way it explores our escapist urges, the strategies we find to avoid confronting darkness or difficult situations. How soon in the process did you and Tori start to conceive of the Princess’s condition in these psychological and emotional terms?

Tori and I landed on this very early on, though it was refined and simplified and made dramatically operative over time as we were writing. The specifics came in the writing and workshopping we did in 2012. All of us work to avoid pain. We all need to escape. The Light Princess is in and of itself a work of escapism. It’s set in mythical kingdoms where a princess lives in a Tower and a falcon is a prince’s best friend and a populace doesn’t have the vote and two kings are at war. If you don’t go with those things, accept the archetypes then be curious as to how we’ve made them fresh-minted and relevant, you won’t like our musical, I suppose, and fair enough, not everything is for everybody. If you do go with it, leave your woes at the theatre door and enjoy! As soon as we decided we didn’t want Althea to be “cursed” there was something to explore. There’s something very simple in the idea that the girl floated because her mother died, that floating was a manifestation of grief. Grief suppressed. She didn’t want to drown in the pools of crocodile tears from the grisly adult strangers around her, and she wanted to follow her poor dead mother up to heaven. So she lifted her feet, and floated, and from that day never had gravity and never cried. That’s how fairy-tales work — they’re fables, so they can be partly ludicrous, they can be magical, but you accept the tallness of the tale because emotionally it’s truthful, metaphorically it resonates. The simplest ideas are often the most difficult to land on and we didn’t discover all this immediately — for some time Althea’s mother was alive, for instance. But once I removed her, and once everybody on the team realised that the Act One Althea didn’t want to come to ground because she was deeply fearful of what was down there, traumatised by her childhood, it all began to fall into place.

The show really holds in balance the idea of Althea’s lightness as both a damaging escape and as a transcendent state of grace. Lightness is such a rich metaphor, too. It could stand for attitudes to drugs or food (as you make explicit in the great “suitors” scene), or drink, or even Internet addiction: the various comfort zones people create, or the compulsive behaviours they indulge in, in order to avoid facing things. In the writing of the piece, did you and Tori discuss various resonances and associations of “lightness”? Is it something that came up with the cast in rehearsals?

If there’s no metaphor for the audience in this kind of tale I’m not sure what the point of it would be. We’re explicit here and there as you say — where we want to be, I suppose. Before we even met, Tori had the idea of lightness as a form of anorexia. This wouldn’t make a whole musical, and Althea is patently not anorexic, but it was a start. So, in the show, a nincompoop suitor arrives and tells the king that his daughter is anorexic (I only decided to explicitly use that word mid-rehearsals), and the king foolishly believes it, and suddenly, for the audience and for Althea, we’re not in Kansas any more.


It’s a chilling shift, isn’t it? One of the turning points in the show.

Yes, it’s meant to be a darkly arresting moment and because until that point the suitors’ song has been largely satirical and comic, I think it succeeds. We see just how misunderstood and trapped Althea is. And it comes at the very point she has discovered love and all her kind, intelligent, hopeful qualities are darting joyously out of her soul. This is suddenly and clearly a corrupt, patriarchal and prejudicial world, and she’s in real trouble. Althea’s lightness could stand for many things and Tori and I discussed so many, but they’re not necessarily there in the words; it’s over to the audience. Marianne Elliott, the director, encouraged the actors to think about what “lightness” was to them and everybody came up with different things.

So instead of an evil Aunt’s curse, the show is concerned with the maternal bond being broken, the trauma of that, and Althea and Digby’s contrasting responses to their losses and to their fathers’ demands. I’ve had discussions with friends about how political the show is, or how feminist. Opinions have differed but it’s certainly the case that the show critiques patriarchal power, in a way that I think has made some audience members uncomfortable. Obviously, your first step towards this was getting rid of the evil Aunt, but is it fair to say that you and Tori set out to make a feminist fairy-tale, and one that would resonate politically?

We never sat down and said, “Let’s write a feminist fairy-tale,” simply because it was never going to be anything other than that. If it feels to you that it touches a nerve, terrific, because that speaks to the timeless relevance, and political provocation, of fairy-tales. When we tried to be too twenty-first century with our allusions and references, the piece was safer than it is now. The fewer direct nods to things modern teenagers may recognise, the more contemporary it became. Also, in this kind of world you can make up your own rules so things can be interestingly or weirdly contradictory. For example, although Althea’s kingdom is clearly patriarchal in the hands of her father, there’s no question about her leading the army. She’s the eldest child, and that’s just a given according to the charter of the land, and her gender is irrelevant to him. Likewise, the kings’ second-in-charge in each kingdom, the Serjeant-at-Arms and the Falconer, are women, and, being smarter and more emotionally wise than the kings or indeed any of the men around them, they notice what’s awry in the world first, and do something about it. The piece is feminist in all sorts of ways. One aspect of this that may not be overtly evident but that I’m most proud of is the portrayal of the two princes. Their stories are feminist because the lack of feminine influence is manifestly their tragedy, and they feel this deeply and learn to understand it. They are their mother’s sons. In the Act Two song “Bitter Fate,” their father’s patriarchal tyranny is clearly going to ruin them unless they find ways to resist it, which they do.

There’s no doubt that King Ignacio, Digby and Llewelyn’s father, is the villain of the piece but, at the same time, the show doesn’t demonise Althea’s father, King Darius. We see what’s led him to act as he does and Clive Rowe’s wonderful performance helps to make him a sympathetic character. Was it important for both you and Tori to have a three-dimensional patriarchal figure that we can sympathise with too?

Very important. To a certain extent, a fairy-tale needs an archetypal villain and King Ignacio fits that bill. In fact in quite scarily-close-to-rehearsals drafts, we explored why he does the things he does, but we excised this because it didn’t serve the main story. It may be helpful for Hal Fowler, who brilliantly plays King Ignacio, to have more textual evidence of a broken childhood or a twisted love for the enemy or something like that. But he doesn’t, because he’s the fairy-tale baddie, with one objective: to get the enemy land and gold and make sure his son becomes king. Hal must find nuance in his performance with material that is pretty straightforward. He simply dies a horrible fairy-tale death as comeuppance for his evil. All this is necessary for the plot of a fairy-tale; because the tale is not really about the evil or the antagonist per se. Everybody knows that evil exists. The tale is about what the protagonists do in the face of that evil on their quest through the forest. Nuance in the writing can and does exist, however, with the more important patriarchal character, King Darius. We are critical of him. He does some appalling things, as a ruler and a father and a man. He is deeply flawed. But we explore those flaws, where they come from. The piece is all about parents and children, and his sins have come from his father. And we give him time to atone. The audience can forgive him, and sympathise with him. Or they may choose not to forgive him, there’s room for that as well. But his character is there, explored in three dimensions, warts and all. The uncomplicated evilness of the secondary king character allowed us to be as complex as we needed to be with King Darius.

I really like the way in which you’ve structured and characterised the show through these parallels and pairings. There’s Althea and Digby’s trajectories to gravity and levity, of course. But you also have the two father Kings; Piper and Llewelyn; the Falconer and the Serjeant-at-Arms (with those great pay-offs at the end for those latter characters). It’s quite an intricate design. I wonder if you could talk a little about how some of these pairings evolved as you and Tori developed the piece and the two kingdoms.

The symmetry was always there. I always knew where I wanted these six characters (Althea and Digby, Piper and Llewelyn, Serjeant-at-Arms and Falconer) to get to. And that was in to each other’s arms! The four “hellos” at the end of Act II (you know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen the show!) have been there in every draft. It’s nice of you to say the design is intricate but really it was about having the courage to be fairy-tale simple with things. Gravity/levity. Princess/prince. Flawed king/bad king. Gold/blue. Air/water. Piper/Llewelyn. Falconer/Serjeant-at-Arms. It means that in three key numbers, “My Own Land,” “Tinkle, Drizzle, Bubble and Gush” and “The Wedding,” we can exist musically in two places at once. It’s all reflected in Rae Smith’s design as well. Opposing countries, households divided who have to learn that their differences are not as powerful as their similarities. It’s simple architectural stuff, layered and coloured and made emotionally interesting by the complexities and beauty of Tori’s music.

Why was it important to you to have Piper and Llewelyn as narrators book-ending the piece?

I only ever wanted book-ends; there’s that old saw about narration being lazy writing, and I really think that could have been true in this musical, so I avoided it within the body of the piece. Dramatise the story, otherwise it might as well be a picture-book. But somebody has to say “Once upon a time”. We tried having Althea and Digby telling their own story but it all felt too knowing. It just seemed right to have their helpmeets doing it. Frankly, it was also an economical way to flesh Piper and Llewelyn out without spending too much time on baggy subplots for them. It’s a nice moment, at the end, when they’re a couple, and you understand why they’re sharing the story together. Piper always was, in Tori’s word, a “scribe.” It’s probable that she wrote and published the history of Lagobel and Sealand!

Adamson and Amos during rehearsals for The Light Princess


It’s nice to know that Piper’s packing a pad and pencil, as well as Mace, in that satchel! I was also interested to see how openly allusive you and Tori have made the show, with the references to Grimm, Snow White and The Little Match Girl incorporated. Was this something that you decided to do early on, to place the show directly, and self-consciously, within this fairy-tale framework?

Once we’d embraced the fairy-tale of it all, and decided to on the whole abandon irony, I in particular had a little fun with allusions, though I was tough on myself to make sure they weren’t imposed. They’re only there because our particular world and characters suggested them. I think in the last interview I mentioned that I read most of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and Angela Carter during the writing of the show. One thing that came up in workshops was that Althea and her friend Piper survived their banishment in the Tower by reading books left to Althea by her mother. She’s well-read, self-educated. One day, I realised that one of the saddest tales ever written, Andersen’s The Little Match Girl wasn’t so far from Althea’s story. Althea is spirited and defensive in the early scenes, she gives as good as she gets, but behind her “condition” lies, of course, great sadness, profound loss. The destitute Match Girl, who conjures health and happiness in the sky by lighting her matches, suddenly seemed like the protagonist Althea would like the most, because her desires are essentially Althea’s. So to existing music of Tori’s written for Althea, I wrote lyrics for Althea’s “I Want” song, “My Fairy Story.” Referencing Piper’s music from the opening narration, we begin with “Once upon a time” and, by hearing a snippet of The Little Match Girl, we understand what it is, fundamentally, that Althea wants: a family, and for her father to love her. In the architecture of inevitability demanded by a fairy-tale, and by a well-made musical, she gets those things, but only after overcoming her obstacles on a journey through the literal and metaphorical woods. Marianne encouraged me to be explicit in the lyrics about what it is Althea wants. Also, the middle section of the song beginning “Oh, the woe,” where Althea’s nightmare takes over, so that momentarily her reality gets the better of her dream, really took shape in rehearsals.

The Light Princess: :"Sealand Supremacy"
  

Back in 2008 you noted the challenges, in terms of staging, of having a heroine who’s either in the air or underwater. Marianne Elliott and the rest of the team have certainly risen to those challenges (pardon the pun), and the show is technically astounding. Could you talk a little about any input that you and Tori have had in decisions about design or the overall “look” of the show?

It’s a truism that musicals — and all kinds of theatre — are collaborative but it’s also the case that each department, each creative team, spends much time on her or his own, exploring and fabricating. In a workshop well before the show was ready, Rae and Marianne, along with Finn Caldwell the puppetry director, Toby Olié the puppetry designer, Steven Hoggett the choreographer, and Matthew Robins the animator, were making a lot of their work in the room with actors and with Tori and me present. So Tori and I had a strong sense of the methods they were employing. I’d worked with Marianne and Rae on Pillars of the Community at the National, and as an Associate on War Horse, so I was very familiar with their working methods and with their unique takes on “poor” theatre. The puppetry of War Horse was clearly going to have a bearing on The Light Princess, because Rae designed both shows, and Toby worked on both. As we all explored the story together something more magical began to appear in the soundscape of Tori’s music. The design you see is very much Rae’s, in response to my and Tori’s story and music and the great input Marianne had in the development of every stage of the show. I spent long sessions with Rae and Marianne in which they would take me through the design scene by scene. Sometimes what they had come up would require me to rethink things, usually for the better, and I’d then convey this to Tori. Marianne was always telling me that my stage directions were impossible. Not so much that we couldn’t “Cross the Andes”, but that it would be impractical for Althea to get from Scene A to Scene B and change her costume, or get into her harness; that kind of practical stuff writers sometimes forget. At other times I would throw light on writers’ intentions that may not have been obvious when merely looking at words on a page. Occasionally, as in a sequence like “Crash in the Universe” whole chunks of music would be moved about like a jigsaw puzzle as Tori and I understood or were inspired by ideas of Marianne’s, Rae’s, Steven’s, Finn’s and Toby’s.

In terms of the staging, one of the biggest surprises for the audience has been the acrobats’ role in “floating” Althea. They make the production a ballet, of a kind. How soon in the process did they become part of the show?

Quite late, actually. Steven, Finn and Marianne had a three- or four-day workshop with acrobats and something astounding happened. Tori and I always knew that the means to float Althea would be discovered. I mean, it’s not radical, really, to put someone on a wire; that was always an option. As a stage technique it’s been around for centuries, audiences have seen it a thousand times. It requires great skill and it can be enchanting, but it isn’t exactly new. If anything it’s limiting as you need to have tracks in the rig, and at the National you have to design bearing in mind that other shows will be in the rep with you. As Tori and I wrote the musical we simply presumed that Althea would be able to float; and in the main workshops the rest of the team seemed to presume it too; they barely seemed to even bother to investigate it, assuming, I think, that it would all be on wires. Then, in this specific “acrobat” week, Steven, Finn and Marianne found a genuinely new way of “floating.” I came in for one afternoon and I was amazed, absolutely amazed.

Despite the production’s scale, and all the different elements included, I’m struck by just how intimate the show still manages to feel. Essentially, it’s the story of two families, a love story, and a coming-of-age story. The emotions come through very, very clearly. Was it important for you and Tori to retain this kind of intimacy in the piece? Is that something that you found yourselves watching out for as the project developed, ensuring that the various elements contributed to, rather than swamped, the story?

Yes. I’ve always said that in outline it’s a simple story: Romeo and Juliet, two kids from opposite sides of the tracks, a rite-of-passage, a coming-of-age. Hopefully, how we tell it gives it depth. Moment-to-moment straightforwardness, dramaturgical and aesthetic, is something Marianne is very strong on. She likes things clear, direct and truthful in writing and acting. So she’s a help if things start to get a bit baroque. We all place great value in intimate moments. They’re particularly important in big musicals. There I go, generalising about “musical theatre” but hopefully you get my point. Falling chandeliers are great but they mean nothing without simple, personal scenes in which writers, designers, choreographers and directors have the courage to bring the scale of the production right down to the tensions and needs of one or two individuals in everyday situations. Years ago when I first saw The Phantom of the Opera I was struck by a lovely moment when the corps de ballet is rehearsing backstage at the Palais Garnier, a Degas painting brought to life, very elegant, no fireworks, and far more impressive to me than the plunging chandelier. Also, Marianne is hot on focus. I’m very proud of the wedding sequence in The Light Princess as a piece of writing. It tells simultaneous stories, plays with time and geography, employs magical realism and economically brings about the turning points of the protagonists to take us roaring into the eleven o’clock number. These almost filmic devices are excitingly possible when you have music at your disposal. Marianne was careful to refine the visual picture in this sequence and thus place emphasis exactly where it needed to be.



The Light Princess: Rosalie Craig during "No H20"

Rosalie Craig’s performance as Althea is staggering, not only in the way it negotiates the physical demands of the role but also in the way it communicates all the different facets of the character and her journey. In interview, Rosalie mentioned that it was you who really spotted her “in the corner” during those early workshops and thought she’d be right for Althea. Any regrets about that decision at all? ;)

God, isn’t she rubbish!? Did she say that? Typically kind of her but not really true. I mean, I did champion her as Althea, and quite early on too, but it’s sweetly ridiculous of her to say she was sitting in the corner. The corner is not Rosalie Craig’s natural habitat. She was playing another character, one we cut. Rosalie has the most incredible chest voice, her “break” is very high. Gradually everybody realised our Althea was staring us in the face. There were some changes to the keys in arias like “Darkest Hour” but in Rosalie’s range, with that beautiful belt of hers, they took on such a plaintive, yearning quality. (It should be noted that she’s got an incredible soprano, too.) Then once she was cast, we fashioned new things around her specifically. I wrote a couple of bolshie teenage lines for Althea one day. Rosie perked up and said she was good at playing that kind of thing, and that got me thinking and led me towards the “Yes, I know, yes, I know” section of “Queen Material”. There was a very moving day when Tori, Marianne, Tim Levy our producer, Steven and I were in a room together at the National Theatre Studio and, pretty much having decided that Althea was Rosie’s, had Rosie sing “Darkest Hour” and “Better Than Good” for us just to make sure. She broke our hearts and we were choking back tears, and we all slightly reprimanded ourselves for taking so long to give her the role. Thank God she stuck with us!

But it’s in no way a one-woman show, is it? Aside from the great work by Nick Hendrix, Clive Rowe and Amy Booth-Steel I’m struck by how vivid the supporting cast is: Laura Pitt-Pulford as the Falconer, Kane Oliver Parry as Llewelyn, even a silent character like Delphine, or a near-silent one, like Mr. Grey, makes an impression. And Malinda Parris’s awesome “Scandal” moment is something I look forward to every single time.

Nick walked into the room and I wanted him as Digby immediately. He looks like a warrior, but he can play vulnerability and sadness with great delicacy. I believed him as a solemn prince, so it was a good thing that when he opened his mouth he could sing. All of us wanted Kane, but Tori and Marianne in particular spotted his unique talent. Around the time we secured him, I was refining Llewelyn’s story, and I found “Bitter Fate” for him and Digby in Act II. The Act I opener “My Own Land” suggested itself as a reprise, with the princes no longer swaggering patriotically, but instead lamenting the prison that their kingdom has become for them. In the week before we started rehearsals Tori wrote those electrifying high tenor lines for Kane, knowing that he could sing the shit out of the notes in sweet harmony with Nick. The legendary Clive was with us over several workshops: likewise we wrote for him. Amy Booth-Steel is, with Rosie and our male swing Luke Johnson, one of the original members of The Light Princess team; she’s family. For various reasons, I’d made some cuts to the Falconer’s role and on the first day of rehearsal I wondered if I’d gone too far. When you’ve got Laura Pitt-Pulford in the room, you’re inspired, and her role ballooned back to its correct size. Malinda Parris has many qualities aside from her powerhouse voice, including a gift for comedy, which is just right for “Scandal.”

Let’s talk about the score. Critics have struggled to find analogies and comparisons (it’s like Sondheim; it’s not like Sondheim; it’s like Lloyd Webber; it’s not like Lloyd Webber…). But it seems to me that the more appropriate reference points are in classical music and opera, in many ways. That’s evident in the instrumentation (strings, woodwind, piano) which gives the piece a very timeless quality that suits the fairy-tale form you’re working with. As you noted in the last interview, the orchestrations recall, on occasion, Tori’s work with classical pieces on Night of Hunters. Did you and Tori experiment with poppier or rockier approaches before settling on this more classically-orientated style? What did you both feel were the advantages of this particular approach?

If people are struggling to find analogies and comparisons, then it’s its own thing, right? Look closer, listen harder. I can’t hear the Lloyd Webber in Tori’s work at all, except perhaps in “Darkest Hour,” the Act I closer — and I think Tori herself would acknowledge that. And she’s done something a bit Sondheimesque to words of mine in two short verses in “Nothing More Than This.” Generally I’d have thought Bernstein would be a closer comparison, as well as other classical composers it’s not for me to reference. What I really want to say is that it’s unique to her. It’s complex. If I had the score with me you’d see that most songs change time signatures about every five bars and keys about every twenty. And you don’t always hear things more than once. Or you do, but in variation, sometimes very subtle variation. In “Better than Good,” in response to some staging, Tori and I wrote and added in previews a little section where the muckraking Servants sing of heavy shoes to weight Althea down: “Here are shoes/Well, they’re more like cumbersome rocks.” The melody here is an extension of a sprightly Mozartian instrumental phrase that existed already in the song. I find the music delightful: listen to it a few times and it’ll become an earworm. But it’s only there once, because it’s only needed once by the plot. Tori has the courage to do that — and yet the song as a whole has a pattern that enables it to land.

Those swift, surprising shifts and transitions in tempo and mood are so "Tori," aren’t they? The whole range of human emotion seems to be in there.
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Yes, Tori is just incapable of a predictable chord progression. I think I’ve said to you before that Tori lives in a minor key world, with glorious flourishes of major key optimism that can take you by such surprise you can be alarmed by them on a first listen. In Tori’s work, there’s often ambiguity, a feeling of melancholy or uneasiness that underlies the hope. This quality makes her a great musical dramatist. And yes, there’s a timelessness to this score, matching the fairy-tale feel, that comes from the orchestration. There is a little percussion on track for some of the military sections but otherwise it’s crafted particularly for woodwinds and strings with piano. It’s intricate stuff. In Tori, Martin Lowe and John Philip Shenale’s orchestrations, there are some glorious arpeggiated sections in songs like “Better Than Good” and “Amphibiava” that are positively gymnastic for the players. There’s a lot for audiences and listeners to discover, and talking about the score reduces it. I’d prefer to let it speak for itself. There were some rockier and poppier songs early on but the story and characters demanded something more operatic. It’s an unfashionable word, and not really how I want the piece described, but I suppose it’s an operetta. That makes it sound like Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan, and it couldn’t be further from those guys. But, really, with its lightly classical textures, its almost through-composed structure, its chamber orchestration, and its challenging solo arias, “operetta” is sort of what The Light Princess is.

In our previous conversations you’ve stressed the character-based approach that you and Tori have taken to writing and composing the show and of “music as the engine for story.” Let’s talk a bit about those wonderful sustained sequences that the show features. It took me a couple of viewings to realise just how intricate “Queen Material” and “Nothing More Than This Is” are in the way they build, and just how much happens in story and character terms. You’ve mentioned that you encouraged Tori to musicalise a lot of the material. Did earlier drafts of the piece convey much of this information in the book rather than through song?

It’s not so much that earlier drafts conveyed the story through lots of book, rather that they hadn’t found the means to tell the story properly at all because the form was at that point still just outside of our reach as a team. I didn’t want to write a play, because I was working with a composer, and time and time again if I had an idea it felt like a musical idea and I didn’t see much point in crafting a well-made scene when I’d rather be crafting with Tori a well-made song or musical sequence. All of us learned to make sure that everything was married and integrated. That’s what I like, that’s my taste, and that’s what I think musicals can and must do. Eventually we all understood each other and soon Marianne, who’d only directed plays till The Light Princess, was brilliantly exacting about the lyrics and music of the songs, investigating them as rigorously as if they were dialogue. “Queen Material” and “Nothing More Than This” are key sequences in the show. In “Queen Material” Althea leaves the palace and enters the woods. In “Nothing More Than This” Althea and Digby’s relationship cools, and Digby leaves her. These are massive plot moments, all musicalised. Tori and I mapped the sequences out in advance. She began to work in a new way here, setting music to words already written, which enabled her to concentrate on weaving themes. Then we would both challenge each other to reshape and rework.

The structure of the duets also feels highly original to me. In a confrontation scene between two characters (such as Althea’s face-off with her Father at the opening of “Queen Material” and with Digby at the beginning of “Althea” and Piper’s great challenge to the King in “The Whistleblower”) you have one character singing one melody while the other character responds with a contrasting melody that expresses their point of view. Then in “Amphibiava” you have a playful, harmonious duet for Althea and Digby which illustrates just how connected they are at this moment. How did this approach evolve?

In “Althea,” from the first draft, Althea was always at lyrical odds with Digby, until she is seduced. Tori was convinced to musicalise Althea’s responses to Digby in a different way from the lush legato of his verse and chorus. Althea is in a resistant, teenage, Althea-type place; she is at loggerheads with both Digby and herself. One day in rehearsal Tori suddenly came up with that vivid “Who do you think?” melody. It’s appropriately jagged, breathless, hot, Spanish. I went straight home and wrote the words and it was in the next day. King Darius’s interruptions to Althea’s teenage tirade in “Queen Material” came in rehearsal. King Darius had been objecting to Althea’s truculence and trying to make his point between her verses in dialogue, but then we expanded the moment and worked it so that there are two contrasting melodies. The king’s melody is actually a variation of the verse of his aria in Act II “My Little Girl’s Smile,” so happily it’s all as one. With his theme he exhorts Althea to be responsible in Act I, then this theme turns on itself as, in Act II, he regrets the brutal means by which he exhorted her. The point here — and there are other examples in the score including “The Whistleblower” — is that the structure of a song always came from the demands of the story.

The Light Princess: Nick Hendrix and Rosalie Craig during "Althea"

And may I say that, in “Althea,” you and Tori have written one of the sexiest-ever duets for a musical. The combination of Althea’s resistance to Digby and her gradually opening up to his tenderness towards her is incredibly seductive, and funny and moving too, and the staging is stunningly beautiful. Could you talk a little further about how this pivotal sequence evolved?

Isn’t it a beautiful piece of music? When Tori delivered it I was ecstatic. What she essentially achieved when she first wrote it was wonderfully exciting. I’d given her some notes about what the scene entailed and she went off and wrote what in essence amounts to a one Act play in song. As you suggest, by the end of it, Althea is in a completely different place from where she was at the beginning; she opens up to Digby, the actions of an apparent antagonist change her in the moment. Yet it’s a fairly simple AB/AB song with a luscious, romantic chorus, and, in the verses, a gorgeously sexy Latin-flavoured riff. Yes, there is new detail in the number since Tori first shared it with me, both lyrical and musical. But this moment is Tori at her most spontaneous and honest and romantic, and the heart of the song has never changed. Tori and I envisaged the number very early in the writing. Althea and Digby would meet. She would be in the sky. Her ribbons, emblems of restraint up until this moment, would fall on him gloriously and he would dance with her. Suddenly the ribbons are beautiful. He would be the first person who had no confusion or doubt about her lightness. He would fall in love with her, and she with him. Even as, with drafts, the story altered around Althea and Digby, and as characters and songs came and went, this sequence remained in tact. We knew it would be difficult to stage; it took a long time to rehearse. But it’s one of the most straightforward things in the libretto. A purely romantic scene: Juliet meeting Romeo.


The four songs released online have had a tremendously positive response. I have to ask the inevitable question about the cast recording and if and when that might be happening…

I know this is a frustrating answer but watch this space. A recording of the complete score will happen.

As an audience member, it’s been fascinating to see the show develop, and the various cuts and tweaks that have been made. I wonder if there are any cuts that you regret?

None. Kill your babies and so forth.

It’s also been interesting to see just how diverse the audiences for the show have been. Some friends overheard one little boy – age six or seven - saying: “If I was the Prince I would do anything for the Princess.” Quite a number of kids have really engaged with the show. Is that something that’s surprised you? I know you weren’t really aiming for this audience.

There was a 13+ age limit to begin with. That came from the NT. There is drug-taking, there is mutilation, there is sex in a lake. You can’t have all that and market it as your family Christmas show, so the National was perfectly justified to say, “teenagers and above.” Of course we can go younger and the NT has, actually: it’s 10+ now, and it’s fine for a six-year-old, who will miss the more adult themes but enjoy the obvious facts that the princess floats and that she learns to slay dragons deep in the wilderness. What a beautiful thing that boy said! I’m not surprised at all that young kids like it and I’m happy about that, not least because it means they’re being exposed to some challenging, classically-flecked music.

Can you reveal anything about the future life of the show? Is a transfer/tour something that’s being discussed?

It finishes on 2nd February and there are no immediate plans for more life for this production; there were never specific plans for a transfer, that’s not the way the National operates. I think it would be a shame if Marianne’s beautiful work on this show wasn’t seen again, but in theatre you always keep your expectations low!

Do you foresee co-writing another musical in future?

Yes. In Gabriel, a play I wrote for Shakespeare’s Globe last year, I worked with a classical musician and put her and a small orchestra on stage with actors to help tell the story. I’d like to take this idea further, but with an original score.

How about another collaboration with Tori? It’s clearly been a really rewarding experience for you both.

I’ve loved every second of my collaboration with Tori. We’ve made a commitment to each other to look after The Light Princess, always. But she has to write another musical or opera. Or possibly a ballet. I know everyone wants albums and tours from her, but she shouldn’t stop at The Light Princess. It was challenging; she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. But honestly, I think she was born to do this. I hope she sees it like that, and I hope I can do at least one more with her.

I’m always intrigued by how it feels for a playwright to watch a show they’ve written. When you see The Light Princess now, what are some of your impressions? Are there surprises for you? Are there moments where you think: “That’s exactly how we imagined it!” Or are there moments that go beyond what you envisaged when writing?

God knows what’s wrong with me, but on the whole I get more nervous about a show and my work in it the longer it goes on. During previews you’re working so hard that there’s no time to let nerves get the better of you. It’s all adrenaline. Once it’s up and running, the nerves are just nerves. But by then the show is bigger than its creators: it belongs to the actors, the crew, the orchestra, the conductor, and the audience. And on this show I have loved watching it get stronger. Rae’s design is more beautiful than I could have hoped for. I admire the performances. Rosalie surprises me each time I see it with all the new discoveries and choices she makes; she seems constantly to be reinventing herself and the role. I’m astounded by the work of the acrobats: their strength and grace and some of the beautiful shapes they create, often when they’re not lifting Rosie but waiting to do so, is something I never could have anticipated. One of the most moving moments in the show is right at the end when they’re no longer lifting her. “Althea” is not so far from how I envisaged it, as I’ve said. The girl in the sky, ribbons falling, the boy singing up to her. The one scene that is exactly as I always imagined it, even though the focus of the lyrics to the song changed as the musical developed, is “No H2O.” Everything about the staging and Paule Constable’s lighting and Rae’s setting and the performances in that number is close to how I pictured it … I’m grateful that Marianne Elliott directed the show and that it’s at the National — the people there always believed in it. I appreciate the work of Paul Foster, the staff director, who keeps the show shipshape. I’m very self-critical of tiny things I’d like to improve, but I allow myself to acknowledge the ambition up there. We flipping never gave up, not once, and we made a musical.


The Light Princess is at the National Theatre until 2nd February. Further details here. Adamson also takes part in a Platform event, In Context: Adapting Children’s Novels to the Stage, on 16th January.


Film Review: August: Osage County (Wells, 2012)






John Wells's August: Osage County is out in the UK on 24th January. You can read my review of it from last year's Toronto International Film Festival for PopMatters here.

Film Review: 12 Years A Slave (McQueen, 2012)



 
 
One of the toasts of this year's London Film Festival, just as it was at Telluride and at Toronto, Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave - the British director's third feature following Hunger and Shame - has quickly established itself as a critic's darling and, for those who care about such things, an early awards favourite. It's not hard to see why: the movie, which might be described as Django Unchained's wiser, sober sibling, is a powerfully acted, skillfully made prestige picture. It's history with a very human face. It's not a genuinely provocative work about slavery – see Lars von Trier's underrated Manderlay for that – and it's not without some flaws, but it's an involving, sometimes intensely moving experience. If other (equally strong) films about slavery – from Steven Spielberg's Amistad to Jonathan Demme's Beloved – didn't end up getting their critical or their commercial due, 12 Years A Slave isn't going to suffer a similar fate. 
 
The movie is adapted from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped, transported South and sold into slavery before the Civil War. Played with heart-rending grace and intelligence by a pitch-perfect Chiwetel Ejiofor (an actor who's having quite the great year following his acclaimed turn as Patrice Lumumba in A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic), Northup's narrative is distilled in the movie to focus primarily on his experiences under two owners: the kindly Ford (touchingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the heinous, abusive Edwin Epps (a chilling Michael Fassbender, memorably completing a triumvirate of roles for McQueen).
 
As Northup, a skilled carpenter and fiddle-player, quietly plots an escape against seemingly impossible odds, his story is supplemented by the stories of other slaves. There's Eliza (Adepero Oduye) whose separation from her children turns her into a walking embodiment of grief, and there's Patsy (haunting Lupita Nyong'o), the most productive cotton-picker on Epps's plantation, who's the object of her master's sexual obsession and the simmering rage and disdain of her mistress (Sarah Paulson).
   
In telling Solomon's story, McQueen abandons the studiously art-conscious approach that characterised - and, in my opinion, marred - Hunger and Shame. Whether he's aiming for mainstream acceptance here or it's simply that the subject matter broke through his studied reserve, the director certainly opts for a more conventional shooting style that doesn't call such obvious attention to itself. In Shame one sensed McQueen's desire to make emotional contact with the audience but the film's rather shameless final tilt into moralising melodrama seemed a ham-fisted way of going about it. Here, though, he succeeds, and 12 Years A Slave is mostly open, tactile and emotionally astute. Any visual flourishes serve the story, and Sean Bobbit's cinematography gives a rich, deep-toned texture to both interior and exterior spaces without looking posed and over-deliberate in the way that McQueen's two previous films both tended to do.
 
Notwithstanding, the movie looks likely to spark some pretty intense debates about screen representations of suffering – especially in a shattering sequence in which Northup is forced by Epps to whip Patsy – while another daringly sustained interlude finds Northup hung from a tree for defying a crazed overseer (Paul Dano), the other slaves moving about in the background, pretending not to see his distress, until one brings him a few sips of water. The scene plays out in perfectly chilling quietness, but elsewhere the film benefits from a fine score by Hans Zimmer which moves compellingly from swelling old-school solemnity to cutting-edge discordance.
 
For all of its obvious strengths, 12 Years A Slave does have some shortcomings: some excesses, some surges into Spielbergian sentiment. The opening montage – fragmented images of Northup's slave experiences, some of which seem to relate to passages that later got edited out of the movie – is shaky, while a pan up from an image of our trapped hero screaming "Help me!" to a shot of the stolidly indifferent Capitol building is clunkily obvious. The early scenes of Northup on the ship being taken South also have a lurid, pulpy quality. And the coda is a maudlin misfire, especially since the opening scenes haven't done enough to really make Northup's family life vivid to us.
 
But if McQueen doesn't always find fresh angles on iconic images sometimes he does: one of the most powerful sequences in the picture begins in clich̩ Рslaves singing a spiritual Рbefore moving in for a tight close-up on Ejiofor's haunted, harried face as he adds his voice to the voices of the others, at first tentatively, finally assertively. An unforgettable gesture of solidarity, of the will to survive, it's one of many indelible moments in a rich, compelling movie.
 
12 Years a Slave opens in the UK on 10th January.