career - musical theatre

Richard Stilgoe

In April 1950 Daddy, Mummy, Dawn, Robin and I (but not George, because he was only two) went to London from Liverpool to see our grannies – Granny Stilgoe, who was in a nursing home in Putney, and Granny Irwin (Mummy’s mother) who lived at 56 Hazelwell Road, also in Putney.  Granny Irwin, the oldest of five daughters of a vicar, had been her father’s church organist, and was the one who got me playing the piano for the first time.  On April 19th she, Mummy, Dawn, Robin and I went to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to see Oklahoma!   I didn’t know then (because I was only seven) that Oklahoma! Was almost exactly the same age as me.   It opened on Broadway, New York City on 31st March  1943.  I opened on Old Green Lane, Camberley on 28th March 1943.  I also don’t remember going to see it.  But my brother Robin, then ten, remembered everything about it, and for the next few weeks we whirled round the house singing ‘Oh, what a beautiful mornin’, and for the next few years we went to see every musical that came to Liverpool – sometimes hits that had succeeded in London and were now touring, but more instructively flops that were trying out in the provinces before failing in the West End.  We also saw every Gilbert and Sullivan, a lot of great variety performers at the Liverpool Empire and Sadler’s Wells Opera on tour.

In 1964 and 5 Glyn Worsnip and I were writing and performing a series of revue musicals – basically sketch shows with plots – at the Poor Millionaire in London, then in 1966 I made my only appearance in a West End musical, as Benjamin the stable boy in Jorrocks.  During the six-month run I had acres of spare time – Benjamin was a very small part – and I finished most of a musical version of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and another musical about Horse racing called Racing Demon.  Neither of these shows has ever been staged, which is a good thing, but writing them was a big help.  I wish that every young writer who sends me their potential hit musical would realise that there is a lot of rubbish to be written first before you start getting it right.

In 1969 Patrick Dromgoole, my boss at HTV, played me a tape of Jesus Christ Superstar, which its young composer had asked him to direct.  He never did, but the best-laid plans.....  I listened, and was amazed.  One day, I said, I should like to work with whoever did that.

In 1981 I met Andrew Lloyd Webber in the green room between Parkinson shows.  Michael was recording two shows that day, because he was going to Australia and needed a stockpile to broadcast while he was away.  On one of the shows I was hyping my forthcoming tour of one-man shows, on the other Andrew was talking about Cats, his new musical that had just gone into rehearsal. 

Two days later Andrew rang up.  T.S.Eliot (a not very complicated anagram of toilets), being dead, was not available to do the re-writes which are an essential part of the creation of any musical – especially an Andrew Lloyd Webber one.  Would I like to have a crack at writing the opening number?  Well!   Was Gandhi thin?  Did Elvis like cheeseburgers?  I leapt at the chance.  Cats opened with my opening number in it, and ran for twenty-one years rather than the three days most people expected.   Andrew and I wrote Starlight Express, and that ran eighteen years rather than the two days most people expected.  Andrew’s office sent me a photocopy of a whole book - Aspects of Love – which I said I didn’t much like.  Then they sent round a copy of a novel called The Phantom of the Opera.  I had seen various  film versions of this, and I read this, and I thought “this isn’t really me, but I’ll have a go”.   I did have a go, but it wasn’t really me, and after a year or so my re-writes were not better, just different, so Andrew and I parted company, and the brilliant Charles Hart came in and wrote the version everyone knows today.   To be absolutely clear about it, the book and the ‘shape’ of the show are Andrew’s and mine, all but one of the song titles are the original titles Andrew and I decided on together, and whenever I go and see the show I am surprised how much of my material is still there.  But the lyrics of the big numbers – the songs that made the show a hit – belong to Charles Hart – apart from perhaps Music of the Night, which is about half-and-half. And Andrew and I still get along just fine.

Having learned an awful lot from him, I set off to write more shows.   The first one, Bodywork, takes place inside the human body, and all the parts are parts – the Brain, the Heart, the Soul, etc.  It was first done by the National Youth Music theatre in 1987 at the Edinburgh Festival.  Among the teenage cast were Jonny Lee Miller as a Germ and Jude Law as Adrenalin;  I met a drama teacher just the other day who had been in the original cast as the Pituitary Gland.  We recorded it with a wonderful cast of my heroes, including Chas and Dave as the Hair and Lonnie Donegan as the Appendix.  I have been re-writing Bodywork ever since, and it’s nearly right now.  One day somebody will stage it again. 

The most important thing to get right in a musical is the book – long before you write any songs.  So next I wrote a book;  it was called Brilliant the Dinosaur, because I asked lots of children what I should write a story about and they all said Dinosaurs.  Brilliant the Dinosaur is about three children who find a dinosaur and try and hide it from untrustworthy grown-ups. My children read it and said “This is ET basically, isn’t it?” but by then it was too late, and the book was published.  It was nominated for the Smarties prize in 1994, but didn’t win it.  The show based on the book had already been done at Chichester in 1991, and it still gets performed in schools.  The best part of the legacy of both of these shows is meeting performers who enjoyed being in them when they were children.  Which happens gratifyingly often.

The latest musical is called Orpheus – the Mythical, and was written for the students of the Orpheus Centre.  I did one for them before called Exit Allan, which we did at the Cardiff Festival of Music theatre.  (Allan is Welsh for Exit, which is a weak reason to write a musical, and the show wasn’t good enough).  I know every writer thinks their latest work is their best, but I am really proud of The Mythical.  It is a setting of the Orpheus legend, which has a long history as a musical subject – Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, everybody has had a crack at it.  We did it at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in July 2010 with the Orpheus Students and students from Guildford School of Acting. Katie Beard then directed a revised version with students and alumni from Orpheus and Arts Educational at The Other Palace in March 2018. I also wrote some song for Pinero’s “The Magistrate” at the National Theatre, and the libretto for two community operas – “Road Rage” for Garsington in 2013 and “The Freedom Game” for the Royal Albert Hall in 2015.