My father played second trumpet in the London Symphony Orchestra, and our house was always full of classical music. At the time I was more into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but we found common ground with The Who.
In the early ’70s the LSO did a series of concert performances of Tommy with The Who and an all-star cast (Rod Stewart, Â Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood). The whole orchestra was somehow shoved into an enormous pinball machine on the stage. To this day, my father still regards this as one of the musical highlights of his career.Â It was a great experiment in the classical world butting up against the modern (a bit like an Independent Shakespeare Company production). I loved the album made from the show and played it over and over.
A few years ago, when my family and I were back in England for Christmas, my father gave me a CD of the Who’s 1969 album of Tommy. Â Taking the car out for a spin I popped the CD in the stereo and drove through the narrow country lanes with the loud rock music blasting. The Who’s version is starkly different from the orchestral version I was used to. The band anticipated taking the show on tour and wanted to be able to tell the far-reaching and complex story with just bass, guitar, drums and vocals.
As I sped through the wintry Suffolk countryside I started revolving the idea of writing some songs with a narrative through-line that I could perform, a bit like Tommy. I had been quite successful writing tunes for ISC productions. However, that was for Shakespeare’s plays and consequently, I was working with one of the best lyricists of all time. When I had tried lyrics of my own in the past, I felt they came out a bit vague, and I found putting my own thoughts and feelings into song a bit embarrassing (I am English after all).
On my drive, I found myself passing through the village of Polstead, where several old family friends live. When I was a boy, my mother was very fond of recounting the famous local tale of the Polstead murder that occurred in 1827 at the mysterious Red Barn. Â The murder, with all its accompanying grisly and supernatural elements, caused a sensation in the 19th Century. Many people in England still know it from the old melodrama, which was second only in popularity to Sweeney Todd in Victorian England.Â The Red Barn murder would be a perfect subject for my song-cycle!
As I began to get more involved in the project, I became more ambitious about what it could be. What if I found a way to include some dramatized moments when we perform the songs? It could be a bold new hybrid of theater that would include music, singing and acting! I ran this idea by a friend, who informed me such an art-form already existed and was, in fact, called a “musical”.
I’m a very unlikely candidate to write a musical. I don’t dislike the form, but I’m certainly not an enthusiast. I remember our drama school parties would always end with everybody standing around the stereo singing along to Les Miz – it was usually at that point that I would make my excuses, or offer to go out for kebabs or something.
After seven years of researching the project, reading several books about the murder, interviewing people in Polstead, teaching myself to play piano and learning the Wikipedia page by heart, all I had generated were a few fragments of songs and not a word of script.
Initially I had stopped working on it because it was causing me intense nightmares. Any story that ends with the act of anthropodermic bibliopegy (google it!) is bound to come with a certain amount of darkness. Getting into the psyche of William Corder (the murderer) led to a recurring dream that I’d murdered someone and buried the body in the garage under several feet of concrete. It was horribly realistic and almost as bad as my other recurring dream (in which I’m sent back to boarding school and have to wear shorts again).
Also, I had no real faith in my ability to write songs. The only people who ever heard my Red Barn compositions were my children at bath-time (I would practice the guitar when I was supposed to be looking after them).
Several times I tried to find a writing partner, but scheduling time to work with someone else is very complicated with two kids and a needy Shakespeare festival to run. It began to look as if I was never going to get anywhere with it.
Then at the end of last year I met Dan Schwartz. Dan is a bass guitarist and record producer. He’s played with and produced people like Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow. Dan liked my Shakespeare tunes, and he offered to record an album of them to help raise some money for ISC. The record turned out great, and Dan’s support gave me a lot of confidence in my ability as a songwriter.
This encouraged me to do something rash and feckless. I knew we had to put something into our indoor space, the Independent Studio, in the fall of this year.Â I thought that if I really worked at it, I could write everything over the summer and Red Barn could have a little workshop run. Before I had written a word of the book, when I had only half a dozen uncompleted songs, we put tickets on sale — and then people began to buy them.
With an opening date looming, I finally started to get going on the project. But it was very hard to find time. There were numerous distractions as the summer season started, and I found myself without my production manager. Melissa (Chalsma — my wife as well as the artistic director of ISC) and I had figured August would be a good time to finish everything and get ready for Red Barn rehearsals, because all the summer productions would be open. But the festival was going crazy (38,000 people came!), and there was no time to regroup”¦ and did I mention those two kids?
Then providence struck in the form of an infestation of bedbugs.Â We’d loaned bedding to a visiting artist who stayed at a local hotel whose name I won’t mention. After it came back, we were getting eaten alive ““ a truly horrible experience. Melissa and the kids had to evacuate the house, leaving everything behind but the clothes they were wearing. I stayed at the house to look after the pets and prepare for the exterminators. As ghastly as this was, it gave me about a week without distraction (other than welts from the bedbugs and the constant laundry I had to do ““ everything had to be washed and dried on high heat and sealed in plastic bags with duct tape). Somehow I managed to finish a first draft of the script, then turned my attention to the remaining 10 songs I had to write.
It’s amazing what a deadline will do to focus things. I managed to bash out the remaining numbers on my piano (now hugely out of tune, thanks to the 150-degree bedbug-killing heat treatment), and they actually came out rather well. In fact, I started to be able to write with great fluidity and ease, setting myself a goal to finish a song a day.
Melissa took over the re-writes on the script. We managed to get exactly the cast we wanted; we were fortunate that the actors in the company were up for trying something new. I hope they enjoyed having roles and songs written especially for them. It certainly helped me having specific actors in mind as I wrote.
Melissa and I googled “how to produce a musical” the day after the first rehearsal, and we realized we have done absolutely everything wrong (according to the manual). Apparently you are supposed to start with a bright and engaging opening number. Ours starts with a song about a dead baby being buried in a field. Oh well! We never did anything the way we were supposed to. The show is open, and I’m happy to say I’m proud of it. Thanks to The Who, nightmares, bedbugs, Dan Schwartz and Melissa!
Red Barn, Independent Shakespeare Company. The Studio, Atwater Crossing Complex in Atwater Village, 3191 Casitas Ave. #168, LA 90039. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Tickets $25/Students $15. www.independentshakespeare.com. 818-710-6306.
***All Red Barn production photos by David Reynolds
As one of the co-founders of ISC, David Melville has performed in many ISC shows including the title roles in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard II; Prince Hal in Henry IV; Touchstone in As You Like It and Sir Toby in Twelfth Night. Other theater credits include Mother Courage at the Mermaid Theatre, London (with Glenda Jackson); Hamlet, Almeida at the Hackney Empire, London and Broadway transfer (with Ralph Fiennes); Ivanov at the Almeida Theatre, London and Maly Theatre, Moscow. David has appeared in several films including The Understudy (which will be arriving in cinemas later this year) and Perfection. David recently filmed the medieval siege drama Ironclad (starring Paul Giamatti as King John). On television, David appeared as the hopeless British travel correspondent Lawrence Beldon-Smythe in the Travel Channel series Lawrence of America. David has also composed songs for numerous theater productions as well as film projects.He received his acting training at the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London.