I have accidentally co-written what could be referred to as a rock musical called The Islanders. This has surprised me as, like most sane people, I hate rock musicals.
It started with a phone call from my ex-girlfriend Amy. We broke up about 15 years ago but have remained friends on and off ever since. She is a writer now and had been commissioned by the Olympics committee to write a short piece about an island, any island. I’m not sure why the Olympics wanted this —perhaps there was a “short story about an island” event that I missed the television coverage of?
The island Amy had chosen to write about was the Isle of Wight, which is just off the South coast of Dorset, where we both grew up. We had gone on a “make or break” holiday there at the end of our relationship. So, in hindsight, I suppose it was actually just a break holiday. She was phoning to check that it was all right to share our personal experiences and also to find out what I remembered of our time there.
I told Amy I was fine with her writing about us and admitted I was a little jealous that I hadn’t had the idea first, as that time of our life and the holiday in particular was rich writing material.
I had left home when I was 18. The first of my friends to move out, I lived by myself in a tiny bedsit. I worked as a postman and was barely capable of taking care of myself. Shortly after I moved out, Amy decided to join me — she ran away from both home and school (she was two years younger than I) and came to live with me. It was a pretty strange time for both of us. We were trapped between adolescence and adulthood, trying to make it on our own, with no money or real guidance from our parents or any of the adults we knew. We were totally adrift from our friends, who had all remained in education. We lived on a diet of baked beans and toast and we always seemed to be trying to get enough money together to pay some sort of new tax we’d just discovered: council tax, water bills, etc. It was a bleak time and our relationship was more or less based on us clinging on to each other for safety.
Or at least that’s how Amy remembers it.
I remember it slightly differently. Sure we had it hard, we were always broke and we definitely perceived how we lived in an over-romantic way. But I’d just escaped from a pretty oppressive household and although the going was hard for us, I was discovering newfound freedoms, staying out all night, coming and going as I pleased, and I had my own money — albeit not very much — to spend on what I wanted. It felt pretty great to me.
The differences between our memories of the time became really apparent when I started telling Amy what I recalled of the holiday. I thought we’d had a great time. It had been sunny, we had ice cream, lots of fun going on the rides at the theme park, we went to a brilliant zoo and saw exotic animals for the first time. It had been GREAT. Amy disagreed. It had rained, we had fought, blah blah blah… I stopped listening.
We soon realized that the complete story of our holiday could only be told by the both of us, and we needed to tell it together in some way. The idea of the musical came from Amy — she sent me a text that read “Do you want to take advantage of our relationship and personal experiences for a very small financial gain?” It seemed to me to be the only logical conclusion. My jealousy that I hadn’t thought of writing about our trip before she did, Amy’s ambition, and both of our tendencies towards exhibitionism had all led us to this point: a musical about our holiday. Amy would tell her side of the story through monologue and I would put my side across using song. It would be an examination of our relationship told through the story of our one holiday together. She sent a proposal to the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol and they said they wanted to help us stage it. They seemed to think our story would resonate with people, that what we had experienced was universal in some way. We hadn’t actually considered that — we had just rather vainly thought we were really interesting people whose adolescences needed to be told as a story onstage.
The only problem was neither Amy or I can play an instrument or write music — I only write lyrics and sing in my band Art Brut. So we roped in our good friend the acclaimed modern folk musician Jim Moray to take care of that side of it, he was surprisingly keen, and The Islanders was born.
I know people might look at The Islanders and think: “Singer from a band! Famous folk musician! This must be a rock musical!” And I admit there are elements of that in there, but we want to distance ourselves from the tag as much as we can.
Rock musicals have unfortunately become synonymous with so-called jukebox musicals. When I think of a rock musical today, I think of Rock of Ages, We Will Rock You and, if I’m stretching the definition of rock, Mamma Mia and Viva Forever.
This type of musical is incredibly popular, of course, because they are full of songs that — for better or worse — have been embedded in our collective consciousness. They feature beloved songs by musical acts that hardly, if at all, play live now. People rarely get to see Queen play, so instead they go and seeWe Will Rock You. They definitely aren’t going to be seeing Abba play anytime soon, so instead they have to go see Mama Mia. I can’t begrudge people for wanting to experience their favourite songs in a live setting but personally I can’t see past the cynicism of it all. The stories have only been written to hang the songs on; they are a second thought and always terrible. People enjoy jukebox musicalsdespite the story. They’re based on commerce, not a love of their subject matter. The songs and story only fit together because they’ve been made to, not because they should.
Although it’s not a jukebox musical, I believe the same problem extends to U2’s Spider-Man musicalTurn Off the Dark. U2 didn’t write their songs because they love Spider-Man and felt they had a great story to tell, they wrote them as a career opportunity and to make themselves yet more money. Go and listen to Turn Off the Dark — and immediately afterwards, go and listen to the original Spider-Man musical from the ’70s, Reflections of a Superhero narrated by Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee. It’s immediately clear which is a lot better. (A hint: it’s not U2’s hollow dirges.)
I know all this is making me sound like a hippy, and there is a financial reason behind everything when you really dig deep. I, of course, hope The Islanders becomes a massive smash on Broadway and earns me billions of pounds. That is not why I worked on it, though. I thought we had an interesting story to tell and also I really enjoy rhyming true stories about my life and performing them to people from the stage.
Our musical came together organically. The songs need the monologue from Amy, and I would like to think Amy’s monologue needs our songs. And while it is true there are two Art Brut songs in there, they fit with with the story. “Post Soothing Out” is about my break-up with Amy and “I Will Survive” is a description of our lives at that time, both central to the theme of the story we are telling.
And both songs are from Art Brut’s underrated second album, so they’re about as far away from the public’s collective consciousness as you can get. I would argue all songs in jukebox musicals are considerably lessened by being performed by hired singers and dancers, whereas performing “Post Soothing Out” with the person it is about standing right their next me can only enhance and elevate the power of that song.
So if you hate rock musicals, come and see one by a man who knows how you feel. If it makes you feel better, we’re referring to it as a “lo-fi musical.”
(Downloads of music from The Islanders and information about upcoming performances will be available on http://theislandersmusical.bandcamp.com in the near future.)