“Would you ever consider writing a musical with an original story?” That was how Ben Elton wrong-footed me after a dinner during which I had tried to press-gang him into collaborating on one of the periodic updates of Starlight Express.
It was instant music to my ears. At the end of 1998 I was casting around for a new subject, but I kept thinking why is it that musicals, including my own, are almost invariably based on a pre-existing book, play or film. Oklahoma!, for instance based on Green Grow the Lilacs and My Fair Lady on Pygmalion. Even operas are often based on something else. Madame Butterfly derives from a short story which was turned into a play by Belasco.
Obviously you don’t find dramatists over keen to fill their endeavours with songs written by some alien Composer. So almost without exception writers of musicals cast their net around for pre-existing plots that we feel we can shoehorn into our genre.
However here on my doorstep was one of Britain’s most exciting authors and dramatists proposing a musical collaboration with a story of his own making.
By total coincidence I had recently seen a documentary about a kids’ football team in Belfast in 1969 and what had become of the youngsters in later life. I told Ben about it. He feigned interest and asked if I could get a video copy of the programme.
Next morning I wondered if I would ever hear from Ben. So many “creative” dinners end with everyone swearing that they must collaborate on something sometime. And then nothing happens. In the cold light of day I wondered if Ben’s interest was a polite way of saying “Thanks, but no thanks”. But I sent the video to him nonetheless and forgot about it. A few days later a cheery voice appeared on the speaker phone.
“Evening mate. What’s your fax number? Synopsis on the way. Talk to me when you’ve read it. If it’s shite tell me.”
I admit I was surprised. What I did not know then was of Ben’s legendary speed and commitment. If Ben says he will do something, I now know that the fruits of his labour will be on the fax machine (neither of us can email) almost before you put the phone down. And so over the evening sharpener I read the first draft of The Beautiful Game.
What Ben had done was to create his own story about young people on the verge of adulthood, young people wanting to love, to play football and lead normal lives in a city dominated by violence and hatred. It was a story that could just as easily have been set in Kosovo, Beirut or Jerusalem. I thought it was the kind of story that Rodgers and Hammerstein in their early days would have seriously thought about setting. They, by the standard of their time, took a fair few risks. Furthermore, I knew that by its very nature this story would challenge me hugely. There was one other excitement. Ben wanted to write the lyrics.
The Beautiful Game has indeed challenged me. It has been very exciting to be associated with a project of which the only member of the creative team who has done a musical before is me.
As for Ben, I think he is the most exciting convert to musical theatre in a long while. He has certainly steered me well away from, say, the Bloomsbury world of David Garnett or Hollywood ageing divas and the like.
The Beautiful Game is certainly light years away from Starlight Express.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, from the original production programme.