Ayckbourn At 70: The Musicals (2009)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published in a souvenir programme to mark the Royal & Derngate Theatres' Ayckbourn At 70 celebration in 2009. It explores the history of the playwright's musical plays.

If you were to guess how many musicals Alan Ayckbourn has written, the answer would probably surprise you. They have played an important part in Alan Ayckbourn’s career, although they have rarely received the attention they deserve.
Except perhaps for
Jeeves, the 1975 West End musical whose place in the history is assured due to it being the first - and only! - Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber flop, which closed after just a month.
But Alan’s musicals have come a long way since then and it tends to be conveniently ignored that even
Jeeves had a happy ending when it was successfully rehabilitated in 1996 as By Jeeves, which went on to success in the West End and transferred to Broadway.
If
Jeeves is the most famous Ayckbourn musical, it is also the least representative. Since 1980, Alan has been writing musicals - or more accurately musical plays - which tackle the concept of incorporating songs smoothly into proceedings, which have both a purpose and move the plot along.
The first ‘Ayckbourn musical' was
Suburban Strains (1980), written with Paul Todd. The plot of a woman looking at the relationships throughout her life is typical Ayckbourn, but as quite an introspective piece, he was looking for an element that allowed his characters to reflect and express their thoughts.

“The music actually helps me as a playwright; it's given me that necessary kick beyond naturalism. You have an equivalent of the soliloquy, no need for a boring old drunk scene to make characters say what they feel. If you suddenly bring in a shaft of music from somewhere, they can actually play the subtext. Generally the English prefer to hint round the truth, which is fun and leads to a lot of comedy, but for me it's been very interesting to find this other dimension.”

Although
Suburban Strains did not set the world of musicals alight, its success in Scarborough whetted Alan’s appetite to write more and quickly led to a second collaboration with Paul Todd. Making Tracks (1981) is set in a recording studio and was inspired by Alan’s time as a radio drama producer for the BBC. Although it has never been made available for production elsewhere, the playwright believed the experience was a positive one.

"The idea was there, but I was thinking of it as a play, and it never really took off – but it makes sense as a musical. It’s certainly a progression from our earlier work. One is never thoroughly happy with anything, but this time the words don’t seem to get in the way of the music. It is the most fun we’ve had with a musical – Suburban Strains was a bit sad, and this is lighter, more up-tempo, and fun.”

Making Tracks was also notable for incorporating the live band into the plot; often one of the biggest difficulties for Alan when writing musicals is where to put the band. Perhaps not an obvious dilemma, but when you consider his plays are premiered in an intimate theatre-in-the-round, you can appreciate the problem.
Alan and Paul would also write 10 revues together between 1976 and 1986. In 1992, Alan teamed up with John Pattison to write
Dreams From A Summer House. Undoubtedly inspired by the success of his family plays, it sees Ayckbourn suburbia colliding with fairy tales utilising music to allow the two genres to meet and merge.

“What I really can't bear is the convention by which people with no prior warning suddenly give vent to a song, and then stop again with equal abruptness. I wanted a play that will be part-sung and part-spoken, but with the singing justified by the action. There will be no numbers as such, but long speeches set to music.”

The fairy tale characters can only communicate by singing, hence the suburban characters find themselves bursting, quite awkwardly, into song in order to communicate. Unfortunately, plans to take the play into the West End never came to fruition, but set the template for much that would follow.
John Pattison would also collaborate with Alan on
A Word From Our Sponsor (1995), which is set in the near future where a community is struggling to stage a mystery play; the arrival of the Devil with the necessary funding – and a few artistic provisos – apparently being the answer to their prayers. It is interesting to note that Alan had the idea for this several years previously but couldn’t make it work without an extra element.

“I had the idea for Sponsor and I played around with it for a long time. I couldn't quite make it live because it has these exotic elements. It suddenly occurred to me It was a musical idea, by putting it to music, you could make it more credible and meet its exoticism.”

Alan’s third and current collaborator Denis King joined forces with him in 2000 to produce the time-travelling musical
Whenever. This stands as one of Alan’s most accomplished pieces and the songs drive a fast-moving family play forward. The success of Whenever, which has since been adapted for radio and broadcast by the BBC, led to Alan and Denis teaming up for their most ambitious musical, Orvin – Champion Of Champions.
It was commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre and Alan and Laurie Sansom co-directed the play, which included more than 40 young people in an ambitious fantasy adventure that was the highlight of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 2003 summer schedule.

“At first, it was the sheer scale of the prospective canvas that daunted me. A lifetime of subsidized regional theatre had conditioned me to thinking mainly in cast sizes of five or six or, if we were very good and saved up our actor weeks, of ten maximum. But forty-five? For a start, where was I going to put them all? There was barely room for forty-five actors on our small Scarborough stage to stand; certainly not if we were expecting them to move as well. Well, it would save on a choreographer.”

Whilst the songs in
Orvin are integral to advancing the plot, Alan had by now reached the stage where he did not feel a need to justify or explain why characters should sing. They just do.

“I shaped a story with a complex plot but one which, hopefully, would constantly be moved along with the help of our chorus. There would be a lot of action, thrills and laughs. Generally, there’d be little justification for introducing the songs. Characters would simply sing when they felt like it; and if they didn’t feel like it, then they wouldn’t - or perhaps because they couldn’t, or through circumstances, be unable to.”

Sadly the sheer scale of
Orvin has meant it is not revived very frequently, although it is an excellent option for school productions.
Alan’s most recent musical is also his most recent play.
Awaking Beauty premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre during Christmas 2008 and marked his final production as Artistic Director of the venue.
Written again in collaboration with Denis King, it harks back to prior work by bringing fairy tale characters into suburbia and asks what happens after Happily Ever After? And is it really happy?
Alan’s remit to Denis King was to write a musical without instruments. Aside from an accompanying piano, the libretto was written entirely for voice and with its complex harmonising, it features some of the most challenging songs written by Alan and Denis. As unpredictable as anything he has written, it was a suitable send-off for the playwright demonstrating that the desire to constantly push himself and his writing is as strong as ever.
That there are more musicals on the horizon seems very likely, as it is a form which Alan enjoys and keeps returning to. Out of 77 plays, eight are musicals and that number seems certain to rise as Alan feels the genre offers a very broad canvas to write and explore.

“I find that in musicals you have greater horizons on which to explore. You can use flashbacks and a cinematic technique. You begin with a small idea and suddenly new, additional ones impound on the others, pleading to take part in the complete work.”

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.