Teddy the Musical is transforming London’s Vaults beneath Waterloo into Elephant and Castle in the 1950’s. The war is over and a new future is emerging. This is an exciting piece of new gig theatre which pushes the boundaries of what people typically expect from a musical. We caught up with composer Dougal Irvine whose impressive resume includes the hit Departure Lounge. You can catch Teddy in London until June with more information here and the full soundtrack is available on Spotify. Find out more about Dougal’s future projects by heading to his personal website.
Over the past couple of years there has been a rise in the amount of gig theatre in the UK. What is it about gig theatre that is so appealing to an audience?
I do have a theory about this. Live music is very popular, particularly when you can see the performers play (as opposed to them being stuck in an orchestra pit). But you can’t go see your favourite bands every week, it’s neither affordable nor practical. A set of original songs can be a bit of a challenge to listen to, some songs might not be as strong. But if there’s a narrative threading those songs together, you get the best of both worlds. Music you can enjoy for music’s sake and a story.
How different is it to compose music for a show like Teddy than perhaps a more traditional musical? Do you find that the soundtrack sits somewhere in the middle?
Firstly, I had to treat Tristan’s lyrics like pop songs; i.e. not worry too much about emotional subtext and work on catchy hooks and a more generalised mood for each song. But what took the real work I’d say was writing the underscoring. A lot of the dialogue in the play is ‘reported’ i.e. it’s just one character telling an audience what happened. There’s a danger of that becoming dramatically inert, so with the underscoring I was trying to create emotional subtext, that would lift the narrative and makes it feel more active. It’s similar to what you would do in a traditional musical between song breaks, but there was a lot more of it, because the ‘scenes’ were so much longer. The most fun part of the show to write was probably the dance break in ‘dance off the blues’ because I had some definite story concepts in my head I was trying to express musically. Tom Jackson Greaves, the choreographer, has picked up on this and run with it brilliantly. It’s the highlight of the show for me, watching Teddy and Josie dance to that song.
Many of the songs have a distinct familiarity to them, how did you manage to achieve that with the score yet still sound so new and original?
Thanks for saying that, it’s a fine line to tread of honouring a genre without resorting to pastiche or direct copy. I guess I looked to the tricks modern blues/rock & roll players have used, like Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn. They honour the simplicity of twelve bar blues, but add in the odd funky modern chord or jazz inversion to make it sound fresh. I also tried to use as many sub-genres of rock & roll as possible, a wider vocab than a band like JV and the Broken Hearts would actually have known. You’ve got straight blues, rockabilly, early ska-punk, balls out rock and roll and even half time heavy-rock; in a way they are a tribute band to the whole era. I have to say though, the way Harrison, Freya, Dylan and Andrew play, I could give them a Christmas carol and they’d make it sound cool.
After performing at venues like the Watermill Theatre and Southwark Playhouse is there something more unusual about the venue of The Vaults? Has it added any changes?
Well, the Vaults certainly has a larger rat population! Seriously though I guess the broken down nature of the venue has increased the authenticity and immersion factors of the show. Max Dorey (the designer) and Eleanor Rhode (Director) have extended the design to the front of house and foyer, so you literally feel like you’re walking into a 1950’s bomb site. The band begin playing as you enter the auditorium, so you’re walking into a gig already happening. We’ve added more songs into the pre-show, to give the audience time to get settled. Plus the post show gig, where you’ll hear some actual hits from the era. People have danced after every show so far.
What is it about Teddy that speaks so much to audiences now? There was a huge age range attending the performance I saw, and the production somehow managed to speak to a diverse group of people, why do you think that is?
I think a story about young people letting off steam and pushing the boundaries is always fun to watch and going to speak to people. We’ve all been through it. Then, the way Teddy is put together, by a group from quite different creative backgrounds, makes it have a creative alchemy all of its own – I think people are connecting with that on all sorts of levels. Finally, for me, rock and roll music is one of the greatest genres of music ever. It saw in the birth of the electric guitar – there’s not a person alive today who hasn’t been influenced by rock and roll at some point in their lives, whether they know it or not!
How important is this type of theatre in uprooting the very stiff state of musicals at the moment?
Musicals aren’t all stiff and stale. ‘Hamilton’ is the greatest piece of theatre written in my life time, and it’s deservedly won a lot of awards at the Oliviers. It’s just brilliant. Then you’ve got ‘There’s Something About Jamie’ which has a modern score by a pop writer and a progressive book that works. ‘Book of Mormon’ is still the funniest thing on in London. There are some musicals which, frankly, have been running too long, but then there are dull revivals of plays too. ‘Teddy’ is a bit different, but it’s also a small, intimate show. It’s reached about as big as it can get. What’s been brilliant about this run is, thanks to the producers and marketing team, we’ve sold well enough that everyone has been paid properly. Most shows at this level, everyone works for nothing and that’s not really something you’d want to endorse. But if more small shows recoup with this model, the people making them can afford to make, bigger shows which may eventually reach a wider audience in the larger, more ‘rigid’ venues.
Where next? Are there further plans in the pipeline?
For ‘Teddy’, who knows? The band may hopefully get a few bookings! The show is being published by Samuel French so with luck it may get done again. For me, I’ve written a play which opens in Leicester in the autumn, about the first Asian Football hooligan. Then I’ve got a new musical I’m writing for a college opening in November. It’s based on an H.G. Wells short story and will be the most complex thing musically I’ve written to date.