Soundtrack Storytelling

There’s something magical about musical stories. As a composer and writer of music theatre I may be biased. One of the many things I love about music theatre are the recordings. Of course you can’t beat the live experience of the performance, but there has always been something about the cast recording of a show that has captivated me.

As a kid I used to spend hours listening to LPs and cassettes (yes, I’m that old) of West End and Broadway shows. As an adult I still put in the hours, but it’s MP3’s and streaming. Some of the shows I’d seen and some I only had the recordings. It strikes me now that these two ways of experiencing the soundtracks provided (and provide) two equally powerful, but completely different storytelling experiences.

If I’d seen the show in performance the recording was my way to relive the experience. On the whole going to see a musical meant an ninety-minute drive up to London. A drive filled with excitement and anticipation. Three hours of joy, lost in another world. Then a very long and increasingly painful ninety-minute drive home, away from the joy. That drive was often followed by two to three days of near despair. That sounds dramatic, but at the time it’s how it felt. The experiences were so powerful and complete that the separation from them created a hole. A space. An emotional void. The soundtrack was a way of plugging the gap. Of reconnecting to the material.

I could listen to the soundtrack and be transported back to those three hours. Just listening allowed me to return to the story in my mind and see it as well as hear it. And a lot of the recordings featured spoken dialogue and these were my favourites. They gave me greater access. A solid story. The additional dialogue is also a key part of second type of experience: the ones I’d only hear and not see. The dialogue crafted the story world for me. It allowed me to paint scenes in my head, to imagine how they’d be on stage. Not all the recordings had production photographs. It was always interesting to hear a soundtrack, experience a story and then see a production afterwards. This is the way I first experienced Evita (the sublime Julie Covington recording), Into the Woods, Chess (the concept recording out-performs the show easily) Rocky Horror, Sweeney Todd… so many others.

I’m still doing it today. Both remembering/reconnecting and imagining/projecting.

I saw London Road in the Cottesloe at The National Theatre in 2011 (and again in the Olivier – where I felt lost something but was still wonderful). Adam Cork’s music grabbed me from the opening bars. A blend of Philip Glass minimalism and Sondheim’s narrative musical style with an infusion of pop melodies; I was in love. With the release of the film I now find myself caught between a memory and a perception. Listening to the original cast takes me right back to that small theatre space. “Good evening. Welcome.” But the new film cast recording, of the film I’ve yet to see, transports me to a new place.

The score and Alecky Blythe’s book have been rearranged for the screen. New musical structures and old lines sung by new characters. It’s a glorious affair. The world it paints in my mind is both dark yet comic and exhilarating. It’s informed by the stage production but altogether new. Soundtrack storytelling at its finest. I believe that even if I didn’t get to see the film (ha! Just try and keep me away), or if I hadn’t seen it in the theatre, I know I would respond strongly to the recording. It is powerful standalone piece of storytelling. The music has such an emotional depth I’d find it hard not to be drawn into the story.

We know that music and storytelling go hand in hand, but nowhere more clearly than in the ‘musical’ genre. I’ll go on listening to these recordings, experiencing both the recalled and the imagined worlds. The extraordinary power of soundtrack storytelling.