Minotaur! Writing a musical in the digital age

Leila Johnston, Managing Editor, The Literary Platform

Managing Editor of TLP, Leila Johnston, considers the impact technology has had on her latest project, a comedy musical about hackers, radiation and love, set in Ancient Greece…

As a writer and editor, I sometimes wonder how different my working life would be if we didn’t have the internet. My collaborators and friends are honed in a way that’s only made possible by systems that can filter thousands of people in seconds. Whether we do it consciously or not, we have a laser beam person-selecting tool at our fingertips now. Without the internet, our colleagues, work and social life might not be as good. We wouldn’t be able to talk to people so frequently, or in so much detail. I’m no techno-evangelist, but I can see how opportunities for certain kinds of relationships and certain kinds of work are dramatically improved through this super-fast, super-social, written medium. And I’m speaking from experience.

I “met” one of my long-term collaborators, Tim, on the internet about a decade ago, but we only met in real life a couple of years ago. As internet addicts, living hundreds of miles apart hasn’t prevented us from working on a number of joint creative projects. We’ve written sketches for Radio 4 comedy shows, invented humorous Twitter accounts like ‘8-bit Sex and the City‘, collaborated on publications and launched silly websites like Extreme Acts of Kindness and Elspeth & Lottie. We even wrote a book together which will be out this Christmas.

Tim is a great writer and a great collaborator because he shares my sense of humour while also being able to continually surprise me with his funny ideas. When we do meet up we constantly make each other laugh, almost at the expense of getting any work done. So, when I decided I wanted to try writing a comedy musical, I talked to Tim.

We’ve been working on Minotaur! – or ‘Minotaur the Moosical’ – on and off for about a year now. It is an ‘interspecies prison romance musical’ based loosely on classical mythology, and set largely on a building site. Pandora has become an expert on locks and encryption due to having an unopenable box attached to her that generates some kind of radioactive forcefield. No one can get close to her, and her past is littered with the corpses of potential suitors. The Minotaur is a chemist (and a minotaur) imprisoned in a maze by his evil playboy half-brother Theseus, and both men are in love with the inadvertently toxic Pandora. Theseus will release Mino only when he has come up with an antidote for Pandora’s condition… but Pandora only has eyes for the Minotaur.

Trust me though, the story was the easy part. Recording oneself singing into one’s laptop and emailing it to someone else is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It’s still easier than singing directly to them, of course, though there is that agonising silent spell between hitting send on the email and getting feedback, when you sit staring at your inbox and imagine what they’re thinking in tremendous detail. But it’s working, and between us, and our new composer Paul, we’ve now come up with songs for all the key scenarios.

There are times when meeting in real life is essential. Paul’s new clavinova has opened up a world of creative possibility, and we’ve had some great workshop sessions in the last few weeks. What usually happens is we’ll hand Paul the lyrics, he’ll frown and make a thoughtful noise, tap a few keys, then pause before saying: “Something like this?” as the most wonderful, fully-formed, song issues from his fingertips. And nearly always we’ll go “YES! JUST LIKE THAT!” and keep it.

A few of the songs started life as a title – which often works well, but sometimes backfires. It was a challenge, for example, to match the scantion of “If I said you had a beautiful body (would you hold it away from me)” for a whole song. On the other hand, an untitled song about moth fashion designers that Tim and I wrote together has turned out to be one of our favourites. We haven’t found a set formula for song writing, and aren’t really looking for one. Corny as it sounds, the best funny songs are no different from the best love songs. They aren’t about clever rhymes but about the feeling behind the words – reinforcing the audience’s empathy with the characters. Everything else is the icing on the cake.

Nothing comes from a vacuum. I realised I wanted to write a musical (in fact, initially, and perhaps still, a puppet musical), after seeing the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Jason Segel’s character dreams of putting on a puppet musical about Dracula, who is, after all (on some level) just a guy with totally relatable problems. The songs that we hear in the film are very funny and the puppeteering is excellent, but the thing that impressed me most was that making a puppet musical was Segel’s character’s dream. It’s what gets him through. He’s roundly mocked for it, but he finds a girl who ‘gets’ it. Aw. I love how art seems to mimic life, too: Segel’s genuine passion for puppets, and music, really comes across in FSM. He went on to create the equally excellent 2011 musical Muppets film – so he really did make a puppet musical in the end! Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, and watching Segel I thought: what better way to bring surreal ideas, humour and passion to life than through music? Through musicals?

Tim has a fondness for the genre too, and has embarked on his own personal musical journey. Most days he’ll send me ideas based on something he’s just watched or listened to – My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Paul has the piano music to Legally Blonde, and the three of us have detailed discussions about the key changes, the way a particular musical motif is used again and again, how to get talking to segue into song… Tim and I are both big fans of Rex Harrison, who played My Fair Lady’s ‘enry ‘iggins and the original Doctor Doolittle. We particularly like that he never actually quite sings. If we can have a musical star who can’t sing and no one ever notices, then everything’s game and anything’s possible.

It’s an interesting situation we’re in. In some ways we’re starting from scratch, like newborn writers trying to make sense of a new world. But then perhaps everyone should always feel like that on any new creative project. And every musical writer writes their first musical once, so we’re cutting ourselves some slack. We’re not completely stranded, anyway: technology means you can build legitimately on the work of others. We used Garageband and Audacity to record our songs initially, and for the early takes, messed around with free samples from royalty free websites as well as real instruments and basic microphones. Apart from Jason Segel, our influences reach far and wide – Lisbeth Salander, the Aristocats, pick-up artists, Elvis, Roxanne, Don Quixote and the Two Ronnies have all given us ideas. At some point we should probably look at the classics and find out what Theseus and the Minotaur really did, but we don’t feel the need just yet…

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