MUSICALS / Playing by numbers: Twenty-seven writers have made a musical in three months. Mark Pappenheim reports

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The challenge - to create a new musical from scratch to stage in just three months; to prove that it is still possible to write musical theatre that grows from the characters and their situations, and does not depend on lasers, holograms and fancy hydraulics for its effects; above all, to show the British public and, more importantly, British producers, that there are indeed living alternatives to Lloyd Webber - 18, to be exact.

For The Challenge, the new musical being presented for one night only at the Shaw Theatre tomorrow, has been collectively co-written by 18 teams of composer-lyricists - a total of 27 writers (some doubling as words and music) who together make up the Mercury Workshop, a sort of musical pressure group spawned by Stephen Sondheim's master-classes as 1990 Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford.

Mercury members include joint artistic directors Charles Hart (lyricist for Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love) and Edward Hardy (a former Vivian Ellis finalist), Howard Goodall (composer for Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder), Eric Woolfson (creator of Freudiana), George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (co-creators of Just So, already snapped up for big-screen animation by Steven Spielberg) and Kit Hesketh-Harvey (the singing half of Kit and the Widow).

The idea of presenting a showcase for this new radical tendency in British musicals arose at the group's second meeting, held in early April, side by side with Sondheim himself, at Hart's home - the former Mercury Theatre - in Notting Hill. What was new was the idea of making it not just a showcase but a real show, with a single storyline, but co-composed by all 27 members of the Workshop.

The first to have to confront The Challenge was Stephen Clarke, who had been chosen to write the book. Like so many musical reformers before him - from Monteverdi to Birtwistle - Clarke turned to Greek mythology and found in the figure of Daedalus, the legendary inventor, a down-to-earth equivalent to opera's more highfalutin Orpheus as a paradigm of the creative spirit. In opting for the Cretan cycle, and Daedalus' central part in it, Clarke has mined a particularly rich vein of dramatic incident - from the rape of Europa by one bull and Pasiphae's bestial passion for another, through the birth of the Minotaur and his death at the hands of Theseus, to the fall of Icarus and the collapse of the Minoan Empire. Having devised his scenario, Clarke divided it into 18 sections, sent them off to the composers and lyricists, and sat back to wait.

A few weeks later, one Sunday in May, the 27 writers reconvened in Hart's house to sing through the results. Continuity was now Clarke's chief concern: by letting each pair of composer-lyricists go off and write their own sections in isolation, small dramatic inconsistencies had inevitably crept in. The variety, even clash, of musical styles between numbers was always meant to be a virtue of the piece, but the integrity of the plot had to be preserved at all costs. There were other discrepancies too.

'One thing we have to talk about is pronounciation (sic),' announced American-born director Steven Dexter. 'Pronunciation,' enunciated Hart. Confronted with a cast of largely unfamiliar mythological names, the rhymesters had panicked. Daedalus and Pasiphae proved particularly problematic. Was it 'Dead-alus', 'Die-dalus', 'Dee-dalus' or even 'Day-dalus'? 'Pacify' or 'Pacifier'? 'I thought she had one of those dotty things on her E,' ventured someone bravely. Kit Hesketh-Harvey (Section 4: the Queen begs Daedalus to help satisfy her hunger for beefcake) opted for a Joycean version of the great inventor's name (as in 'Is there something you could pedal us, / dear, darling, Dedalus') and appeared to have twisted the last two letters of the Queen's name into a tortured rhyme with diarrhoea (qv 'Dear, dear, / Pasiphea').

The jokers, too, had gone wild. I lost count of the number of 'plus Minos' jokes (geddit?), while Pasiphae's backseat approach to love-making offered a clear opening for endless innuendo - topped by Stiles and Drewe's cud-chewing chorus, 'I want to have a bull inside my china shop, and I'll keep wooing, with my mooing, till I do.' After much 'taking the bull by the horns' and 'service with a smile', plus an impromptu coffee-break chorus of 'The Little White Bull', it seemed that every conceivable bull joke had been milked to death.

Understandably, given the speed with which the project had taken shape, some sections had yet to materialise. Paul James and Ben Mason (Section 3: Aphrodite makes Pasiphae fall in love with the bull) explained that they were just back from the Buxton Quest for New Musicals. 'I've written four lines of lyrics of which I'm inordinately proud,' said Paul. 'No, six] I wrote two more in the car coming down. But this time next week . . .' Even Hart (Section 9: the Minotaur eats his mother) has to make his excuses: 'I've got a complete opera libretto to finish by the end of the month, a particularly horrid deadline - or should that be 'dedaline'?'

Yet by Saturday 6 June all 18 sections were back in second draft, in time for two weeks of note-bashing by the cast and a final three weeks of stage rehearsals. The whole process has been remarkably ego-free, says Clarke. 'A group dynamic, a sense of shared ownership, has taken over.' 'People have just had to work together,' adds Dexter, 'and lots of new collaborations are coming out of it, like the composer of one section wanting to work with the lyricist of another.'

Although it has fallen to Stephen Keeling and Shaun McKenna (Section 18: the fall of the Minoan Empire) to provide the big final number - sending the first, and possibly one-and-only, night audience out with the requisite heart-warming glow of affirmation ('Where the challenge lies / We must realise . . . We all can fly]') - the collaborative process has ensured that there are really no low points in the show. With only one opportunity to shine, each composer has seized his chance and the whole show has been written on a communal high (and with no lazy reprises either).

Clarke compares the business of editing it all together to that familiar boyhood experience of seeing a wonderful airfix model in a shop window, saving up for it, buying it, getting it home - 'and then finding that some of the parts don't fit, and need bits filing off them here or there.' His challenge has been to fit all 18 sections together so that the public can't see the joins. What has made his job easier has been the writers' surprising lack of preciousness about their personal property: 'But part of collaboration is learning about boundaries,' he says, 'knowing when someone else's input takes over.'

In the script, Daedalus faces a series of challenges - how to mate a queen with a bull; how to hide the child of their coupling; how to enter a labyrinth; how to fly; how to kill a king. All these he conquers, yet fails the ultimate challenge of how to be a father to his child. How far the writers of The Challenge have succeeded with their collective musical brainchild will be seen tomorrow. But what then?

Producer Kenny Wax has hopes of a regional rep production or even a recording. But for Stephen Clarke, the process has been its own purpose. 'Producers traditionally have a problem with the idea of ephemerality,' he observes. 'For me, even if nothing more happens to it after tomorrow, it will still have done its job. There's something attractive about the idea that, even if Spielberg does ring up, we can just say, 'No'.' 'Have I got news for you]' speaks the voice of his producer. 'If Spielberg rings up, we're saying, 'Yes] '

'The Challenge': tomorrow 7.30pm Shaw Theatre, Euston Rd NW1 (071-388 1394)

(Photograph omitted)