Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

How do you go about writing a West End hit? Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, reveals his 11-step process and explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There are thousands of good movies, thousands of the good books, thousands of good plays but good musicals? Couple of hundred… if you're lucky?

The West End musical – it's a tricky art form. The marriage of art, commerce, heart and, in this show, some killer gags.

They are really hard to pull off. And if you don't pull it off, it gets pulled off.

I've been working on the lyrics for the musical version of Made in Dagenham for three and a half years. The show is running at two hours long and we've been cutting away at any excess meat for the last three weeks responding to audiences as they respond (or otherwise) to the show.

The great thing about the process is that you can't really argue with audiences.

And it's all in the process…

Process part 1: beginning

An essential part of writing lyrics is the act of procrastination. So for me this starts in the kitchen. Four coffees. Eat everything. Read Bob Dylan lyrics, read some Blondie lyrics, read from my "The Ten Great American Musicals" and then start reading Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics which is a fast track to feeling inadequate. Lie down. Go for a walk. Watch an episode of Breaking Bad.

Since the musical is set in the Sixties, I research the Sixties by watching Austin Powers. Watch some Black Panther interviews, watch some Sidney Lumet, read some Noam Chomsky, watch Morecambe and Wise musical numbers.

Go to bed. Fret. Get up and watch the rest of Breaking Bad.

Wake up late. Start.

Process part 2: the blank page

I sit and confront the blank page or, to be specific, the yellow, lined legal pad.

I sharpen some pencils and activate my rhyming dictionary. It's a really good digital rhyming dictionary and it cost a lot of money.

I start with a song about love. The musical needs to deal with this at some point. All musicals deal with love at some point. May as well jump in. But the trouble with love is it doesn't rhyme with anything. You've got dove, love, glove and above and that's it. Those are your options. The one thing that everyone wants to sing about basically doesn't rhyme.

In fact, nothing rhymes with anything. Apart from you and poo.

I'm losing it. The yellow legal pad looks a giant nicotine stain. It's mocking me. My talent drains away and I'm staring at oblivion.

44-AnnaNicole-Getty.jpg
Richard Thomas is the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas (Getty)

Process part 3: call the composer

I call David Arnold who, in addition to being a Grammy-award winning super-talent is also something of a Zen master.

He's also really funny.

The first time I meet him is in Air Studios where he is immediately charming.

We swap nightmare stories in the business. This is always a great way to break the ice: dishing the dirt on the people in the business who have either sacked you or made your life a misery. I'm soon howling. He's hilarious. A voice pipes up: "Hello, David." I turn around and it's George Michael.

Think of anyone famous and David has worked with them, including Björk.

I'm slightly overawed but then it becomes irrelevant because he treats everybody in the same way – respectfully.

He suggests we start at the beginning.

Damn. Why didn't I think of that?

Process part 4: the opening number

We start work on the opening number.

This is always hard. There's a lot of information required. You have to set the scene, introduce a bunch of characters and put the audience at ease.

You have to set out your stall and let them know they're going to be taken on a ride that is hopefully worth the price of their ticket and those hideously overpriced drinks at the bar (they're nothing to do with me, guv).

Process part 5: call the writer

If you want jokes, integrity and heart, call the playwright Richard Bean.

I take my legal pad to his gaff in Hackney.

We break ice, we dish a little and he plays me a song that his daughter wrote. (She's very talented by the way and plays a mean bass.)

We talk about the world of the show. Luckily, he has done some real research other than watch six series of Breaking Bad. I take notes and remember the first rule of successful collaboration: always work with people who are better than you. Tick.

44-MadeInDagenham2.jpg
The 'Dagenham Women' take part in a rehearsal

Process part 6: the first draft

I write a first draft. I throw it away.

Process part 7: the second draft

I write a second draft. I throw it away.

Process part 8: the third draft

I write a third draft and send it to David and Richard. They both make encouraging noises and send some suggestions for syllabic pruning and character development. We're away.

Process part 9: the rest of the show

We write the rest of the show. We throw a lot of stuff away.

Process part 10: the workshop

Three years later we sing the show in front of our employers (Stage Entertainment), our investors and theatre owners and in this case the Dagenham women.

It goes well. No one is sacked. A theatre is hooked and booked.

Most importantly the Dagenham women laugh and get drunk with us all.

In the pub, I choke back tears of relief that we have their blessing.

It's their story, their battle and their achievement and I feel truly humbled.

Process part 11: the opening number

Four years later, four weeks into the previews and we're still tinkering with the opening number (draft 20). It isn't quite landing. Our choreographer Aletta channels Stephen Sondheim and asks the question, "Where's the button?" The button is the ending moment that invites applause. We try it out and it finally works. It's a simple button. It's a great button.

It's all in the process…

'Made in Dagenham', Adelphi Theatre, London WC2 (madeindagenhamthemusical.com) to 28 March

Comments