A musical based on Orlando was the brainchild of Kit 'and the Widow' Hesketh-Harvey who approached James McConnel to write the score. 'I'm hopeless with words, so Kit did the book as well as the lyrics, but we talked all the time: what episodes should we keep, what is it about . . . We discussed what the songs had to say, what form they should take, whether they should move the plot along or express a particular emotion. We sometimes found that working apart, we would approach the same thing from completely different angles and end up with the wrong lyric for the music or vice versa.'
It won the 1988 Vivian Ellis Prize for new musicals and went on to receive a performance at the Guildhall. Unfortunately, director Sally Potter had already begun work on the film so everything stalled. Then last summer, director Sarah Chew approached Hesketh-Harvey about doing something together and he suggested Orlando. The rights were now available and the project took off. Looking at it after so long a gap, both writers decided to rework it. As McConnel says, 'Back then, I think I was still searching for my own style. After six years, I have a sense of objectivity about it.'
As the revised version concentrated more on the emotional links and the writing process, they decided to re-name the show Writing Orlando. 'We wanted to strengthen the emotional journeys of the central characters of Virginia and Orlando, who is based on Vita. Virginia is the link for the whole thing. Without her, you could end up with just a series of lush tableaux.'
True. The story spans 400 years, a gift for a composer who relishes writing pastiche. The score includes faux Elizabethan dance music (all reedy woodwind and virginals), an 18th-century Haydnesque trio (tinged with Walton) and a full-blown Strauss waltz. There's even a 1930s jazz number. All of this is achieved with distinctive orchestration from a band of 11. . . plus a cast of 50. Fifty? That would explain why it's only on for six performances.
Writing Orlando opens tomorrow at the Bridewell Theatre.
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