A good night out can be hard work in London. Especially one full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.
Lucky for us, it’s now possible to experience it without heading to the ‘Red Light District’. Instead, you’ll find it at the theatre.
Musicals are no longer for the art-fanatics, culture buffs, critics, the educated and the old. They now cater for the music lovers, the rockers, the punks, the old lady next door and her grandchildren. ‘The Next Big Thing’ is for the lovers of a good hard riff and anyone who ever dreamed of being a rock star. Face it, didn’t we all?
Two people who dreamed of wowing the crowds with an instrument are the musical’s creators Pete Sinclair and Mark Burton. Unfortunately, rock God status wasn’t meant to be. They can however, write a mean comedy script. And that, dear rockers, they have.
The story follows the path of aspiring young musician Mike West. In a flurry of beats, he flounders his way through the musical genres of Merseybeat, Swinging London, Psychedelia, Glam Rock, Punk, New Romantics and Britpop. It’s a fast paced journey through the British music scene… trust me, no matter what your age or musical preference, you’ll come out singing.
I had a chat to the masters behind the latest stage show to hit London. They had a lot to say about life as comedians, failed rock dreams and the erotic addiction of a perfect guitar.Can you sum up the musical for the punters out there?
M: The idea of the show is basically an affectionate journey through British music from the 60s (the Beatles) up until the Brit Pop. There’s a central character called Mike West who goes on a journey to try to find fame and fortune.
P: At the centre of it are the songs – our own spoofs of musical genres. You’ve got The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, Punk, New Romantic, Ska – right up to Oasis. I suppose it’s a bit like Spinal Tap. What they do for heavy metal, we do for all the different genres of music. You know, we’re sending it up but we’re doing it from the perspective of people who love the music. They are original songs but we’ve worked very hard to make them sound like the original artists. Do you need to be a music fan to enjoy it?
M: There are lots of jokes about British music – which we think is an internationally known thing anyway but we want people to be able to enjoy the music and the story on its own level.P: Everyone wants to be in a band… I think it’s the central thing, you know, “I want to be in a band... I want to be the next big thing” (hence the title).
A 17-year old guy came along to see it actually and he was really into it. He’s in a band and his cat is actually called ‘Fender’ which is the name of the character who plays the guitar in our story.It’s a satirical look at the past 40 years of the British music industry… you’ve covered all the big names.Was it difficult to write and how long did it take?
M: It was very hard to write. The whole process took us about five years. I think the reason it took so long is partly because we’ve got day jobs. Slightly odd day jobs… we write jokes for TV shows and things. All musicals take a long time to develop… it seems so easy you know, “Oh, I’ll write a few songs round the piano and a few jokes and that’ll be that”. But there are a lot of things you have to learn about putting a musical together… we almost disappeared in the art of it. We enjoyed nearly all of it (laughs).
M: Having said that, the funny thing is that Pete isn’t actually a musical fan. Even though the show itself doesn’t feel like a musical, we had to learn the traditions involved with making a musical. Whether you agree or disagree, it isn’t your average musical – it’s got rave music in it and is very different.
P: I have to say, there was one evening when it started and an elderly couple got up and walked out. The first number, which is quite rocky (a Led Zeppelin parody) and I can only imagine that it was because they thought, “oh my God, what is this? We’ve come to some sort of rock gig!”Luckily they’re the only two who left.
M: One review said that it’s a show for people who don’t like musicals and I think that it’s true. I hope people that do like musicals come too but I think that it will appeal to people who wouldn’t usually dream of going to a musical. If they knew it was just good pop tunes and a funny story full of jokes they would probably want to come along and see it.
P: It’s very loud – we wanted it to feel like a rock gig – but it’s not like being in a Status Quo gig or anything. Our sound expert told us that it’s not as loud as We Will Rock You - so volume shouldn’t be a reason to leave! How did you come up with the idea? Was it a spur of the moment revelation over a few stiff drinks or was it more of a long-winded work in progress?
M: I think I came up with the original idea to be honest…
P: I think he probably did… unless his lawyers are listening!
M: Don’t worry Pete, you do all the hard work and write the best jokes.
P: If you want to go back even further… Mark and I desperately wanted to be pop stars. We played in the teenage bands and in a way it starts from that idea of being 21 and wanting to be Paul Weller. Now I’m 46 and I STILL wish I was Paul Weller. This is the nearest we’ll get to living that fantasy of pop music and stardom.
M: Paul Weller will want to be you soon Pete…It’s a performance full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll – all the good things in life. How much of it was based on your own experiences?
(Both laugh… and laugh… and laugh)
P: I wish! Sex drugs and rock-n-roll – yeah, that’s been my life, honestly! No, I’m happily married with twin 7 year old boys so this is kind of the other life that maybe I might have had in a parallel universe.
M: I had an aspirin once and half a lager last night. Funnily enough Pete and I were in bands and all the usual stuff… I sound like David Cameron now… “Maybe in my younger days I dabbled” (laughs).
P: I never inhaled!
M: I think part of it is really that we’re like the Mike West character – we’ve observed it, we’ve been around that kind of world, although we may not have bitten so hard on the cherry ourselves.I saw a few celebrities at the press night. Who has attended so far?
M: We’ve had a very good turn out, I mean Pete and I work in the comic industry and have done for years so we do know people. Some of them are performers and their faces are familiar – like Jack Dee and Ian Hislop who is on the show Have I Got News For You, Punt and Dennis, Tony Hawks, Doon MacKichan from Smack the Pony was here.
P: Of course, it’s partly because these people think “Oh God, if I want these guys to write gags for me I’d better turn up I suppose…”You’ve captured the almost erotic relationship between a young musician and his guitar. My brother’s wallet has always had a photo of his amp and electric guitar in the place of his girlfriend… do these come from fond memories of your own past instruments?
M: An amp and a guitar! So he’s got a bit of a threesome going on there…This is the thing you know, the guitar is a bit of a symbol – you can’t say a phallic symbol because that sounds very odd but there is definitely a strange kind of erotic or sexual relationship between music and people. Whether it’s a soundtrack or your own instrument if you do, people become very attached. Because the story goes through lots of different times and genres, we wanted to have something that was constant and in the middle. We felt that the relationship with the guitar was the perfect thing.
P: One of the central themes of the piece is the love of music versus the love of fame. The character Fender very much represents the love of music. We also tried to make it represent the roots of music. British music was very white, particularly in the period we’re talking about. The influence however, was so often black music. Like The Stones… a lot of their influences came from black music. The character of Fender is played by a black actress.
M: The Black American roots make up so much of musical history and the Fender guitar is made in America. It’s such an iconic instrument in the world of music.
Speaking of the guitar… Melissa Lloyd plays the part of Fender beautifully. During her first scene on press night, the lady next to me spun around and whispered excitedly ‘that’s my daughter!’. It really bought it home that the stars lighting up the stage have proud mums and dads at home. What were the cast like to work with?
M: A fantastic cast. People ask if we have any stars in the show and we say “yeah, we have eleven”. They’re just not stars yet… there’s a line in the show actually – “I’ve always been famous, the world just hasn’t realised it”.
P: We didn’t have enough money to pay a huge star to be in this anyway. It’s not like I’m pretending we looked at them all and said, “Yeah, that’s interesting Mr Connery but we’re going to see someone else…”
M: Brad Pitt just didn’t cut it. What do you think makes you two such a good writing team?
M: What a question! Ooh, well Pete and I have worked together for a long time and have a common language. We share each other’s sense of humour, we’re good friends, we get on very well. We have the same passion that drives us to do it. We’re not doing this for the money - believe me!
You’ve both got an impressive history as TV comedy writers including Spitting Image, Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Where are you going from here?
M: Good question… obviously, we hope this show has a future. I’m writing more films for here and America (that’s my day job).
P: I’m writing a new sitcom with Jack Dee, which is hopefully going to be going out in the New Year. It’ll be on BBC4 initially, which will transfer to 1 or 2 if all goes to plan. I’ve really enjoyed the process of writing a musical and working in the theatre and it’s something I’d be interested in doing again. It has always frustrated me that stand up comedians can get up, tell a joke and if 100 people laugh then everyone thinks “Ooh, it’s funny, I see… yes, give this guy a series”. Any advice for aspiring scriptwriters out there?
M: Don’t bother; we’ve got all the jobs.Seriously, there are two things I’ll say. Persevere because it takes a long time and is hard work. Also, discipline yourself and be aware that a people tend to do something and buy into it and don’t want people to see it, or to change it. You have to be ready to be collaborative and say “I don’t think this is funny but let’s work with it”. You can’t be precious.
P: I started out as a stand up a long time ago. It was a mixed experience - lets put it that way. I had some good gigs but the bad ones, my God. You really, really learn your lesson; don’t write stuff that’s half funny – if it’s half funny that’s just not good enough.
M: If it’s half funny get someone else to perform it.
Go see it - release the rock God within!
Thanks to WEST END EXTRA for the bubbly photo of Pete and Mark - cheers!
And to Colin White for the images of Jon Boydon living it up as Zack love at the New Players Theatre.