A new WIP show, Alan Turing: A Musical Biography, based on the life and correspondence of the mathematician and scientist, runs at the King’s Head Theatre from 6-11 Feb. It was previously seen at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe
Turing (1912-1954) is widely considered to be the “father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.”
We chatted to producer/composer Joel Goodman and performer Joe Bishop (who plays Turing) to find out a bit more about the musical.
Alan Turing is a significant name in both codebreaking and LGBT+ history. What first attracted you to his story? (Question to Joel Goodman – Producer and Composer)
Alan Turing: A Musical Biography came about when brainstorming ideas for a new musical to take to Edinburgh Fringe 2022.
In the same conversation, people like Steve Jobs (who I am presently writing a show about for Edinburgh Fringe, 2023), Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg came up. I wanted to write about someone who made a real impact on the world.
Alan’s story stood out. It’s incomprehensible to imagine that a man who saved so many lives and made such an impact on the world, but within his lifetime was never recognised for that.
Then, of course, when we consider his treatment for being a gay man at a time when it was illegal, it makes it even more tragic.
I also want to focus on the uplifting side of Alan’s life and the fact that he was a great mathematician and a talented athlete.
Making the story into a musical is rather inspired – why did you choose to create this rather than a straight play? (Question to JG)
It’s very kind of you to say that it is an inspired decision. My posts on Facebook have also been shared by some members of the public saying “how low can we go?”
There is a perception that musical theatre is only allowed to deal with trivial topics. For me, musical theatre is a language that I speak.
I love music, and putting the lyrics to the songs tells the same story via music. Perhaps at times, if done really well, with a heightened sense of emotion.
There has already been a successful West End play [and film], featuring Alan Turing titled Breaking The Code. There have also been other musicals and ballets and of course a couple of films.
I wrote this musical because Alan Turing’s life was very inspiring.
What is the function of fictional biographer/narrator Andrea? Was it a conscious decision from the start not to have Turing narrate his own story? (Question to JG)
This is a very interesting question.
Writing about someone like Alan Turing comes with a great responsibility. The production we took to Edinburgh and the one we will bring to London features exclusively words that Alan wrote himself.
I did not want to put a single spoken word into Alan’s mouth that was written by me. The songs are my area to express how Alan may have felt or thought, but the script was exclusively using words Alan wrote.
This decision created immense challenges in terms of writing, and in terms of introducing drama.
I wanted to find a way to frame these interesting letters and academic papers that he wrote, and a biographer writing about Alan was the method chosen.
This aspect of the show is going to undergo a lot of development as I shall answer in the next question.
This is still a work in progress with further development planned. What is your ideal trajectory for the show? (Question to JG)
Much of our development is centred around Andrea and improving her role in the presentation of Alan’s life.
In future versions of the production Andrea will become a multi-role character falling into the role of Alan’s Mum, a police officer a head-teacher and more to be revealed in due course.
My ideal trajectory for the show would be to secure a four to six week run that is well attended in a 100 seater theatre.
Perhaps that could be late this year or early next. Our one week run at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington is close to selling out.
Also, perhaps the school he attended as a child, Sherborne School, would allow us to perform there.
And if we get all that done, I would love to somehow hire a West End theatre for one night only and put the show on in the West End to fulfil my musical theatre composer’s dream.
Do you think Turing has now been treated fairly and sensitively by the modern world? (Question to JG)
I think Turing is seen as a hero by the majority of the British public nowadays. However sadly that’s no consolation for the life he lived.
I am happy that Alan’s name lives on inspiring mathematicians. I am also glad that our production can serve as a reminder of the consequence of condemning and mistreating people for their sexuality.
How does it feel to be playing someone who contributed so much to his country and was treated so shabbily in return? (Question to Joe Bishop – Playing Alan Turing)
It’s a privilege to bring Alan to life on stage. Whilst he is a very famous figure in history and amongst the LGBTQ community Alan has not often been portrayed on stage or screen, therefore it feels very important to add to the body of work that is produced in his honour.
There is a joy and a sadness in playing Turing. It hits you particularly hard in the final two musical numbers (Guilty followed by Going Away), in contrast to the beginning of the piece where Alan sets out on life as a mathematical genius with purpose, enthusiasm and determination.
You can really see two huge hurdles that Alan faced in the form of World Ward Two and ultimately his conviction for gross indecency. Tragically he doesn’t survive this last hurdle and the punishment of chemical castration claims his life – however you choose to look at it.
The production also makes you realise how far we have progressed with human rights. The behaviours of the courts in the 1950’s would be considered abhorrent by today’s society.
I believe the piece still leaves us with some questions. I think that’s significant as there are elements of both Alan’s life and death that remain somewhat a mystery. I think it’s important that we keep on searching, asking, and questioning.
Images: promotional inage for Alan Turing: A Musical Biography (King’s Head listing); Alan Turing memorial photographed by Colin Penn; Alan Turing portrait (public domain).