Zombies: the Musical (interview and preview)

Zombies: the Musical is running at The Other Palace in showcase form until 19 October.

It is “an irreverent, comedic tale about an experiment gone wrong and an undying search for love. Featuring catchy tunes and cheeky lyrics, the songs will infect your brain and plague your head long after the show is over.” With hints of Frankenstein, Little Shop of Horrors, and even Romeo and Juliet, this promises to be an entertaining evening!

It is written by Daryl Griffith, who has agreed to answer some questions for this feature.

Daryl Griffith, writer of Zombies: the Musical

First of all, congratulations on getting Zombies ready to showcase at The Other Palace: I can’t wait to see it!

DG: Scary though it is, we’re all really looking forward to performing it. It’s been such a long time getting to this point, that it will be fantastic to experience the show in a theatre, and feel that, for this milestone, we have actually arrived. 

There’s been a lot of interesting horror musicals recently. Why this one now, and what makes it stand out from the crowd?

DG: Whilst strictly speaking I suppose this is a horror musical, at its heart it is a comedy, but more importantly, a love story.  I’ve always found zombies very funny, and was a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead, so when I decided to write a comedic musical, something involving zombies was the obvious choice. In terms of standing out, I feel that I have a talent for writing melody, and have been told that I have produced many catchy tunes for this musical. I also have a rather “naughty” sense of humour (I loved The Book of Mormon) and I’m afraid that I have given in to that somewhat, in both the script and the song lyrics.

Tell me a bit about how Zombies has evolved from idea to musical showcase. How long has it taken, and have there been any major highs and lows along the way?

DG: I had the initial idea of a zombie love story a couple of years ago, wrote a few songs, and pitched it to Bradley Farmer (the Executive Producer, and Publisher), who liked what he heard, and encouraged me to finish writing the rest of the songs. From there I then put together a script, did a few really small-scale workshops and followed that up with a table read featuring friends active in a couple local am-dram troupes. That was really useful, as it helped me hone the script and make a few tweaks regarding pacing and dramatic balance.

Next, we managed to get some talented young singers to put a video together of five of the songs. We were also very fortunate in getting Jodie Jacobs and Alex Spinney to perform the songs on this video, which we then used to persuade The Other Palace to allow us to put on the showcase. There have been many highs, the most exciting of which was hearing my songs performed for the very first time. There haven’t been any lows as such, but this whole period leading up to the showcase has been very stressful.

When you are doing something on a limited budget, you can only afford to hire people for the jobs you really can’t do yourself, which means a very steep learning curve…! And, given I wanted to pay the actors a decent fee for this project, you can’t have an extended rehearsal period either. We cast the parts in mid/late September and rehearsed for just over a week before opening night, though most of the cast had their scripts and songs a bit before that.

What should audiences expect who come along to see the current version of Zombies?

DG: Being a showcase, there is only limited staging and costumes. The cast play up to four different characters and are mostly differentiated with appropriate props. However, we will be performing all of the songs and all of the script. We are also using a cue card system, on a big screen, in order to help the audience better understand the various scenes and things we can’t show properly. However, as the show doesn’t rely on flashing scenery or spectacular effects, but only on good music, and (hopefully) a funny script, I think it will still be a good night out for anyone who attends. 

What have been your major influences in developing the show?

DG: As previously mentioned, I am a fan of The Book of Mormon, but I also love The Producers. I am drawn to the irreverent sense of humour in both of those shows. As a child, and then growing up, I loved all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, as well as many others, like My Fair Lady, Grease and Little Shop of Horrors. Musically, I think the eclectic group of styles in Zombies uses elements from all of those wonderful musicals.

Zombies poster

I love the publicity campaign that has been plaguing us across social media to get Zombies out there: how did that evolve?

DG: With the work I do with my publisher (2nd Foundation Music) we produce many videos, often with a humorous twist, so doing the same for Zombies was a natural progression. I know that I always love “behind the scenes” videos and blogs, so we thought that others would probably like them as well, and hopefully attract enough interest to eventually be able to take Zombies to the next level.

You’re been involved with the English National Ballet as well as several TV projects. Has a stage musical been a natural progression or quite a segue?

DG: It’s seems a bit of a side swerve, but it combines all the things I love about theatre: music, singing, drama and (eventually) dance. Having worked on many projects with many people and companies, I have always been part of someone else’s vision, so this is a chance, for a change, to work with people who are helping me to create my own vision. I’m sure that lots of other people will understand when I say that writing a musical is something I’ve wanted to do for a long while, but finding the time has been difficult. However, with the support and encouragement from Bradley, and many other members of my team, I finally managed to set aside enough time to start, write and complete this musical.

What about your cast and fellow creatives – how have all the pieces fitted together to make this project work?

DG: We have a great cast, but rehearsals didn’t commence until 7th October, but they quickly gelled and have developed into a formidable team. However, in my own team I have a fantastic Technical Director, Stage Manager, and people dealing with props and marketing, so have been able to offload some of the work, and stress, onto others..! We have been preparing music and demos for the cast for many weeks, in order to help them learn the show quickly. We have also sorted out click tracks, printed the music and recorded the backing tracks for the band, done lighting design charts, and organised some rudimentary blocking for the cast (so that they know when to get on and off the stage). Hopefully all the pieces should fit together like a well-designed jigsaw.

Any advice to budding musical creators out there?

DG: From my experiences so far there are three things that stand out:

Make sure that you know what you’re trying to say in your piece. If an idea is angst ridden, and depressing, don’t try to squash it into something that it obviously isn’t.

Be efficient. If you want people to support you, make their lives as easy as possible.

Do take constructive criticism, but believe in yourself. You will soon learn whose opinion to trust, and who is just trying to score points off you.

Finally, Zombies looks to have the makings of a fan/cult favourite. What should its fans be called?

DG: How about Zombonis?

My thanks to Daryl for his time and very interesting answers! I will be visiting Zombies on 18 October. You can book your tickets at https://lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/daryl-griffiths-zombies-the-musical/.

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Falsettos (The Other Palace)

Marvin wants it all. Trina is breaking down. Whizzer is playing games, literally and emotionally. Mendel is having a professional crisis. And Jason is growing up quickly in a home which has fallen apart. We are in New York, in 1978.

These are the “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” we meet at the top of Falsettos, with a quick rush through when Marvin married Trina, Jason was born, and when Marvin left with his young and horny “friend” Whizzer to fracture his family home.

Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos
Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos

Mendel’s the psychiatrist who is counselling Marvin, then Trina, then Jason, who is super-smart and very perceptive (“My father says that love is the most wonderful thing in the world / I think chess is the most wonderful thing / Not love”).

In a set full of frames, some of which change time and place, some of which put the characters in little boxes (“wife and child”, “lover”), we start to get to know our characters. Marvin, an older man, is drawn to the selfish, fit and promiscuous Whizzer, the “pretty boy” who is a match physically, but not emotionally (“The Games I Play”).

Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos
Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos

Trina, struggling to raise a boy who is kicking against puberty and moving from browsing toy shops to thinking about girls, is struggling, and in her big act one number (“Breaking Down”), Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the roof and receives the first prolonged piece of applause. By act two, she’s mellowed, playing house with Mendel, tolerating Marvin’s transgressions (“I don’t like Whizzer / but Marvin sure does”).

Originally written as two shows, Falsettos feels like two complementary halves rather than a linear narrative. Every performer in act one’s March of the Falsettos is superb: Pitt-Pulford, Daniel Boys and his middle-aged Marvin, Oliver Savile’s fun-loving Whizzer, Joel Montague’s sensible Mendel (once he’s moved on from wondering whether Trina “sleeps in the nude”), and on the night I was invited to view the show, George Kennedy in his stage debut as the precocious Jason.

Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina in Falsettos
Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina in Falsettos

There’s a dream sequence where Trina constructs her new family circle: by act two’s Falsettoland, and Jason’s bar mitzvah, he’s described as “son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel”, as the fun of the cooking attempts of the additional “lesbians next door” becomes the close, loving and forgiving space of an anonymous hospital room of 1981.

I found the score by William Finn and book by James Lapine sometimes very reminiscent of Sondheim in its melodies and complex lyrics, but beautifully performed throughout with memorable songs – I had only heard some of the music at the recent press launch but have been humming snatches since I saw the show on Friday.

Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos
Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos

As a performing unit, the tight-knit adult cast of six, plus four rotating Jasons, are easy and warm together in this piece which is ultimately about friends, family and all forms of love. This is the strength of Falsettos, a place where a boy moves through the rite of passage to a man, even if he will always fail at baseball.

The title of Falsettos, said my companion at the show, may refer to “false love”, or, as I prefer to think of it, a love that takes time to settle into a form where everyone loves each other in a way which is right for them.

By the end scenes, we haven’t doubted the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer for a moment, and we see Trina’s happiness shining through with Mendel: in turn, he teases Jason’s reticence out with that song about hating your parents (“God understands / because he / hated his”).

Joel Montague as Mendel in Falsettos
Joel Montague as Mendel in Falsettos

From its genesis in 1978 through to the previous UK performance of March of the Falsettos, this musical has been culturally relevant to an era of homophobia, intolerance and fear. Ultimately, as the tagline goes, “love can tell a million stories”, and that is what matters.

Falsettos is directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, designed by PJ McEvoy, and Richard John is the musical director. I feel it is an important revival with an emotional punch to the gut by the end. Welcome to Falsettoland.

Falsettos continues at The Other Palace until 23 November 2019. Photo credits The Standout Company.

Broken Wings (The Other Palace)

Being invited to experience a musical part-way through its journey is particularly exciting for a fan of the genre, and so I was delighted to be able to make space in my diary for this workshop production of Broken Wings.

A musical adaptation of a novel by Kahlil Gibran, this production has music and lyrics by Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman (who also assumes a leading role as the older Gibran).

This is stated to be the final genesis of a work which has gone through a journey from concept album to revisions. It’s an interesting work, set in a Beirut where a woman’s marriage is a matter for a transaction “between young men and fathers”.

Nadim Naaman in Broken Wings
Nadim Naaman in Broken Wings

Young Khalil Gibran (Benjamin Purkiss) has spent time in America, where his mother and siblings relocated after his father’s imprisonment (on which charge, we never discover).

This idealistic young man reconnects with his homeland and his good friend, Karim (Nadeem Crowe), who mocks his speech and Western ways. Through Karim, a friendship is forged with one Farris Karamy (Karl Seth), a respectable and wealthy widower with a beautiful daughter, Selma (Nikita Johal).

Just as Khalil and Selma find their mutual love, they are parted in true Romeo and Juliet style as the powerful local Bishop (Jeremy Secomb) seeks the girl in marriage for his philandering nephew Mansour (Sami Lamine) – in some ways a surrogate marriage as he desires her himself.

Against this backdrop we have a range of songs including pieces which move the plot along, melodramatic duos and solos, and one motif song for the company of thirteen performers which resurfaces three times, “The Spirit of the Earth”.

Selma is a strong and independent woman, but she is out of step with the times: she may exhibit both the “softness and strength” of her dead mother, but she is powerless to influence her own fate.

The musical accompaniment by Benjamin Cox (keyboard) and Joe Davison (piano) sometimes threatens to drown out the singers, but largely underscores the action very well.

At times I was able to picture the sort of settings which will accompany this musical in its full form this summer. At other times I felt the story was lost, and although I appreciated the tragic events stemming from Selma’s marriage, secret (but seemingly chaste) meetings with Khalil, and eventual birth of a son “you have come to lead me home”, I didn’t feel sufficiently connected to identify with Selma’s impassioned “broken wings” outburst, or with Khalil’s “you have buried my heart in that grave”.

In such a small company it is hard to single out performances, but Johal and Soophia Foroughi give a strong sense of strength in their singing and acting to Selma and Mother, and I enjoyed the performances of Seth and Secomb as Farris (vulnerable and lonely without his wife and daughter) and the Bishop (conniving and greedy).

Broken Wings played on 28 April for two performances; I attended the afternoon show.