Who is Laura Tisdall? You may not know her yet, but if you’re a part of the growing online theatre geek world, chances are you’ve come across the musical she composed and wrote the book and lyrics for,The In-Between. A full two-act musical, it has now been recorded as a concept album, its songs brought to life by the voices of well known West Enders like Daniel Boys, Julie Atherton, Hadley Fraser and Lauren Samuels. Looking at the musical’s website, its marketing is incredibly tuned in to social media and online sharing, with cast photos, audio files and Twitter and Facebook links galore. Is this the new, DIY musical? If so, 25-year-old Laura didn’t set out to become the face of it.
“To be honest it was practicality,” she says of her decision to organize and record the seven-track album. “It’s so hard to get a full show staged, so I thought, why not try and get some of the songs recorded, and then if people like it you’ve got some kind of evidence it might not completely flop!” With composers like Dougal Irvine, Chris Passey and Christopher Orton looking to crowd-sourcing to help fund and promote their projects, Laura was also riding the wave of young, web-savvy, democratic musical theatre.
The In-Between tells the story of two sisters, Flick and Alice, whose parents have died in a car crash. When Flick discovers another world, a limbo space called the In-Between, and becomes increasingly close to the mysterious Guide Calicus there, she is tempted to leave her painful world behind entirely. But then cracks begin to show in this parallel world, and all is not as it seems. This supernatural and fantasy-tinged plot came naturally to Tisdall.
“I read a lot and watch a lot of films and TV series and I love all that fantasy stuff, so it made sense to me to write that kind of show. There aren’t that many fantasy musical theatre shows but I think you’ve got to write what you’d love to watch. I find it strange that there aren’t more, because in every other medium fantasy and science-fiction are huge,” she explains.
But huge hits Wicked and Ghost happily bend the rules and create alternative worlds, I suggest. Maybe it’s a growing market? “I think the two go really well because, by having people singing, you’re already creating a world where the rules aren’t the same,” she agrees.
Inspired by the concept albums of the Seventies and Eighties for shows such as Evita and Chess, Tisdall penned the musical at home, recorded demos and produced sheet music, and then went about getting her dream cast involved.
“Some I asked directly, if I had a contact or knew them before, and with some I sent the songs to their agent. I was very excited when the first person agreed to do it – Julie Atherton. It was so surreal for me to have her sing the song she did [When I Was Nineteen], because when I was writing the show I went and saw her in The Last Five Years, and I came out and said ‘That’s who I want to play that part.’”
One by one, the stars signed up and Tisdall got to work fitting recording around their schedule, going in and out of the studio over a period of around four months and finishing this January. “I’d sent [the actors] the score and the song in advance to learn, then we did a sing-through in the studio before recording it in sections,” she explains. “Most of the time in the studio for a cast album, they’ve been singing it loads already and know it back to front, but we were working out how to do each bit as we went.”
Was it surreal seeing a Kate Monster or an Elphaba singing her creations? “To even have the guts to ask them, you have to believe that these people would sing your songs, you have to believe it could happen – but at the same time, even listening back to it now I can’t believe that that person is singing my song,” she smiles.
For many of the songs, Laura went from only having heard herself sing it back in her bedroom to seeing one of her most-admired British performers belting it out in the studio. “Musical theatre is such a collaboration that you can’t ever see the full picture until someone else comes on board,” she enthuses. Plus, many of the actors were thrilled to be getting in on this new project.
“When people are doing long contracts on shows, it’s so nice for them to come in and sing something else for a bit!” she says, pragmatic as always. “Hadley Fraser was playing Javert at the time, which is vocally very low, but he’s also got this amazing high tenor belt so it was nice for him to use that.”
Only the second full show Tisdall’s written (the first being Faerytale, given a showcase by GSA students when she was studying music at Surrey University), writing music was a passion for her long before musical theatre came in.
“I started learning piano when I was about six, and my teacher always used to do composition competitions,” she remembers. “I guess that was what introduced me to writing music. From about 13 or 1 4 I was in a rock band, so I wrote the songs for that. Then I went and saw Les Mis when I was about 18 and decided I had to write musicals.”
Her influences are indeed the big, mainstream cheeses: she refreshingly name-drops Boublil and Schönberg, Andrew Lloyd Webber (“he just writes really good tunes with such emotion”) and Stephen Schwartz without once grasping for a Sondheim lyric or an Adam Guettel melody.
She admits she is still honing her writing process – “I kind of do it all at once; I find it hard to separate writing the story from writing the music and the lyrics” – and feels at times the process can be totally random, some songs taking ages to write and re-sculpt, others coming to her in a flash. “The songs that take 20 minutes to write are often the best ones,” she feels.
Tisdall has also done a bit of writing and orchestration for other projects like The Haunting, Hugh Janes’ take on a Charles Dickens ghost story currently touring with Paul Nicholas, as well as some teaching, but The In-Between has increasingly taken up her time and she sees herself as a full-time writer.
With no dedicated creative or marketing team – “it’s just me!” – Laura relies on her own talents, supportive parents and others’ enthusiasm for the project to give this a real shot as a career, making the quality of the In-Between website, recordings and promotion quite astonishing. But she remains philosophical about her drive and achievements so far.
“If I don’t go for it and know that I tried my absolute hardest, I think I’d always wonder about it.” Certainly one to watch.
Laura Tisdall and other up-and-coming composers appear at the Anderson and Petty ‘Songwriters Union’ concert on 12th August. To find out more about The In-Between, visit www.theinbetweenmusical.comor follow the project on Twitter @tib_musical.
Win a signed copy of The In-Between concept album (closes 31st August).
Interview: Lucy Thackray