Over the next two weeks TPR will be sharing with you an exclusive two part interview withWest End performer and producer Paul Spicer. The dialogue between Paul and his friend/colleague Ava Eldred brings a unique insight into Paul’s career and future aspirations in a truly honest and open interview. – John Roberts : Executive Editor
Once upon a long ago time (well, 2009), on the insistence of a friend, I bought a ticket for Notes from New York’s first full staging of The Last 5 Years at the West End’s Duchess Theatre. I knew and loved the show relatively well but was a destitute usher; my theatre habits had to be considered very carefully to make sure I was still able to eat. This time, though, my friend was insistent, so I sat in the stalls on a Sunday afternoon and watched Jason Robert Brown’s masterpiece for the first time. I’ve told the story so many times that the world is surely bored of hearing it, so here I’ll cut it down to four words: It changed my life.
Hyperbolic, you may think, but everything that has happened in my career since can be traced back to that day. “What did you think?” my friend, an existing fan of Julie Atherton, asked afterwards. “Wasn’t she great?”
“She was amazing” I replied.
“But who’s that guy?”
Paul Spicer is an award winning producer, performer and creative director, and as a direct result of that show, one of my closest and most constant collaborators. Known primarily for starring rôles in West End shows such as Avenue Q and The Last 5 Years, as well as for founding and starring in the celebrated Notes from New York series, his contribution to new and contemporary musical theatre in the UK is unparalleled.I met Paul long after his love affair with new and contemporary musical theatre (or NACMT, as we’ve started calling it) began, and as such, the beginning is something we’d never really talked about. Now, ahead of Onstage Acts, a summer course curated by Paul &Julie Atherton, specialising in teaching the art of new and contemporary musical theatre performance to a new generation of professionals, seemed like the ideal time to find out how it all started, where the passion that so inspired me came from, and what the future holds, both for contemporary musical theatre and Paul Spicer. So we had a chat…
Ava: How did you discover your love for new and contemporary musical theatre?
Paul: I obviously started out in commercial musical theatre. I probably didn’t know much about musical theatre in terms of new musical composition. I though it was just what was on the West End and what was on Broadway. It wasn’t until I went in to The Witches of Eastwick at the age of 18, and met the people we were working with on that show, so John Dempsey and Dana Rowe, that I realised there was so much more out there. They obviously wrote The Fix too, and between people like them and everything that Cameron Mackintosh did, I learnt really quickly that it wasn’t just what was in the West End, and I opened my mind. Then I went on tour with Fame, which is where I met Julie Atherton &David Randall. It was David that first played me a recording of The Last 5 Years on the way home from Wales. We listened to the whole thing in one and didn’t speak through the entire process. I just had no idea people wrote musical theatre like that.
How did that first listening contribute to what eventually became the Notes from New York series?
Around the same time, we decided that we were going to put on our contemporary musical theatre show, because we thought this stuff should be heard. Nobody was doing anything like that in London, so we thought lets just rent a theatre on a Sunday, put it together ourselves, and just do it.It literally started with a text. We used to take maybe 2 or 3 different composers, so the first show was Andrew Lippa and Jason Robert Brown, and we just sat down together in the afternoon and made a through-line where there wasn’t necessarily one, so people could follow something. We played at the Arts Theatre to about 150 people, and that was the first time anyone had done something along those lines, in terms of a concert or one night event. We ended up doing 13 shows in the end.
How did you know what you were doing? The work you were creating was kind of unprecedented at the time; was it difficult not having a model to base it upon, or anyone to guide you?
It was really funny, because we were all really young and busy with other things, so we were just trying to find time to get together and rehearse as much as we could. We cut our own creative teeth, in a way. We’d all just row about what didn’t work: what should be in, what should be cut, but in a weird way, because we did it so much together, we all just intrinsically worked in harmony, and found a way of working that was so quick and effective, and some of the results were pretty cool. Some of the results weren’t so fantastic…
Like Little by Little, which we did at the Arts Theatre. It was supposed to be 3 Sundays in a row that we were going to do it, and the first night, I knocked the entire set down! It was during a song called ‘You’re It”, which was me and Julie, portraying kids, and my bum hit the stage right set, and it just, like a pack of dominoes, fell down. You know when things are rolling around on the floor and everything’s completely silent? I nearly stopped…for a split second I looked at the audience and thought I was going to stop the show and start again, but I could see in Julie’s eyes that she didn’t want me to do that, so we just picked it up and carried on. But once again, that was a show that had never been seen in the UK, and we just gave it a shot. It was actually quite sweet in the end, and I quite enjoyed it, but nobody came to see it, which was a bit sad.
After the first few shows, what was your next step? When did it become more of a serious prospect rather than just something you occasionally came together to do?
Well the initial shows spawned Christmas in New York, which was a whole new ball game, in terms of utilising Christmas songs that were also related to musical theatre. We had to balance it all with popular stuff that people want to hear at Christmas. From that, we launched Notes from the Stage, which was a competition to look for the next musical theatre composer. We did a national search, with about 300 applicants. We went through all of the music individually to see if it would meet the criteria, then Julie sang certain songs to a panel of judges, which included Mark Shenton, Anna Jane Casey and Grant Olding, and from that we found Michael Bruce, who won the competition by submitting his song Children.
The prize was for the winning song to be in Christmas in New York, so it kind of had to have a Christmas theme, so he literally just changed one word to Christmas! That turned out to be the most incredible thing, because I remember listening to that and thinking it sounded like it’s own thing, and his own style, but with a bit of early Sondheim, and that’s what shot out for everybody, and why he was ultimately the clear winner. We had a lot of other entrants who have gone on to do really wonderful things and have shows all over the world. At the time I was writing columns in The Stage every week, through the whole process, which I absolutely loved, and then finding Michael Bruce was amazing. If we did that now, I’d be pretty impressed, but at our age we were like…lets just do it.
Why do you think Notes from New York worked so well? What was it that allowed the passion you all had to translate in to something that other people could share in?
At the time, we had no financial backing. We had no person supporting us. We all did it off our own backs, and out of our own pockets. At times, that was really tough, but what really drove me was my passion for new musical theatre and contemporary new writing, and getting that heard. Over the space of ten years, the West End did change it’s tune in order to hear new writing and new voices, and now I think it’s a very different place. I’m not saying that we were responsible for changing that, but I do think we had a big hand in that, and in making it cool for people to go and see new stuff and try it out.
So how did you get people to listen?
We put people like Jon Lee, who had just come out of S Club 7, and Amy Nuttall, who was in Emmerdale at the time, in one of our shows at Trafalgar Studios. We made it a little bit more commercial than it would have probably been seen as. We were reported in Heat Magazine,I did all the gay press, DKNY and Marks &Spencer costumed us, so Notes from New York became this thing that people talked about. The trouble was, back in those days it was before the time of social media, so I remember Notes having a Facebook group, then it got it’s own Twitter when Twitter started, but we kind of finished with the Notes from New York concert series as that all took off, and I do regret that, because I have a few photos and a little bit of video, but not much. Wesold out the Donmar Warehouse. That was definitely an amazing moment in my life that I wish had been more documented.
Notes from New York also gave a lot of the West End’s most celebrated performers some of their first breaks…
Yeah, I was really pleased, because we had people like Oliver Tompsett and Ashleigh Grey. Oli had understudied many leading rôles when we cast him in a Notes show and that was really cool because I remember teaching him at ArtsEd and thinking this boy is great, we can trust him with it, and he was brilliant. Ashleigh was in that show too. She’d just come off tour playing Kim in Taboo, but she hadn’t done anything necessarily in the West End, so it was kind of like the first time people had heard her voice, and it’s such an incredible voice, but we gave her the hardest material. She still talks about it now…it was really high and really hard, but she completely smashed it. It was around then that we started working with The Last 5 Years things…
My favourite. How did the full production of that come about?
I always thought that Julie and Iwould do it, but actually I never thought I was right for it. I thought she was the perfect Cathy, but felt completely not right for Jamie. When we all started deciding what we were going to do for our 5th anniversary, and someone said lets do The Last 5 Years, I was like “Yeah, cool, who’s playing Jamie?”. I thought it would be someone else! I learnt really fast that if I was right for something, I had a good time doing it, and if I didn’t, I would really struggle. So I took a lot of convincing to say “Ok, lets do The Last 5 Years and I’ll play Jamie”, because people would still come regardless of whether it was me and Julie or someone else and Julie. It didn’t really matter, because by then people knew what Notes from New York was. And Julie too; since we came off the Fame tour together, things had really started to roll for Julie. She was doing great things like Just So, so her reputation alone was really great.
Actually doing it at the Haymarket was a bit of a blur. I can remember two moments of the show, and I can’t remember anything else. I remember the first song, ‘Shiksa Goddess’, because I found the bit at the end really hard. I trained for a long time for that show. I did a lot of homework and tried my best. I think it came a little bit easier for Julie, but she tried as well. It’s a really tough piece, but once again I think she was totally right for it, so it was a perfect fit for her. Lots of people still say they loved it, and are really complimentary about it, but there’s part of you as an actor that if you don’t feel 100% confident in something, you just think they’re lying to you!
And that was your first West End production of a full show too…
Yes, perhaps what I was more interested in with The Last 5 Years was the producing and selling of it, and that’s the first time that I started to think “Right…I want to produce actually”. That was when we came up with the teaser campaign that we ran in The Stage for 5 weeks. Every week there was another advert. They were amazing! Julie painted the numbers on a piece of glass with a stencil, because she’s really talented like that. We had an amazing stylist, and we did a whole days’s shoot with an incredible photographer. Everyone knew it was The Last 5 Years, because there were quotes underneath, so by the 5th week when we announced the whole production our advance sales were great. We ended up extending the run and did 3 nights at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was really stressful, but that was for the 5th anniversary of Notes from New York, so I think that’s pretty good going to be honest. From 150 people to that in 5 years…I’m pretty proud of that.
Then you took it to the Duchess for a full production…
Yeah, in 2009 we had our first, and only, West End season at the Duchess Theatre, where we did The Last 5 Years for a week, then Tick, Tick…BOOM! for a week. Tick, Tick…BOOM! was something we’d always wanted to do: it’s a tiny cast, Julie was right for both rôles, which was good for her, even though when we were playing The Last 5 Years, she was rehearsing Tick, Tick…BOOM! in the day, so she was completely split, and I don’t know how the hell she did that. We had our own set, which was designed by Morgan Large. It was the first time we had a full front of house, which was kind of crazy. It was such a full circle, it was really cool. It wasn’t particularly successful, it was pretty hard going, but we were really young, we had no help, and we just thought lets do it. Once again, that arrogance of youth, and that ‘lets just do it’ attitude; I’m really glad we took those risks when we were young. It was full on, but it was that which then made me want to produce even more, which is why I went in to concert production. After that I don’t think I acted for a really long time. I put my head in to producing. And that’s a whole other ball game, and nobody teaches you how to do it.
AVA: We talked for a really long time. There were a lot of stories to tell that I hadn’t been there for, and so many more that I had, but that were worth repeating anyway because they were such huge moments. In part two of this interview, to be published next week we talk producing, concert promotion, and the future of new musical theatre.