Q&A Special: Writer-composer Richard Thomas | reviews, news & interviews
Q&A Special: Writer-composer Richard Thomas
Q&A Special: Writer-composer Richard Thomas
The Jerry Springer composer weeps at ballet and wants Shoes to bring joy
Richard Thomas wrote Jerry Springer, The Opera, as everyone knows - and he is soon to unveil Anna Nicole, the opera. Can this be the same Richard Thomas who’s written a dance show at Sadler’s Wells, with a cheesy poster, called Shoes? It hardly seems likely. Flames, expletives, scabrous lines, suppurating satire - that’s what makes a Richard Thomas show, not (surely) tap-dancing in platforms and ballet-dancing in flip-flops?
The critics will start telling you tomorrow what to think about it after tonight’s press night, but, according to Thomas himself, no one has to tell anyone what they think about shoes. The dark secrets, the fantasies and the madness - every one of us has them, from Carrie Bradshaw to blokes who remember the Seventies.
When we talked on Friday Thomas was sounding tiggerishly bouncy, and I wondered if being 46 and celebrated was turning the devil in him soft. The last thing I saw of his was a brazenly funny dance-musical he did two years back with Javier de Frutos for Phoenix Dance in Leeds, Cattle Call, a show gleefully skewering the vanities and humiliations of showbiz auditions, which had mini-classic written all over it until it perished in a welter of company politics.
Outraged complaints, not family-friendly joy - that’s Thomas’s area. The BBC received 55,000 complaints after Jerry Springer, The Opera was broadcast in 2005. But that did Jerry Springer's world conquest no harm, being staged at New York’s Carnegie Hall with Harvey Keitel, no less, as Jerry Springer, and filmed with David Soul. Shoes also has a glint of world domination written into it. Commissioned by Sadler’s Wells, it has a team of eclectic choreographers, ranging from Akram Khan's collaborator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to the cheerful hip-hop dancemaker Kate Prince.
Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Salvatore Ferragamo and Crocs are among the shoe brands whose idiosyncratic irresistibility will be explored in dance. And Thomas is happy about that. This really is about shoes, he says, an oasis of sweetness - possibly - as he finishes his opera libretto for the horribly contemporary grand guignol of the Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, with composer Mark-Anthony Turnage at Covent Garden next February.
ISMENE BROWN: Are you an opera composer in the Wagner mould, words and music indivisible?
RICHARD THOMAS: Oh no, definitely not, I’m an old-school writer-composer in the music theatre mould. I spent 10 years on the road as a member of a double act in my twenties, which is an apprenticeship very few composers have. I know in my bones what it’s like to fail on stage. I went bankrupt when I was 30 after the double act did the usual collapse thing. I had two years when I had nothing to do and the phone wasn’t ringing, and I lived in a squat with a piano, and had nothing to do but compose. I sat down and really got to grips with music. I never studied music. I studied languages, I’m a grubby auto-didact. I did French and German in a Birmingham grammar and had a good linguistic education.
Nobody who uses wordplay like yours is not a linguist.
That’s kind of you. I did have an epiphany about music as language - my shtick is that once you realise it you can have two languages at the same time. Like in Jerry Springer, the simplest example is the words saying “I hate you I hate you I hate you”, when the music’s saying “I love you I love you I love you”. That’s exciting, to have that frisson set up, that stealth. I rely on that.
I must say, I’ve seen a lot of dance - because my partner was in the Royal Ballet, he’s 10 years with me. I watched some stuff and eyecurdlingly boring stuff too, then I saw Pina Bausch and I went, “Fuck! That’s a language! That’s better than music!" It was the one set in the school hall, Kontakthof, in the Barbican with the old people. About five years ago. I saw it again recently and it didn’t quite have the effect.
And MacMillan I love - you can’t go wrong with him. I remember seeing Gloria and weeping buckets - I mean, a ballet set in the First World War trenches. Fucking great. That’s an unlikely marriage - but why not? The language of dance, once you appreciate it, is astounding. It’s a hard language, though, it’s the hardest, I think.
What is the genre of Shoes? Cabaret?
The closest I’d call it is... a dance revue with a ton of songs. The idea is that dance is the star, but there will hopefully be a perfect integration of singers and dancers. That was the plan. Still is. Definitely not a musical, because there’s no narrative thread. But it’s not an abstract thing either, because there is a theme.
It was my idea basically. I saw Alastair Spalding [Sadler's Wells artistic director] - he’d heard about Cattle Call though hadn't seen it. I said, how about a show called Shoes? He went, “Er.” I knew fuck-all about shoes, to be honest, but I don’t let ignorance get in the way. He said, “Er, fine. I’ll buy it.” This was just after the banks collapsed, as well. Obviously we’re all doomed, we’ll have no cash, I said. He said, “Oh, it’ll be ok- we’ve got plenty of cash here!”
First I called a female friend of mine, a co-lyricist, and said, I need you to help me write some of these because I don’t know anything about shoes. I have a flip cam which I use in Brixton and in the street I asked people what their shoe history was, their shoe memories. Anybody will open up like that. If only I’d known that as a teenager. People love to talk about shoes. Blokes over 40 laugh and say, oh yeah, I had platforms and fell off a bus and couldn’t walk for six months.
With women it’s more complicated. I discovered the Imelda Marcos syndrome exists across all income brackets and classes. A woman I found in New York who had 200 pairs of Manolo Blahniks. A woman in Brixton I found who was poor and told me she’d been robbed and people had stolen 150 pairs of her shoes. 150 pairs! Another woman I knew who told me when she was made redundant she dropped £1000 on a pair of shoes. It appeals to me. I don’t understand it.
What have you got on your feet?
Actually I have got a pair of Relay canvas semi-trainers, bought in Italy.
Your own shoe memory?
A slightly disgusting one, actually. I had these army boots that I wore until the nails were sticking into my soles and my heels got thick and yellow and scabby. I think it was a bit of a badge of pride. There was a period of my life when I really didn’t have much money, so I’d go into a clammy sweat going into clothes or shoe shops, because I was conscious that I would be spending money that I should have spent on music.
The word shoes usually comes with the word obsession. Mostly we say that lightly - in the press stuff about this show, you say it’s all about joy. But isn’t it a bit darker than that? Are we going to hell in a shoe-shop?
Hopefully. When I said it’s about joy, it’s about trying to recreate it. There’s a big "Footish Fetish" number in the second half. The big numbers are the "Red Shoes Breakdown" at the end, "Step Away From the Shoe", with a sister telling her sister all the chronically bad things she’s going to do... you know that classic story of the two sisters with different-sized feet, the revenge shoes? There’s a massive joy number about Salvatore Ferragamo, who had his first shoe-shop when he was 11, then went to Hollywood and was a prop maker, and the stars took them off the set because they were so comfortable.
Is it s a character narrative or a shoe narrative?
It’s a shoe narrative. Almost like an emotional shoe parade. Even though there’s an operatic element to it, the music’s more like big band. It’s much more rocking out. The least operatic thing I’ve done.
I wondered, when I was watching Cattle Call, which has some brilliant wordplay in it, whether you’d heard Flanders and Swann and Tom Lehrer when you were a kid?
Both. Both fantastic. Lovingly crafted songs - they took care over the music that you don’t always get in the comedy songs. And yet there’s a throwaway nature to them, which is the great thing about comedy. You want people to consume it with ease, and not think too much about the craft. I guess Tim Minchin is the nearest now to that. Flanders and Swann were so old-school witty, you could hear people bellylaughing. And there he is in his wheelchair, being superfunny. And Swann’s just in hysterics. Swann without Flanders was Ernie without Eric, though... When Dudley Moore was laughing at Peter Cook, it was just so joyous.
Stephen Mear, the choreographer of Mary Poppins, Sweet Charity and The Little Mermaid, is directing Shoes; he's not what I'd think of first as your natural partner, so how have you split the creating of this show?
I was always aware I needed to let there be dance in it, yet I wanted it to be a tight show, not hang around. We did four or five workshops, I wrote about 12 numbers also with my co-lyricist Alethea Wiles, whom I met in the pub about five years ago, when somebody walked on a TV show I was doing. I’d known her a bit for a year and she made me laugh. It’s always hard handing stuff over. The challenge is to get the three-way thing going, words, music, dancing. That’s what stops you sleeping at night.
You have some expensive fashion partners here - presumably that was essential? Who sweettalked free shoes out of Manolo Blahnik and Jacques Azagury?
They all said it’s not to be a giant shoe advert. There is one number called "Desire the Brand" where a chorus of nuns sing about desire, and I think the Manolos are coming free anyway. You don't need to know about brands, I hope. The classic opening West End number is a history of shoes, though. And there’s a big tapdancing number that’s totally about pain. Tapping in giant platforms by Terry de Havilland (pictured left).
How many broken legs do you expect at the end of the show?
Oh stop! Stop! These dancers are amazing! ... I definitely think there’s an element of risk in some of the things they’re doing.
The Naomi Campbell moment...
There is so much stuff I could have done on this show, it’s heartbreaking. I think the thing I want to do with Shoes is one show that is not a giant swear-fest. Also I thought I wanted to do something that, even though it has the pain associations, is actually that shoes are about joy. I did consider doing something about Chinese footbinding, but it opened up floodgates.
Yeah, what’s perverse for me is to do a subject that is so weirdly devoid of darkness, it’s flippant, trashy, almost. I’ve written a libretto now for the opera on Anna Nicole Smith (pictured right) for the Opera House which is a bit more me back to my old ways. I think I want now to do a two-act musical - an old-fashioned book musical, or I’m very tempted to do "The God Delusion", because I think that could be a lot of fun. Passionate songs about faith. I’d also like people to be standing applauding the total idea of atheism. That might be fun.
I am writing the stage show for a movie called Uncle David - have you heard of David Hoyle? An amazing comedian, avant-garde, crypto drag artist. The story is this uncle takes his 19-year-old nephew to a trailer park and kills him in a consensual pact of avuncular execution, and it’s hilarious. The film's already made, it got shown in the Barbican film season this year, but they’ve got distribution problems. Obviously they can’t get clearance for it on stage. I said, let me write your songs for a stage version...
That sounds more like it. Are you now very successful?
I’m well known but I’m not well minted. Jerry didn’t make much money because of the five-year blasphemy case and everybody fell out with everybody else. But maybe it’s a good thing. I got a career out of it! I can get a meeting anywhere in the world on the back of that, and I wouldn’t be doing Shoes if it weren’t for that show.
- Shoes is at Sadler's Wells until Saturday 11 September, with an international tour promised next spring
- See what's on at the Royal Opera in 2010-11 - the world premiere of Anna Nicole is on 17 February 2011
- See what's on at Sadler's Wells in 2010-11
- Find the DVD of Jerry Springer, the Opera with David Soul on Amazon
Watch a surreally revealing video clip of Imelda Marcos and her shoe collection (YouTube):
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