ALEXANDER S. BERMANGE is a prolific composer and lyricist who has written nine musicals and contributed music for a further nine titles, as well as writing material for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. His songs, both comic and dramatic, have been sung by a variety of artists including Kerry Ellis, Ramin Karimloo, Lara Pulver, Ben Forster, Cynthia Erivo and Louise Dearman, and he has had great success with his songs in Germany, Switzerland and Russia, while many have also been recorded on CD. Bermange brings his unique brand of wit and whimsy to The Pheasantry in London’s Chelsea on Sunday 6 September, with special guests Gina Beck, Michael Colbourne, Kim Ismay and Sam Lupton.
When did you start writing songs – when you were at Oxford or perhaps even before that, and are you from a musical family?
My parents played instruments but had not pursued careers in music; it was they, however, who encouraged me to have piano lessons from the age of about six. I started writing my own songs not long after – obviously, they were very basic at that stage, but I certainly felt the urge within me to not only ‘re-create’ the classical pieces I was learning, but also to create my own material.
Presumably you studied musical composition at university or was it just a natural talent you had anyway?
That’s a common assumption, though my degree was actually in French and German! The music courses I investigated at the colleges and universities I was considering seemed to have composition elements that were primarily focused around writing in the styles of the great classical composers. Through my training as a pianist I had become familiar with ‘the greats’, but as a writer I felt that I wanted to find and develop my own ‘voice’. And even though I was not studying music at Oxford, I was certainly very active in the musical and dramatic scenes while I was there.
Did you always want to write both lyrics and music or did you ever consider having a writing partner?
I initially had a more natural leaning towards writing music, merely coming up with my own lyrics as I couldn’t find a lyricist! But the more I wrote, the more I found that my lyrics were generally thought to be as strong as my music. I now usually write both – though on a number of occasions I have had writing partners in the form of bookwriters.
You have written music for other shows produced in Germany. Were they just incidental scores or were you writing in conjunction with the lyricists?
They are all complete musicals – ‘dark’ versions of fairytales, in fact – written in close collaboration with three separate bookwriter/lyricists. The original cast albums and DVDs have certainly played a part in a number of them going on to enjoy multiple productions.
How do you divide your time between your own writing and your work as a musical director, accompanist, repetiteur and giving songwriting workshops?
I have devoted a progressively increasing amount of my time to my writing as more opportunities have arisen. But when the right project materialises, I always enjoy simultaneously returning to one of the other areas you mention, not least because they will often inform and inspire what I choose to write.
Are you inspired by any particular composer-lyricists such as Sondheim, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin etc, and do you have any favourites of your own?
Yes, all of the above, and others too, such as Stephen Schwartz (whose work will no doubt be known to your readers!), Tom Lehrer (for his mastery of the comic song as a form) and in particular the rock songwriter Jim Steinman (for the immediacy, drama and structural complexity of his music, and the heartbreaking rawness and striking imagery of his lyrics).
Your comic songs are often based on topical themes such as current personalities, second-rate singers and Tube-travelling trainspotters. Are you an avid watcher of people?
Yes – particularly those who are more than a little eccentric or those in the public eye who attract a great deal of attention. That said, many of my comic songs are inspired by everyday life, or by chance remarks made to me during the course of a conversation, or (in numerous cases) by the world of musical theatre, and theatregoing!
Where does your inspiration come from when you decide to write a piece such as The Route to Happiness or Shadowless?
Shadowless was specifically inspired by a short story about a young man who sells his shadow to a sinister ‘Man in Grey’. I loved the collision between the real and supernatural worlds, I was fascinated by the characters, and I loved the way that the narrative operated on multiple levels. The Route to Happiness is in many ways a reaction to what seem to be three of the primary obsessions of our age: finding love, making money, and becoming famous. I was also eager to work with a plot and characters that would enable me to flex both my comedic and my dramatic muscles.
Have you ever literally dreamt a plot and been able to use it for a song or a show?
Sadly not. I’m obviously not eating enough cheese…
For your new show at The Pheasantry, will you have mostly new material written since your last appearance at the Chelsea venue?
Yes – I’m at my best when working to a deadline, so I use every cabaret as an excuse to create as much new material as I can. That said, I would probably be lynched if I didn’t include a few of the ‘favourites’, so there will be some of those too – though mostly presented in new ways.
Your guests at The Pheasantry, Gina Beck, Michael Colbourne, Kim Ismay and Sam Lupton, are all seasoned theatre performers from some of London’s most popular shows. Do you find that they respond to new songs with equal relish?
Absolutely. I am fortunate to have four such accomplished artists on board – and I actually originally came to know three of them as a result of their emailing me out of the blue, having heard songs of mine that they wanted to perform – which shows that it is possible for artists of this calibre to not only be responsive to new material but also to actively seek it out. I can also imagine that during or after a lengthy stint in a long-running West End show, it must be quite nice for them to tackle something new and different!
What are your plans for the next year ahead – more new songs, another new musical perhaps?
Yes and yes! I am always writing songs – in diverse styles – and I am currently setting to work on a new musical. There are also a couple of recording projects in the pipeline… Watch this space!
It must be very difficult to stage a new musical these days. Is that why your shows tend to be chamber pieces that can fit into smaller spaces? Is it possible that your three-hander show, The Route to Happiness, could tour to smaller venues, because there would surely be an audience out there?
Many of my shows have been produced on quite a large scale, though most have been conceived so as to be adaptable to a more intimate staging if required. I wrote The Route to Happiness because a number of producers and theatre representatives had mentioned to me their potential interest in a three-person musical. I also liked the idea of a show that could have its optimal effect when presented on a small scale, as opposed to one that left the impression of being ‘downsized’ for economic reasons. So yes, The Route to Happiness would certainly be suited to many smaller venues.
Although the cost of staging musicals (or any theatre production) is now almost prohibitive, do you think that the West End, with some tickets going for over £200 and booking fees up to £15, is pricing itself out of the market?
Although I am sure that producers have their reasons for setting ticket prices as they do, I have been staggered to see by how much and how quickly the prices of West End theatre tickets appear to have spiralled in recent years. One of many results of this – and the one no doubt most keenly felt by writers such as myself – is that musical theatre audiences (and therefore producers) may be increasingly attracted to the ‘known’ (be it a revival or a compilation show) and less likely to take a punt on an original piece.
With downloading increasingly taking over from CD sales, is it difficult to reach a wide market with the recordings of your songs and shows?
I think it’s actually got easier. Until relatively recently, you had to take the time and trouble to go to, and then ferret through, a record shop to buy music. Now, thanks to online CD stores like Amazon and Dress Circle, and download platforms like iTunes, the music can come to you. I am fortunate enough to receive emails from people all over the world who have discovered my songs and shows through these sites. It obviously helps that my work has been recorded and released by high-profile artists such as (in the case of The Route to Happiness) Kerry Ellis, Ben Forster and Louise Dearman.
What is becoming increasingly difficult, though, is for recorded music to ‘pay for itself’. Streaming services and video-sharing websites (at the legal end) and the unauthorised uploading or copying of music files (at the illegal end) may give consumers the opportunity to experience music at low or no cost, but are at best affecting, and at worst jeopardising, the future production of recorded music – especially ‘niche’ genres such as musical theatre. Many people seem to feel a sense of entitlement to access free music, without realising how reckless and shortsighted that may be.
* Alexander S. Bermange and his special guests are at The Pheasantry, 152 King’s Road, Chelsea, London on Sunday 6 September 2015 at 8pm. Tickets bookable on 0845 6027 017 or at www.tinyurl.com/kqxkj2n.
Compiled by Michael Darvell