Interview – composer Scott Alan reunites with Cynthia Erivo at the London Festival of Cabaret

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Scott Alan will perform solo and with actress/singer Cynthia Erivo during the London Festival of Cabaret 2015

New York-based composer Scott Alan (Home; Dreaming Wide Awake) and Broadway-bound actress and singer Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple; I Can’t Sing!) will join forces for Home Again, three special concerts (4–6 May) at the St James Studio, London as part of the London Festival of Cabaret 2015 (28 April to 11 May).

Audiences can expect to hear Erivo singing songs from Alan’s songbook, including favourites from his six album releases (Dreaming Wide Awake; Keys; What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up; LIVE; Anything Worth Holding On To and Greatest Hits –Volume One) as well as from his musical, Home.

Erivo, who most recently starred in the all-female Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse and as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Liverpool Everyman, will soon make her Broadway debut, reprising the role of Celie in the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of The Color Purple opposite Jennifer Hudson.

Before the series of dates with Erivo, Alan is also performing an extra show in the main theatre at St James on 3 May for which he will be joined by a line-up of more than 20 special guests (the show has already sold out). On 11 May the writer and performer will be making his Spanish concert debut in Barcelona.

Artists who have performed Alan’s work include Liz Callaway, Jonathan Groff, Shoshana Bean, Sutton Foster, Kerry Ellis, Megan Hilty, Hadley Fraser, Willemijn Verkaik, Samantha Barks, Lea Salonga and Ramin Karimloo.

Since Erivo and Alan teamed up in 2014 at the IngigO2 at the O2, fans have been anticipating another such evening of storytelling. Each night different special guests will join the two artists.

Scott Matthewman catches up with SCOTT ALAN as the composer prepares to make another trip across the Pond, to the delight of his increasing number of followers in the city.

How did the idea of you and Cynthia Erivo pairing up for a series of shows together come about?

Before Cynthia and I decided to just do a night of me and her performing, James Albrecht from the St James and I were going back and forth discussing ideas, and how, if I was going to come back to London, I would want to do things a little bit differently. I always like to change the scenery a bit, and make sure it’s not exactly the same thing I’ve done in the past. Since I had done a residency last year for the cabaret festival at the Hippodrome, I wanted to make sure I wan’t basically doing the exact same thing.

Cynthia and I had become extremely close since we worked together when I did a concert at the IndigO2 at the O2, and she knows a lot of my work. So we were having a conversation and I just said: “before you leave for New York to do your Broadway debut in The Color Purple, why don’t we have a celebration of both of our talents, and team up and do a fun night?” And that’s what we decided to do, over three nights.

It’s exciting because we’re going to go off the cuff a little bit. Each night is definitely going to be different. I’ve written new songs for Cynthia and we have some fun things planned for the audience. We’re going to ask the audience what songs they want to hear, so Cynthia’s had to learn the whole songbook, poor girl.

We want to have three fun nights and just show how much fun doing a cabaret can be when you let loose, have a cocktail and sing for the audience.

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Cynthia Erivo will sing from Scott Alan’s songbook at the St James Studio, London

Speaking of that concert at the IndigO2, apparently Cynthia initially had problems connecting with the song ‘Anything Worth Holding On To’. How did you help her overcome that?

You know it’s so funny, normally when I work with vocalists I really have a nice stretch of time to work with people one-on-one. But whenever I’m overseas working, I only have one or two days of rehearsal and then go straight into performance. And so, with ‘Anything Worth Holding On To’, she found it on her own. It happened to be the closing date of The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory, so she had to be at the O2 in the morning for our sound check, then had to run to The Color Purple and do a performance, and then back to the O2. She got there about one minute before show time, right before the whole cast was due to start the show together singing my song ‘I’m a Star’.

So she was very frazzled, and took her dress out of her bag and it was wrinkled, so the girls were trying to help her steam it and rush her out on stage. And she basically said: “Where am I supposed to go, I don’t know.” I said: “Just go sit on the stage, grab a microphone and just sing.” And so that’s what she did. And I think from exhaustion, she really understood, connected with it.

You know, it’s hard for anyone who doesn’t suffer from depression to understand the weight of depression. But I think on that particular day, she was just so exhausted from a whole few months of working on The Color Purple, which she was so in love with, and having to say goodbye to that and then run back to the O2 and get herself out there on stage and perform this song she didn’t feel like she was connecting with. And the moment she sat there, she said all of the weight just sat on her heart, and it was a breathtaking moment. And she walked off stage and just threw her arms around me and exclaimed: “I never realised how much music can be therapy.” And just cried. And I said: “Stop crying and go back out there for another bow!” And that’s what she did. And it was just a beautiful, lovely moment that I think you can’t ever re-create.

Obviously we’ll be singing it at the concerts – but someone else will be singing it at my concert on 3 May. Everybody will be wanting Cynthia to be singing it in our shows together.

You mentioned depression in connection with that song, but quite a lot of your repertoire comes from a deeply personal and emotional place, often dealing with issues such as depression and its effects. Do you think that’s why your songs connect with performers so much?

It’s really interesting. When I think about how my work affects people here in America, as opposed to how it affects people internationally, there really is a difference.

Scott-Alan-resized-253x325In the States, especially with depression and being able to talk about your feelings, we’re a lot more expressive. No one’s looked down upon when they ask to go to a therapist, or they take anti-depressants. And internationally, it’s really just not spoken about. It’s a secret society of people. I talk to [theatre critic] Mark Shenton about this all the time. And we talk about how in England it’s just frowned upon to be able to open up and say: “I suffer from depression, I need to talk to somebody.” And I think my music, because I do get the opportunity to put it all in lyrically, is a way for people to therapeutically express themselves without having to say the words: “I suffer from depression.”

So I think it’s connecting with people overseas in London, in Germany, in Holland and Australia, because it gives people the opportunity to say what it is they might not normally feel comfortable saying.

If so much of your stuff has come from that place of depression, do you ever stress that being in a good and happy place might actually stifle your creativity?

You know, I will happily take happiness over anything! Clinical depression is interesting because it’s sort of just like that commercial: you have a cloud that sits over you and then one day it’s gone.

But there are other things to be lost about in life. And obviously I tackle those: about wanting to be married, to find a husband, to raise children and have a life that leaves me with more of a legacy than just my music itself.

But you know I’ve been in happy places, and I always end up still writing things that are emotionally connecting with me. I always feel there are particular songs in my repertoire that people say: “Oh that’s really depressing.” And it’s funny, I hear it back and think: “Oh really? I think it’s actually a very happy song.” There’s a song in my repertoire called ‘Goodnight’ that’s about letting go of a loved one and saying goodbye – letting them peacefully exit this world into the next place, if there is one. And a lot of people say to me that’s a sad song, and I say there’s not a moment of sadness in it. There’s never a moment where you say: “I’m going to miss you so much.” All you’re saying is, find the light and let the angels sing. Let people take care of you, let you get your strength back, and let you be happy.

So I find happiness in a lot of my songs that others might perceive as depressing. So I guess, you know, if I ever do find that happiness and that joy, I’m sure people will still find the depressing elements in it somewhere!

As well as performing onstage while in the UK, you’ll be giving a number of masterclasses. You also teach one-on-one back in New York – how do those forms of teaching differ, and do you prefer them over performing or vice versa?

I sort of value them each the same. While I’m over in the UK I’ll be teaching a lot of masterclasses actually, 15 in total at different schools. But I make sure that I work one-on-one even in a large class during a masterclass. I’m very emotionally connected to each person, and I need to take a two hour break after they’re done because I am emotionally exhausted. You really do take in a lot of what other people are giving to you. Their stories, their moments in their life.

When I do vocal classes one-on-one, I get a chance to sit with someone for an hour, and they come back every week so every story that they tell me is another way for me to insert it into whatever song we’re working on. Whereas in a masterclass, each person gets their 15 to 30 minutes – and unfortunately sometimes you have that resilient individual who will be very tough and say “no, everything is great and I don’t want to talk, I just want to sing”. I’m not good that way. I will break someone down in the most positive of ways, because I feel like the only way you can express yourself as a performer is to take each brick of their walls and start tearing their down, allowing yourself to emote to the best of your ability.

A while back, it seemed as if your musical Home could be heading to London, but things seem to have gone quiet on that front. What is happening with it?

You’ll have to ask the producers. I don’t know what’s happening with Home right now. It’s been a show that I love and have worked on for over 15 years now. And if there’s a place for it eventually one day, I will be thankful and honoured to share in that story with the world. If it doesn’t happen, I am honoured that I got the opportunity to write it.

Sometimes things just don’t always work out. A lot of new shows are just not being produced nowadays. Everything is a revival or based upon movies and books. Bringing a brand new show in is very tricky, and it’s tricky for investors.

So I just wait for the call. Until then, I just continue writing. I’m not working on any other shows right now, I’m just writing for myself. Once I have enough material that I feel good about, I’ll do what I always do and put out a seventh CD, with some of the best vocalists that are in the industry, and just continue to expose my thoughts and feelings that way.

www.londonfestivalofcabaret.com

Readers may also be interested in:

London Festival of Cabaret – Kerry Ellis, Janie Dee, Cynthia Erivo and Scott Alan join up – News

 

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