Multi award-winning British composer STEPHEN WARBECK is probably best known for his scores for major movies including Shakespeare in Love (for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Score), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Mrs Brown and Billy Elliot.
His work on stage includes This House (National Theatre and Garrick) and The Plough and the Stars and Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies (RSC), all directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Now one of the most sought after composers in the business, Warbeck’s most recent work has taken him back to the stage to work with playwright Jack Thorne and director Herrin on Headlong Theatre’s Junkyard.
After a successful run at the Bristol Old Vic which ended on 18 March, the production is due to play Theatr Clwyd in Mold (29 March until 15 April) before heading for the Rose Theatre, Kingston Upon Thames (19-30 April).
Musical Theatre Review’s Aura Simon caught up with Warbeck by phone as he strolled by the sea and contemplated his varied and accolade-laden career.
So, we’ve heard you started your professional life as an actor. Tell me about that transition into what you do now.
Well, I did and I didn’t! My first job was at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, I was the musical director, and also an actor in the production. So, I then carried on with that. I suppose it would be better to say I was an actor-musician really.
If you think back to your earliest inspirations in terms of writing music, what motivated you?
When I was at university and immediately afterwards I was really involved in Brecht plays and Brecht productions, both in term of writing new original scores, and on occasion using the real – either Eisler or Weill – music from the original period. So, that was the biggest thing for me. And that led on to an interest in early cabaret, I suppose that was the starting point.
Obviously, Brecht is hugely political in his subject matter and mode of expression – do you feel, as someone who’s well respected and has a bit of a platform, a pressure to speak on political or social issues?
I think it’s hard to speak about social issues through music on its own. I’m often attracted to things which maybe tangentially have a view and focus on social issues. Although I like speaking about them, I don’t suppose my music really does, in as much as it’s hard for music to do that. I mean Eisler or Weill or Dessau who wrote with Brecht – it was because of their relationship with Brecht that their music was deemed to be politically effective (or ineffective! As some people argue!).
You’ve written the scores for dozens of films, dramas and plays – what are the things that draw you to a particular project, what’s got to be constant in each thing you do?
That would be hard to generalise because things are so different. Sometimes, for example, it would be the fact that it was going to be collaborating with John Madden again, which would make me read the script with seriousness. Currently the same would certainly apply to Jeremy Herrin who I’m working with on Junkyard. The fact that he’s doing it, and I know how inspiring he is in the rehearsals, make a big difference in choosing projects.
Sometimes you choose projects that aren’t as satisfying as you’d thought, and sometimes the opposite applies. You think ‘I’m not too sure about this’ and then as you work on it you get really inspired – it does vary a lot! There’s no formula for making the right decisions, but the biggest single thing would be the people you’re working with, and with Jeremy Herrin and Jack Thorne, it’s providing a really inspiring working experience.
Because of course you worked with Herrin on This House, didn’t you? Thematically, of course, quite a different play. Do you feel at home with Headlong?
I suppose there is a similarity in the plays – but different writers – James Graham and Jack Thorne. I suppose it goes back to the earlier question, both have a lot to say about the situation political, with a big P or a small p; they have that in common. They pose problems and questions for us which are political in the broadest sense of the word.
The other thing that’s similar is they’re both written for guitar, bass and drums – so a fairly conventional line-up for both of them.
Yes, I was going to ask – a lot of what we’ve seen from you previously have been these huge symphonic scores for film – it must be quite interesting working with a more intimate group of instruments.
Yeah, that’s true. I mean, working on film doesn’t necessarily lead to large orchestras, it depends on the artistic decisions, and more pragmatically, whether there’s a budget for anything huge. The reality is that there are some plays I would love to do with a symphonic orchestra, but though that might happen in opera, it doesn’t really happen in theatres. So, you have to be practical and say ‘these are the resources I’ve got, what is the musical vocabulary I’m going to use to approach this?’
And do you find that in working with actors they inform your writing?
Definitely. In my ideal world, I wouldn’t write anything until I’d seen at least a read-through and a few rehearsals. Sometimes that’s leaving it too late for practical reasons, if there’s choreography etc. Ideally, you’re intrigued by the script, but you’re also drawn into the work by the nature of what the actors/directors are doing with it. If you were to start writing beforehand and didn’t properly gauge the tone, you could be completely out on a limb.
Writing for film, your work is constantly available for consumption. With a play, the moment is of course completely transitory, your work passes on with the production. How do you feel about this?
I suppose that’s true for all of us. I don’t suppose I feel differently from the actors or the director or the playwright. Normally it doesn’t occur to me to be sad that it’s gone. You might go out and have a meal with somebody, but you wouldn’t want to keep having that same meal over and over – unless it was a really exceptional event!
There’s a production that I did with Howard Davies about three or four years ago called The Silver Tassie at the National, loads of people said ‘This should really have another future to it’ but of course very, very sadly Howard died, and often those productions just don’t come back again.
Do you ever feel like you can perhaps take more risks because it’s not something set in stone?
I think that’s another thing like the size of the ensemble – if you’re working in a small theatre, the Almeida or something – as opposed to doing Batman 7, you probably could take more risks because you have less pressure on you from outside.
The bigger the project, the more people there will be who have an artistic or financial investment in it, and they’ll have something to say. If you’ve written completely mad percussive music for a mainstream story, then they’re probably going to sack you to be honest; they think all their money’s at risk because you’ve written the wrong music!
When have you felt the most out of your comfort zone with a project?
First of all, it’s worth saying that if you’re a film composer, quite often, it ends nastily. My agent says ‘it’s 1 in 5 that you break up with the film, or they break up with you’.
In those periods, it isn’t comfortable. Normally what happens is you’re being asked to do music which is not what you would have imagined in response to the film. In other words, you’re being pushed in a direction which is not instinctive.
That can work out alright because you might discover a continent of ideas that you’d never have happened upon if somebody hadn’t pushed you – but quite often you’re pushed and pushed and you stop knowing what you believe in, and you stop really understanding what people want from you. And if there is such a thing as comfort zone in writing music that isn’t it.
And of course, you’ve written in so many different styles, colours, cultural modes – I won’t ask what your favourite score has been but is there any one that stands out as the most personal to you?
That’s a difficult question. I suppose there’s obviously Shakespeare in Love, I’m pleased with that, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and then there was a film called Quills, which is kind of mad. The director said to me at one point, and I was quite early on writing music, he said ‘Listen, the reason I’ve given you this job is because of your own madness’. I’m not mad, by the way! But what he meant was my eccentricity in certain musical things.
The temptation would be that because you’re doing a fairly big film that you would try and make your music more reasonable, and what he wanted was for the music to be unreasonable. So that was a very thrilling thing, to be allowed to go as crazy as you wanted really.
That involved very authentic instruments too, didn’t it?
Yes, we made our own authentic instruments for that, as we have done for Junkyard! Our instrument and prop-maker friend called Hugo has made some junk instruments for this. It actually isn’t only guitars, drums and bass, though they are the sort of backbone of it.
And just while we’re on the subject of nurturing sparks of madness – do you think that when we’re looking at musical education we’re doing enough for young people as they first start to experience music?
I suspect you’ve revealed your own opinion there! No, is the answer. I hated musical exams as a child, they kind of ran alongside my own enjoyment of music, which was writing songs and inventing music, not in practicing the same piece for three years which I once had to do.
But I do think it’s got worse, because there are certain quantifiable skills in music, like how fast you can play a selection of notes and whether you can read them, but there’s so much in there which is much harder to quantify, and the kind of wonder of it – what are we doing when we make music? What’s music for?
It’s such an incredible shared experience and I’m sorry that the educational thing doesn’t allow for the wonder and the freedom that could be associated with it.
I also don’t think that we put enough resources nationally into teaching kids music, so you end up with the only ones having music tuition being those who’ve got money. And that is completely unfair, and also stupid because it seems that music benefits all other aspects of learning as well.
I often say when chatting about music that you have to love the sound you make, or there has to be some kind of love between you and music, not just when you play it but when you create it as well.
There are people who play brilliantly and virtuosically, but I find it empty, and there are some people who aren’t necessarily technically as good, but there’s something more moving or connected in it.
Some of the best songwriters didn’t have the best voices, I suppose.
That’s completely true. You talk about Bob Dylan who’s one of my favourite people, but some people just can’t get past the fact that he doesn’t sing like most other people. I happen to love that, but some people just stop at that point and can’t really appreciate his music.
Quick fire round! Favourite place you’ve travelled to for your job?
I think Tenerife and Kefalonia, equal first.
I imagine that was for Captain Corelli?
It was, yeah.
D flat major, or D minor.
Is there a reasoning behind that or is it just instinctive?
Well, I do think there’s something special about D minor, I know there was a silly thing in that film… Spinal Tap which said it was the saddest of all keys – I don’t know what it is about D flat major but I remember D flat being very easy when I was about five, because if you just played on the black notes you got a lot of things which seemed to sound nice whatever you do. My musical ability hasn’t developed much from that!
What score of somebody else’s might you have loved to have written?
Paris, Texas by Ry Cooder, or Il Postino by Luis Enríquez Bacalov. Also, anything by Ennio Morricone.
Strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to do for your job?
Well it was probably only a couple of weeks ago, playing the piano for this film which is called Making Noise Quietly. We rented a piano, and the idea was that there are some shots of me playing the piano, and then the piano is incidental music as well. But they rented a piano that was in a bar, and only about half the notes worked, and some of those notes played strings that weren’t the ones you thought they would be. It was incredibly cold, and very disturbing to play. That was very strange.
Five mates, crowded round a piano, what’s your go-to singalong song?
‘I Need Me a Car’ – it’s a blues song – I’d probably sing that first or ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’ which is a country song.
Whose music is your guilty pleasure? Who do you catch yourself dancing to in the kitchen before you realise what you’re doing?
Ed Sheeran! I wouldn’t go around saying I love Ed Sheeran, but he’s so musical. His songs, a lot of them are very emotional, he is definitely a guilty pleasure.
What role would you have loved to play on stage?
I’d have loved to play Clov, in Endgame.
Finally, I’ve just seen the most fantastic video. Could you please tell us about Paul Bradley from EastEnders, and the hKippers with the silent ‘h’?
Ah! The hKippers were formed in 1988. Paul and I worked together in the 1980s, and I formed various bands, and I wanted to have a chance to write really silly mad music, as a safety valve from writing sensible music. There are about nine players, we play five times a year, we almost never rehearse. I think there’s 150 songs, and we probably only regularly do 30 or 40 of them. Was he playing the sellotape? That song’s called ‘A Fish On the Beach’.
Look it up folks, you won’t be disappointed.
Readers may also be interested in:
Junkyard – Bristol Old Vic and Touring – Review
* Junkyard plays at Theatr Clwyd from 29 March to 15 April 2017 and then at the Rose Theatre, Kingston from 19 to 30 April 2017.