A new British musical, Paper Hearts, is receiving an extended London run at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate, following success at the Waterloo East Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, and then heads for Hamburg.
Writer-composer LIAM O’RAFFERTY, who also runs a design company, and musical director DAN JARVIS, a pianist, vocal coach and orchestrator, spill the beans on a tale set in a contemporary UK bookshop and Russia of the 1940s…
You are self-taught as a composer. How did you manage to do that?
I started playing guitar when I was 10, and never really put it down. When I was a kid I would listen to Pink Floyd and the Beatles – these bands are great for understanding how a great song is put together. I taught myself piano a year or so ago. If your attempting to write a musical you need to understand how it all works – vocal harmonies, which key works, will it be orchestrated or a rock Gospel number. I really enjoy playing with different styles of music.
You can have all the training in the world, but playing from the heart cannot be taught.
Are you from a musical family or was music an interest for you from an early age?
We are not a musical family, but my brother started getting better at guitar than me so, being competitive, I wanted to be better than him! My dad really encouraged me to write and play music, he was a big influence when I was younger.
Where did the idea for Paper Hearts come from?
I was sat in an empty theatre in Swindon and looking at the stage. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the whole stage was a ramshackle bookshop, complete with sliding ladders and eccentric staff and customers. All I needed was to write it.
It sounds quite a complex piece, straddling two worlds with different time frames. How did you manage to fuse both parts together?
Fusing both worlds together was a challenge! For our 75-minute show for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe I worked closely with Tania [Azevedo], my director, to get the structure right. For the two act show I took all my notes after listening to feedback and re-structured it.
Both worlds run in parallel to each other, the modern world where Atticus lives, and that which he has created in 1940s Russia. It is fun, and there’s some humour to be had from misunderstandings between both cultures/times. It’s essentially two love stories that interweave. It doesn’t matter what time you live, you still have the same relationship problems!
Are the characters in Paper Hearts based on anyone in your own life or are they total figments of your imagination?
Bit of both I would say. I most identify myself with Atticus. He’s your classic self doubter who doesn’t think he or his work is good enough – but while his novel that he is writing stays with him and no one reads it, he could be a great success. I felt like that, you don’t want someone destroying your dream. Luckily for me I have a great team who have done the complete opposite. Also, Atticus and Norman at the Final Chapter Bookshop love a cup of tea, and always have a brew on. After red wine, you can’t beat a good cuppa.
Your hero, Atticus Smith, is a novelist with writer’s block working in a bookshop that is under threat from his own father who runs an online bookstore. Is this just a plot point or are you saying something about literacy and its availability today?
Bookshops are really struggling at the moment. Just over a decade ago there were about 15 shops in my town, now there is one, and that’s a Waterstones. I have become friends with a lady called Jo who runs a bookshop in Devizes [in Wiltshire], and she’s a star. Her shop is the centre of the community, and she knows everyone. Bookshops are not just a place to buy books, they are a place to find peace of mind and to explore.
Have you ever been in a writer’s block position where you don’t quite know which way your work is heading?
That’s a great question! I did have something recently where I couldn’t figure out a song and the lyrics, where my head hurt so much that I thought it was going to explode, but that wasn’t writers block. In fact I have so many ideas I have the opposite problem – which way do I go?
Atticus is described as a lazy writer who lives through his characters, and then two of his characters turn up to help him, but in effect they upset the whole book trolley. How did you make this credible for the audience?
Atticus is surrounded by people who are trying to give him advice, from his girlfriend Alex to the bookshop owner Norman Bates. His only release is to turn to the characters in his book, but even they nag him! He has to make his own choices, and a lot of time we all avoid the difficult ones.
Did you plan the structure of the musical from day one or did you in fact run with it to see what developed as you were writing it?
The structure evolved, it was very organic. Tania and my MD Dan were a great influence. These guys have been working in theatre for years and I’ve been dreaming this up in my bedroom. You need people who know the craft, and who believe in you.
My first script wasn’t great, but I’m proud of my two act version. We’ve allowed the actors to change a few bits while rehearsing – it’s all for the greater good. You want them to own it as much as you. Dan and I work really well as a team, he will take my songs and shape them further – adding the sparkle. Honestly, I can’t think of anything better than working with the team I have.
Are there any more musicals planned that you are considering or does your day job with the design company leave you little time for looking ahead, apart from the tour of Paper Hearts to Germany?
I would love to do another musical, or a play. Telling stories is a passion of mine, and I have a few ideas buzzing around. It is difficult juggling a full time job and trying to write – it takes so much of your time, but it’s worth it. I’m really looking forward to Hamburg and what lies beyond.
BELOW: Listen to an EXCLUSIVE excerpt from ‘Brief Encounter’ – a new track from Paper Hearts. Adam Small plays Atticus and Gabriella Margulies is playing Lilly.
At what point did you become involved with Liam and the writing of Paper Hearts?
I first came on board around December 2015 when I heard about the project through Tania [Azevedo], our director, who I have worked with on a number of occasions.
With Liam as composer-writer, is your input simply as an arranger of his musical score or did you make any other contributions to the piece?
While acting firstly as an arranger, over the course of the project I have made quite a few contributions to the composition and lyric writing of the piece, working closely with Liam in order to hone his brilliant musical instincts and sentiment. I’d help to develop Liam’s musical work thematically, look at the scanning of lyrics, and suggest alternative ideas where appropriate in order to help shape the material around these characters. However, I always tried to use Liam’s ‘voice’ so that anything I would write or contribute would be of the same language.
You have had wide experience with both classic musicals such as Into the Woods, Half a Sixpence, Fiddler On the Roof and Cabaret, but also lesser-known pieces such as Loserville, I Sing and Julie. Do you have a preference for old or newer, original material?
I really enjoy a classic, there’s so much history there, but I do love a contemporary musical. Actually my favourite, which I was fortunate to do in Geneva, is Songs For a New World and that is really what got me hooked when I first started.
However, I really do feel a pull towards new writing, since there are no guidelines and everything must be discovered and created. There is no cast recording to listen to so you really have to work diligently, justify everything, and collaborate with everyone in your team in order to tackle all of the challenges new writing throws at you.
You are involved in teaching, developing new writing and showcasing new pieces. How does this come about? Are you sent a lot of possible ideas for scripts and scores or do you seek them out yourself?
It’s a little bit of both really, but most of the time I would get sent something to have a look at and then offer some feedback on it to help move it forward. In some of the organisations such as NEXT:UK they have a concert showcasing new work. I would work with the actors and challenge them into not taking anything for granted with the songs and making sense of everything they sing as they sing it.
What is the music like for Paper Hearts? Does it have an instant appeal for an audience?
I think that the music Liam has written at its core is very exciting. I remember thinking the first time I heard the opening number ‘wow, this is something special’. It immediately got me excited and I could see it going places. So yes I think it has instant appeal, with a variety of styles within the show serving a purpose, yet similar enough to connect together forming a cohesive score. It’s difficult to pin it down, but I’d say folk/pop with a splash of Russian.
One assumes the music for Paper Hearts is written for solo piano and that you will be playing the score in performance.
While the majority of the score is played and supported by the piano, which I will be playing in performance, the show relies on the brilliant actor-musicians of the cast for the real flavour of the score. For Edinburgh, I began orchestrating mostly for piano with the idea of using other instruments for colour, but I soon realised that with this music it would be more exciting for them to take a larger role. So there are many times where the piano takes a back seat and really allows the actors to shine and demonstrate their exceptional abilities. It really has been a joy to work with such brilliant musicians on this show. For me the score isn’t alive without them.
Have you been with the show from its beginnings at the Waterloo East Theatre and through the Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows? What sort of reaction did it receive from these audiences?
Yes, that’s correct, after the sell-out Waterloo East show, we received some wonderful comments and it was lovely going up to Edinburgh with that. However, it was really quite amazing just how well it was received in Edinburgh. We found that international audiences loved it, despite English not being their first language, but also we began to receive personal emails and messages. Some people had been so touched by the show, and the message that it sends, that they wanted to reach out to us. We found it so encouraging that we were actually making a difference for someone in telling this story, no matter how small, and for me that was huge.
Upstairs at the Gatehouse is a very large and adaptable space for any show. Is Paper Hearts going to fit in well in the Highgate pub, a venue noted for its fine musical productions?
I believe so yes, I think it’ll be great to be in a larger space and have a real platform to show the huge potential of this show.
How do think Paper Hearts will go down in Hamburg?
Having previously seen how it landed with international audiences, I believe it should go down well in Hamburg. I really think that the show has something for everyone and that everyone can relate somehow to this story. I think nearly everyone reads and will have a connection with literature, no matter how small. And telling the story through this music, I hope that audiences will find as much joy in the piece as we’ve had developing and building this world together.
After Paper Hearts, what will you be working on, and might there be another show with Liam for you in the future?
I’ve actually been going from job to job for a good while now, so I may actually have a week off when we get back from Hamburg, but I’d love to think that this is only the beginning for Paper Hearts. I really feel that it needs to go further and reach audiences far and wide. Potentially, yes, who knows, I think that we work very well together and I’ve loved the journey so far, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
Compiled by Michael Darvell
* Paper Hearts plays Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate, London from 2 to 20 May 2017