Remembering Stephen Clark – playwright, librettist and lyricist

stephen-clark-playwright-librettist-lyricistRemembering Stephen Clark (2 February 1961 to 15 October 2016).

Stephen Clark, the award-winning playwright, librettist and lyricist, has died at the all too early age of 55. Michael Darvell looks back at a career tragically cut short, but one that remained full of promise…

Like his hero Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Clark seems to have had a very eclectic career that covered all manner of subjects and genres from straight plays to opera libretti, from romantic musicals to the Mahabharata, from adaptations of books and films to pantomime and more.

As well as appearing in London’s West End, Stephen’s work was also staged at the Lyric Hammersmith; Chichester Festival Theatre; The Old Fire Station in Oxford; the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; the Crucible, Sheffield; the Brighton Dome; and Winchester Cathedral. Over the past 30 years his productions have also travelled to France, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Russia, Israel, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, South Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic, China, Singapore, the USA and Australia.

Stephen Clark was born in 1961 in Nottingham but lived in Brighton for much of his working life. He was the son of theatre and television writer Brian Clark, who famously wrote the TV, stage and film versions of Whose Life Is It Anyway? and for television wrote Telford’s Change, Crown Court and the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small, among many other programmes. One of Stephen’s earliest pieces was All Change At the Wells, co-written with his father Brian and composer-conductor Andrew Peggie, who was to collaborate with Stephen on several future occasions.

In 1991 Stephen became involved in musical theatre after studying with Stephen Sondheim at Oxford University where Sondheim held Musical Theatre Masterclasses, sponsored by Cameron Mackintosh, which Andrew Peggie also attended.

The results of this course eventually brought forth Eyam, a musical about the village in Derbyshire that was struck down by Bubonic plague in the 17th century. It had a book and lyrics by Stephen and music by Peggie. Mackintosh chose it to open The Old Fire Station theatre in Oxford and it also played London at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street during 1998.

Lauren Samuels and Daniel Boys in Love Story at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. Picture: Ian Tilton

Lauren Samuels and Daniel Boys in Love Story at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. Picture: Ian Tilton

Sing to the Dawn (1996) was written for the Singapore Repertory Theatre with music by Dick Lee, and lyrics and a book by Stephen. It was based on Minfong Ho’s novel about a Thai girl and her fight to gain an education. That same year he was called upon byMackintosh to rewrite Martin Guerre, which had opened with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Edward Hardy. However, it had had its problems and received a poor reception, so Mackintosh closed the show in order to rehearse new material by Stephen Clark. It went on to win the Best New Musical in the Olivier Awards.

In 1998 Stephen worked on the book of Killing Rasputin with Kit Hesketh-Harvey (of Kit and the Widow) with music by James McConnel, an ambitious show that played at the Bridewell Theatre for an extended run. Take Away (1998) was a devised play produced for the Lyric Studio in Hammersmith, set in a Chinese restaurant and observing life from the other side of the counter. In 1999 Stephen not only wrote the book for the Sadler’s Wells pantomime of Dick Whittington, but he also provided the book and lyrics for My Father’s Son, a musical set in Sheffield and loosely based on Hamlet, for the Crucible in Sheffield with music by Stephen Keeling.

Making Waves, a play about a volunteer lifeboatman, appeared in 2003 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, the home of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. In the same year Stephen’s play Stripped, about a couple who meet and fall in love and then start fighting, won a Jefferson Award at the Circle Theatre in Chicago. More work followed with Dance to My Tune with music by Amy Arthur in 2004. This, like Into the Woods, had a cast of nursery rhyme characters such as Jack and Jill, Tom the Piper’s son, Old Mother Hubbard and King Cole etc, all contained within a pantomime-style show that was staged at the Cheltenham Playhouse.

After this there were to be many more major pieces including a stage adaptation of MM Kaye’s book The Far Pavilions (2005) with music by Philip Henderson at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Then Stephen produced a new libretto for the English National Opera’s La Traviata. The following year saw his book for Mahabharata, a dance theatre piece set to music by Nitin Sawhney at Sadler’s Wells.

Love Story (2010) was a musical based on the best-selling book by Erich Segal and the film of the same which Stephen adapted with music by Howard Goodall for the Chichester Festival Theatre. It proved to be a popular success, transferred to London at the Duchess Theatre and earned itself three Olivier Award nominations for Best Musical (the fourth that Stephen received in his career), Best Actor (Michael Xavier) and Best Actress (Emma Williams). There were further productions in Philadelphia, the Edinburgh Fringe, tours of the Netherlands and Russia, Brazil and the Bolton Octagon Theatre.

Stephen also supplied the book for Sigrun’s Fire (2011), a musical that had begun life as a devised piece called Hagridden, about Iceland and its ever-present threat of volcanoes that can obliterate an entire community.

More recently Stephen had been working on Carmen La Cubana, a version of the Bizet opera set in Cuba that received its premiere in Paris at the Théȃtre du Chȃtelet in 2016. He was also writing the book and lyrics to Mulan for Singapore in 2017 and had begun work on a musical about the pioneering air pilot Charles Kingsford Smith for Sydney, Australia. He also had a new play, Le Grand Mort in the pipeline.

However, my own favourite piece by Stephen Clark has to be Zorro. It was a spectacularly entertaining tongue-in-chic send-up of the fictitious action hero swordsman, with music by the Gipsy Kings and John Cameron and lyrics by Stephen who also co-wrote the book with Helen Edmundson.

One of the show’s most memorable features was its marvellously energetic and athletic choreography. Zorro played try-out performances in Eastbourne during 2008 before moving into the West End where it stayed at the Garrick Theatre for some nine months. That is not a very long run for a successful musical nowadays, which is a pity because it breathed new life into London’s then rather staid musical theatre scene.

It was, however, a great success when it toured to Israel, France, Japan, Korea, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and the USA, making some $70 million in total. At the Olivier Awards it was nominated five times for Best Musical, Best Actor (Matt Rawle), Best Actress (Emma Williams again), Best Choreography (Rafael Amargo), but it won only for Best Supporting Role (Lesli Margherita).

Who knows what else Stephen Clark might have written, had he not died so prematurely. We must be grateful, however, for the fine work and the great legacy he has left behind.

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