The Prodigals is a new musical by Ray Goudie and Joe Harmston (who also directs), which runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 14 September. With its roots in the biblical tale of the Prodigal Son, it’s set in Afghanistan and tells the story of a father, Colonel Luke Gibson (Simon Bowman) and his two sons, Mike, a conscientious solder (Sam Ferriday) and Kyle (Greg Oliver) who leaves the Army for a drug-fuelled career with his band The Prodigals. It’s a very different kind of musical with an eclectic mix of songs and a moving storyline. It was initially Goudie’s idea:
Ray Goudie: I think it’s a very simple story but with complex issues that I thought would resonate with most people.
Joe Harmston: For a contemporary audience it had to have a modern setting, but the crucial problem was how to create a community that any audience would understand, because it’s a big deal both for Kyle to leave that community, and for him to try to come back. The British Army provides exactly that, along with the core values of loyalty, humility and discipline and a very masculine way of looking at it all.
RG: We wrote 90 per cent of the lyrics before the music. With the book and lyrics in place we had a very clear idea of what we needed musically. It’s really important that each song moves the story along so that it has its own particular energy and a hook that draws you in. The great thing about this project is that we’re also working with some innovative, new, young composers who wouldn’t normally write for musical theatre.
JH: One of the great joys for us is that we could create lyrics and a story moment that leads up to a song and then choose a young composer best suited to it.
RG: It’s not that we were trying to be trendy, but we wanted music that is totally authentic to the story – it’s the kind of music that young people are actually creating now. Then there are the songs for the father which are quite different and much more rock-inspired and really suit Simon Bowman’s voice and fit his character so well.
JH: So you actually get a musical identity which defines the age groups as well. When we did the show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe we had to make it work in an hour long slot, and it really focused our minds on what the story was, the arc of the story and how to tell it efficiently. It’s always been the drama that drove the piece and now we’ve refined the story, there are new songs and we’ve reinterpreted some of the roles – the trick so much of the time has been trying to keep it simple.
RG: There’s a new song written for Act I between the two brothers – oh my, there’s going to be a lot of tears! Until you put it front of an audience you never know what the reaction will be, but in Edinburgh it seemed to appeal to people of all ages from eight to 80, and even people who don’t normally like musicals. Matt Smith is our musical supervisor and he’s been a great calming influence, working with the cast to find the best ways of utilising their voices and in particular with Simon Bowman, as they’ve been trying out a lot of different things musically.
Simon Bowman (well-known for creating the role of Chris in the original West End production of Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Other West End credits include Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Mack & Mabel and Blondel):
Creating a new role is always challenging and it’s great because it gives you the freedom to develop a character. This role is very different from creating the role of Chris in Miss Saigon, even apart from the age difference, and I think there’s a particular quality about playing a British Colonel. He has to have authority in the regiment to lead his troops, including his sons, and he is a father showing unconditional love for both his sons in difficult circumstances. It’s a demanding acting role, which is fantastic for me because he’s quite a complex character and, like Saigon, there is a breakdown scene near the end. He has to control and hold back his emotions for much of the time because he’s torn between his two sons, not wanting to favour one or the other, and trying to make them understand that he loves them both equally and always. He’s under pressure from the regiment not wanting to accept Kyle back, and in the end it becomes too much for him. So in the song ‘Grace’ he loses it, and for the first time shows his vulnerability as a human being. It’s an unusual love triangle really between a father and two sons and the brothers’ love for each other and it’s a really powerful story.
Ray Goudie, Joe Harmston and Simon Bowman were in conversation with Margaret Vermette.
Sarah Watson plays the role of Kyle’s band mate, Kelly Byrne in The Prodigals. Supporting them is an ensemble of eight actors, dancers and musicians, including four previous cast members from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe workshop production. Reprising their roles are Sarah Wilkie, Simeon John-Wake, Omari Bernard and Emma Franklin. Completing the ensemble is James William Marshall, Jamie Ray-Hartshorne, Melanie Brown and Louise Chapman.
Set design for The Prodigals is by Sean Cavanagh, lighting design is by Ben Cracknell, sound design is by Ben Harrison and the musical supervisor is Matt Smith. Choreography is by Natalie Murdoch.