The Wicker Husband is a musical theatre work-in-progress being brought to life by actor and book-writer Rhys Jennings and composer-lyricist Darren Clark. This nascent show takes its inspiration from a short story of the same name – a folksy fable in the style of a fairy tale – self-published online by Gloucester writer Ursula Wills-Jones.
In it, a reclusive ‘short and dumpy’ woman dubbed the ‘ugly girl’ becomes the envy of her neighbours when she acquires a husband magically woven from wicker. The ensuing jealousies and rivalries tear the community apart as the villagers seek to destroy the ugly girl’s husband and happiness.
So far, much of the material written by Jennings and Clark has been workshopped – at the Unicorn Theatre in London and at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. But the show’s creators are currently seeking funding to raise the minimum necessary to convince the Arts Council to invest the bulk of the budget needed to complete the piece.
To this end, Jennings has created a compelling Indiegogo campaign – http://bit.ly/wickerhusband – that outlines his vision of the show: a folk-flavoured musical with innovative wicker puppetry.
In the passionate campaign video, Jennings and his team – which also includes the dramaturg Charlotte Westenra – outline the work done to date, and explain the challenges and ambitions ahead.
As part of the promotion for this stage in the funding, Musical Theatre Review’s Craig Glenday was given the opportunity to speak some of those involved in the show to date, namely composer-lyricist Clark and two of the actresses tasked with developing the character of the Ugly Girl: Ellie Pawsey and Anne-Marie Piazza. The hope was to shine a light on this important stage of development in a new show’s life and reveal the extent of the work that goes into creating a musical fit for the stage.
To begin with, Craig spoke to composer Clark about his role in finding the musical language of the show.
What stage are you at with The Wicker Husband?
At the moment, it’s basically almost a full draft. We’ve got about 16 or 17 songs, and Act I has been workshopped with the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Act I is in a much better state than Act II! We did two weeks with students to firm up the first half, and we’ve got the direction we want to go in, and the story’s all set out. We’re going to spend another week together this April to firm up the second half, and then doing a series of three workshops to work on the dramaturgy, the puppetry and the dance elements. Then we’ll put together a showcase towards the end of the year.
You also did some earlier workshops at the Unicorn Theatre…?
Yes, we called in about 30 or 40 of our actor, music and puppeteer mates and they gave whatever time they could. We got a lot of work done during that week as well. That was in May last year. Following that week, we then went to the Royal Welsh College and did two separate weeks, one in December and one in January, and that’s when we worked on Act I, building on what we’d done at the Unicorn.
Does the material change much in or between these workshops?
It does. What I think has always been clear is the idea of the show and the type of show we want to do. There’s a huge element of puppetry, and we want this to be at the heart of it. The story is about this ugly girl and people’s perception of what ugliness is. So in that sense, the story hasn’t changed much. But what is developing all the time is the perception of how we best tell it.
Also, we’re developing the songs to ensure that each one is working really hard for us and doing something. So if there’s a song, it takes us from one place to another, either in plot or in character or in both. We’re working really hard to make sure that nothing is redundant. It’s quite a journey!
Have you thrown out a lot of material along the way?
Yes, especially with the opening. We’re tried a couple of different things, and to be honest I don’t think Rhys or I have nailed it yet. There were several songs I wrote almost straight away after reading the story about two and a half years ago, and if you were to listen to them now, compared with the versions in the current show, you’d hear that they’ve transformed completely. There might be one tune or lyric that’s remained, but they’ve grown and changed into all these different songs; the heart will be the same but they’ve gone on more of a journey. So yes, things are changing all the time, and will continue to change as we learn more from the actors and puppeteers, and our dramaturg Charlie Westenra, who’s helping us keep story in mind all the time. It’s a constant evolution.
Is this your usual way of working?
In the projects I’ve worked on in the past – until this year – I’ve always built from the heart of the story and figured out how we tell it as we go. I’m doing that on several other projects at the moment and I enjoy it.
It gives the people involved a lot of ownership over what comes out of it. I’m writing the music and lyrics for an adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox this year, and when I was first approached about that, the first draft of the script had been written, so that’s a very different process. Each method has its own advantages.
Was it difficult to get the rights to the story?
No, not difficult. Rhys first read the story, I think, about four years ago. He just found it – it’s a short story – on the internet. He approached the author Ursula Wills-Jones and said: “I love your story, would you mind if I did something with it for the stage?” Ursula said: “Absolutely, go ahead, run with it, do what you like.” It was two years later that he talked to me about it.
It’s a beautiful story, but I think because the story’s not all that well known, it’s difficult to come by unless you know what you’re looking for. So I don’t think that Ursula has been approached by any other people wanting to adapt it into a stage show. I’ve noticed that it’s been made into a couple of short films for the internet, but ours was the first to approach her for a stage adaptation. She’s been very supportive up until now, and we’re just firming up the rights for the rest of the development period.
Your Indiegogo video has a very folksy feel to it. Will this be a folk musical?
My influences as a songwriter when I was growing were the storytellers: Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell – guys who tell great stories through music. For this show, it felt very natural to go to the folk-instrument world and play with the musical styles within that. So everything will be married by the instruments and arrangements, but I wouldn’t say that they’re all traditional folk tunes. There are elements of pop music that will hopefully come through, although altered by the fact that we’re using these folk instruments to do these pop rhythms. And I feel the lyrics drive a lot of it.
How did you come to work with Rhys?
He was an actor performing in a show that I’d written the songs for, and that’s how I met him. We were chatting in the pub after a show one night in Oxford and he said: “I found this story and I think you might like it and want to write the music for it. Have a read and let me know what you think.” I went home and read it and I couldn’t help myself from writing a couple of songs straight away. It’s definitely one of these projects that you really dream about. It’s a dream to be working on it. I feel very lucky that Rhys asked me – it’s right up my street and came at just the right time.
I’m writing the music and lyrics and Rhys is writing the book. I’ll share a song with Rhys and he’ll give me lots of thoughts on it and how it works. We talk a lot about what a song should do before we decide if it’s working or not.
How’s the funding going?
It’s great to see lots of people getting behind it, and it’s also focusing our minds on the workshops that we need to do. We want to get Arts Council funding for it, and the money we’re raising is to go towards the ten per cent that the Arts Council requires that you raise by yourself before you get funding from them. And we’re applying for lots of others: the Stiles & Drewe mentorship Award; the Kevin Spacey Foundation; Rhys has applied to Sky Arts [the Sky Academy Arts Scholarships]; and we’ve got a few other scholarship applications in for it as well. So we’re just looking everywhere we can to get people interested in it.
We think that it’s going to be something very beautiful but it costs a lot! The crowdfunding has been an experience. Rhys has been far more at the forefront of it than I have at the moment, but I’m hoping to get more involved in the coming weeks. But it’s a lot of work time spent sending out updates and finding new people to get excited about it… Especially people with money!
Next, we spoke to ELLIE PAWSEY, a post-grad student on the MA Musical Theatre course at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. It was here that The Wicker Husband was workshopped and where life was breathed into Act I. Ellie was given the chance to play the Ugly Girl and, as she explains, fell in love with the story instantly.
When did you start work on The Wicker Husband?
Towards the end of last year, the team came in and workshopped Act I with us. We did a rehearsed reading and performed it as a small group of people. They came in in December and we carried on in January. We all sat around in a circle and Darren started by playing some music. I fell in love with it straight away.
What was your involvement?
I’m from Yorkshire, and the play is set in Yorkshire, so I had quite a bit of input with the accent, which was nice. I was given the role of the Ugly Girl to have a read and play with. She’s a great character to get your teeth into. She has a vulnerability and naivety but the more that you get to know her – and the more I personally looked into the character and explored it – you find that she’s really feisty, which is something that I loved working with.
What’s nice is that there’s a journey for the Ugly Girl within the Act I. She’s obviously quite downtrodden and you can see how badly she’s treated by the villagers. She’s given this name, the Ugly Girl – terrible, really – and the audience sees her early on, talking to the willow tree, who at that point is her only friend. But with the song ‘My Wicker Man’, you get to see her grow in confidence and her true colours come out. You see that she’s no push-over. She starts to dream about having someone – a wicker man who can be her husband and companion.
How did you and your fellow students’ involvement change the show?
There was quite a bit of change. We were asked to improvise some extra scenes to consider the sort of characters who’d be apparent in this kind of village setting. It was before Christmas when we experimented with them, and when we came back after the break, we realised that Rhys had put some of those improvised ideas into the script, which was lovely.
Some of the songs changed slightly too. We sort of created our own harmonies as an ensemble. We were working with Darren in a really organic and raw way, and it was nice to feel that we were having an input into creating something.
Had you any experience of this way of working previously?
No, not really. I think that that’s what was so lovely about the style of it – it’s a folk musical but folk isn’t something I’ve really touched on before. Sitting around in a circle or around a piano or guitar, we just had the lyrics, rather than the sheet music. This is something that you don’t tend to do any more, working by ear. You just feel it and create something beautiful. It’s the organic side of it that was so lovely for me and fits with the whole magical theme of the musical.
How does it feel to be creating a new character?
It’s a real honour. I feel I connected quite easily with her, especially with the Ugly Girl being sort of young – I picture her around my age, 23 – and there are so many sides to her you may not see on first glance. She’s quite inspiring as a character, and I think that audiences young and old could learn a lot from her. What is beauty? It starts that whole conversation. I was given a lovely role to play, and a lovely song to sing.
Are you hoping to be involved later in the show’s life?
I’d love to be. I’m still in training – I finish in July – but I’m still in contact with Rhys and Darren. It was great working with Charlie Westenra too. I’d love to see where it goes and follow its development. It’s given me a great opportunity to network and meet people like Rhys, Darren and Charlie. You can see the amount of work and effort that goes into a show. And as soon as they get the funds to make this work and the puppetry comes together, the show will come to life – the puppetry’s a real USP. It could be on a par with The Lion King and War Horse!
Finally, we spoke to ANNE-MARIE PIAZZA, an alumni of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, who also helped to shape the character of the Ugly Girl. As well as her soprano voice, Piazza lists various other musical instruments on her resumé – accordion, piano, cello, ukulele and recorder – all of which helped her work with Clark on finding a musical language for her character, as well as for the show as a whole.
You worked on an early draft of the show; what are you doing currently?
I’m working on a short film about a couple who are both cellists and both going for the same job and how that affects their relationships. It helps that I’m a cellist!
What was your involvement in The Wicker Husband?
I took part in one of the early stages, which was working with Darren originally then bringing in Charlie and Rhys. So I worked with the other musicians in creating some of the musical language. Darren came in with the compositions and we adapted them for various instruments. Then with Charlie and Rhys, we put songs into our own voices, and I was the Ugly Girl in our round of workshops. I’d worked with Darren on a few things in the past. He’s one of my favourite composers.
Are you used to this way of working?
I’m used to people giving you the dots [the musical score] and telling you that’s what you’ve got to do. With Darren, he comes with the dots and he knows exactly what he’s heard, but then you play it and we’ll think, you know what, this needs a samba beat or this needs to be played on the accordion instead of the guitar. And given the people we were working with, some of whom I’ve worked with before, Darren knew what our instrument capabilities were so we just shifted instruments to try it out and discover brand new things. Sometimes, it changed the whole feeling of a song. Darren’s very collaborative with his music.
The other two actresses sang the same song but through us it adapted and changed because we all brought different things to it. For example, somebody mis-read something and brought in a brand new tune, which was then written into the music by the time the next person in the chain came to it. I can see that the show’s language and its world are growing exponentially. Darren is incredibly prolific – he can just go away and create five new songs because he’s just had a spark of inspiration.
What in particular did you bring to the role?
Partly the musical relationship I’ve already got with Darren – I’ve worked with him before and I understand him. His music suits me better than anything I’ve played before. It’s the most authentic I feel I am when I’m singing. It suits my voice; it sits in a wonderful place. He allows me to take charge of it and take ownership of the music. His songs are always ‘earworms’, so you can never quite escape them. They stay with you. I take on what he writes and it suits me in ways I’ve not found other things do. But what did I bring to it? I suppose I brought something natural – it was very me.
Is the intention for it to be an actor-musician piece?
I think so. That’s how Darren works. It’s a combo of what Rhys and Darren wants. I don’t know who will be doing what – I don’t know how much the leads will be expected to play musical instruments – but it certainly connects with the style of everyone mucking in and everyone being part of the story. Playing instruments is part of telling the story. Rather than just a band in the corner, they’d be essential to the story being told.
Being an actor-muso has got a good and a bad rep. It implies you’re more muso than actor but audiences love it. It’s a bit like magic when you bring out a musical instrument because it’s a thing that most of us have had a bash at, but only a handful of people play very well. But when you hear people perform songs that are incredibly well written, it’s really quite special.
We’ll be using puppeteers, and an instrument is like a puppet, almost – it has lifeforce, as it were. I have a cello and I’ve given it a name, for crying out loud! So for me, my instrument has a personality.
Have you seen any of the puppets?
I’ve just seen some of the drawings of the things they’ve worked on. I know that Rhys is going to learn to work with wicker eventually and be able to make the puppets himself. He wants puppeteers to know how to work with wicker, and he wants the weavers to know how their creations will work as puppets, so it’s all very ‘ensemble’.
Have you been following the progress of the crowdfunding?
Yes, I’ve been re-tweeting and so on. Rhys is working tirelessly – it’s really something that he cares a hell of a lot about, and when someone cares that much, it’s difficult not to feel the same. It’s not the first time I’ve come across crowdfunding. It’s about firing the imagination, really, and giving audiences something they want to buy a piece of.
I guess this story still has a long way to go…
Well, they have their Act II now, so they know where it’s going. The attention will flick away from the Ugly Girl somewhat. It’s not just about one person: it’s about a community and how they cope and how they adjust to their darkness, I suppose. When the Ugly Girl finds happiness, the community becomes unsettled. It it’s quite folklore-y, as stories go.
What made you want to be a part of it?
I really liked the story. It’s different… not something that I’ve come across before. It’s a fairytale with goodies and baddies but also people in between. They’re flawed – they’re human and make mistakes. It’s not all black and white, and that’s lovely. I do wonder how they’ll deal with the ending, as it’s quite bleak and you’re not quite sure who ends up being happy. But I guess the Grimm fairy tales were never that happy! They’re more stories to help you live your life.
* There are only a few days left before the Indiegogo campaign officially comes to an end, so if you want to invest, visit http://bit.ly/wickerhusband