TE: It isn’t often I get the chance to talk to people known as the creatives in the theatrical family. Usually, everyone concentrates on the actors. Writers, producers, directors etc are often the unsung heroes of theatre but few of them become really well known outside of their community. So when I was offered the chance to interview Nick Barstow – an acclaimed musical director, arranger, composer and vocalist who has won awards and plaudits from all sides for his work, I leapt at the chance. I managed to pin him down to a coffee between shows at the Union Theatre – where he is currently MDing the Offie-nominated It’s Only Life for a chat. I started off by asking Nick to tell me about himself.
NB: That’s the worst question ever (laugh). So, I’m me, I live in London and I like to say I work in theatre, and then leave it at that. I don’t like to be more specific than that as there is a lot of stuff I enjoy doing and want to do.
TE: If I held a gun to your head, would you say you were a performer first, a composer, first and MD first? How would you describe yourself?
NB: Yes! Composer, MD, performer all first. It really depends what hat I’ve got on that day. I moved to London and I think I felt that composing was what I was planning to do. I did a Masters in it and I thought that it was going to set me up and get me out into the world. About 3 days in I realised that was not the way the world worked, and I had moved to London without a clue as to how anything works.
TE: Like most people, if they’re honest.
NB: Yes, but I knew it was the place I had to be in in order to do something theatre related. So, I carried on with the Masters (but with slightly low attendance) and tried to find work in other areas of theatre whilst I was doing it and that was how I came around to MDing. And I was completely clueless about it and sent around emails to the wrong people for the wrong things. Basically, I loved theatre but was super green about how it worked. I grew up in a village and didn’t have access to work in theatres, they were something other people did as a job and I went to see.
TE: That sounds like my life.
NB: It took that first year of being London to start changing that around.
TE: When you first started to approach composing, did you always know your main genre would be musical theatre or were you originally thinking massive symphonies, oratorios, etc.
NB: I loved it all. I did a music degree at Oxford which really pushed composition. In fact, I didn’t really realise I wanted to compose for theatre until my composition tutor said I shouldn’t. I had said that for my final project I wanted to write a song cycle, in theatre style and he said, ‘the problem is, anyone can churn out a song’. So I told him I would write it but he would never have to look at it or hear it. So I did and got a very good mark for it in the end.
TE: Wow, it seems such a strange idea that someone whose life is music would be so dismissive in that way.
NB: I think he just felt I would struggle to show the complexity of musical thought required. At Oxford, there were people doing heavy conceptual things with music and pushing boundaries that way, but there are still boundaries to be pushed with tunes. Every ‘song’ in the world hasn’t been written yet, and I find it really frustrating when people don’t appreciate there is artistry in melody. I love tunes and think they are incredibly important.
TE: I totally agree. Even within theatre, musicals are sometimes looked down upon as the sort of cousin we don’t talk about. And yet you go and see 42nd Street with a cast of sixty working their backsides off to produce this fabulous show.
NB: Yes, and it is amazing not just because of the dancing but because of the tunes. They really take it to another level, those sounds and evocative melodies with that band under the incredible MD Jae Alexander which is why he has his own raising and lowering podium. When I get to be that good, I will be demanding one too. I think people like to look down on musical theatre as there is sometimes a certain stigma associated with commercialism, and they think tunes are commercial, which I don’t think is correct. So people see Andrew Lloyd Webber as a commercial composer but really he’s just a successful one. He is commercial because he is un-arguably good at writing tunes and yes he’s a clever businessman, but I don’t think he set out with a passion for commerciality, he set out with a passion for melodies and music and that’s what’s made him successful above all else.
TE: This leads nicely into your new show Re:Arrangement which is on at Zedel in August where you taking some musical theatre classics and re-imagining them in exciting and entertaining new ways. The first question I have to ask is why are you doing this?
NB: I think because playing with melodies and with things people know is one of the ways I’ve always loved to be into theatre. When I was younger I would go and see something then go home and try and play it by ear on the piano. And inevitably in that playing, you would find something new in it. I wouldn’t want to just replicate it; I’d then toy with it even more. One of the main things I think that drew me to theatre was this idea of being creative with it when I got home so the tune didn’t just exist in the show, it carried on.
So, that’s the thing I want to do with Re:Arrangement, because I love the diversity of musical theatre styles at the moment in the West End. I love the idea of taking one thing and kind of plopping it into another world.
TE: My first thought was that the songs are perfect this is almost heresy.
NB: I can understand that, but these arrangements are all done with love and demonstrate how amazing the original work is when it still works in such a drastically different setting. One of the numbers Alice Fearn (currently Elphaba in Wicked) is doing is ‘With One Look’ from Sunset Boulevard but as a big sexy up-tempo song and it’s so much fun. The melody stays exactly the same, you just change the elements around it and it becomes this whole new number. It’s almost like ‘what-iffing’ with the tunes and, as I said it will all be done with such love.
One of the things I want to do in the evening is introduce snippets of how this idea of taking a tune and rearranging it already happens in theatre without us necessarily noticing, for example in ‘Wicked’ Stephen Schwartz takes the tune of ‘Over the Rainbow’ and turns it into the ‘B’ section of ‘The Wizard and I’.
TE: That’s amazing.
NB: It’s like telling a story without the listener even realising it. So, at Re:Arrangement I’ll get the chance to show how other composers have done this as well as doing my own variations. There’s such a great history of re-arranging in theatre in order to give the audience something special.
TE: I’m fascinated by this idea. In my mind, I hear a song from a show and immediately think of it within the context of that story, the characters, scenes either side etc. The idea of what you’re doing is mind-blowing. How do you set about changing the song, forgetting its original context?
NB: It’s something I’ve been doing for years. I run an a cappella pop singing group and all we do is covers, but doing direct covers is boring, so you change the style, spice it up a bit. With Pop, you don’t have the context issue, and so having done it so long with pop I think it has freed my mind up to be able to do the same with musical theatre.
TE: Do you get to a point where you are working on a tune and then realise it’s not going to work the way you think?
NB: Yes, it’s no bad thing to admit something doesn’t work. Some ideas may be OK for thirty seconds but not for an entire song! One of the things I’m going to be doing in Re:Arrangement is to have a fun segment of tunes which ‘didn’t make it’ to the final show. Like I’ve got a 30-second snippet of a Phantom of the Opera as a Burt Bacharach lounge jazz tune. It sounds good slash hilarious for a few seconds but I wouldn’t subject the audience to more than that. Noel Sullivan is in the show and I really want him to something from Hear’Say…
TE: You seem to be insanely busy with many projects on the go at once, how do you keep track of everything?
NB: I think I genuinely often forget that my job isn’t a hobby. So I think about one project as a break from another project. So today, I’m doing this interview and it’s a break from It’s Only Life. Tomorrow I’m working on Much Ado About Nothing which is a break from ‘It’s Only Life’. So my life is a series of breaks.
TE: Given how much you’ve achieved at a relatively young age, what’s next for you? A full musical maybe?
NB: Well yes. I’m working on two at the moment, in my spare time. My goal when thinking about the future is ‘more of the same but better’ and that covers all aspects of my work. I consider myself really lucky that I work on so many things and spend time with so many people who love theatre the way I do.
TE: You sound so enthusiastic about your work. It’s obvious how much you enjoy it and, in this day and age, that’s a rare thing to have so much job satisfaction. When you’re working as an MD, will you look at the work in front of you and ever go, I’d like to alter certain things?
NB: In the same way that a Director looks at the text and work out how it functions, as an MD you look at the music of the piece and pull it apart and work out how that functions. So even if it’s not what you would have written, somebody wrote it and if you respect it enough to want to do the show, you’ll work out why they wrote it.
TE: So you’re running Re:Arrangement for two nights (4th and 5th August)
NB: I thought two nights, over a weekend, would be a great start for the show. As well as Alice and Noel we have Caroline Sheen who I’ve always admired and am thrilled to be working with, Jenn Harding and Offie nominated Andy Coxon. The evening is also being directed and co-created by Kirk Jameson. So it’s a really strong mix of talent and styles.
Alice Fearn – Hello Young Lovers [Just Me And A Piano]
TE: And you will be singing as well?
NB: Yes, I’ll definitely have to sing something. I don’t know what that is yet though.
TE: Without giving too much away, do you have a massive song to end the show on?
NB: Oh yes, there’s going to be a good finale but I’m not giving away what it is yet. It’s not just a night of solos, there’s duets and trios going on. There’s a duet of two songs from different shows as a mash-up. There’s also a ‘Hamilton’ number taken through the ages from Gilbert and Sullivan using every major musical style to showcase the legacy of musical theatre. You know Christina Bianco, the impressionist? Well imagine Christina but rather than doing impression of singers it’s ‘Hamilton’ doing an impression of ‘Pirates of Penzance’, or ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Kiss me Kate’…
TE: Do you have any worries that some musical theatre purists may be anti your work in Re:Arrangement?
NB: I think there are so many ways that people can love musical theatre. I know a lot of people that love it and will love this evening because it just allows you to get really stuck in. We’ve got fabulous musical theatre performers singing songs they love in a way they love. It should be a night musical theatre lovers are all up for. I mean, I consider myself a bit of a purist and I’m doing it. I love tunes and there will be amazing tunes presented in amazing new ways.
TE: It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing night and I can’t wait to see it. Thank you so much for fitting me into your time and good luck with Re:Arrangement, the rest of the run of It’s Only Life and all of the other projects you have on the go.
Hailed by BroadwayWorld as “one of theatre’s most exciting young musical talents”, Nick Barstow is back with a brand new show that is a must-see for any musical theatre lover.
RE:Arrangement is a celebration of musical theatre like no other. With a crack-team of West End regulars at his side, composer and (re)arranger Barstow will take the songs you think you know and turn them upside down. From Hammerstein to Hamilton, prepare for mashups, gender-flips and sparkling new arrangements of musical theatre classics.
Co-conceived and directed by Kirk Jameson
4th & 5th August 2018, 7PM