Tess The Musical isn’t the only musical adaptation of the Thomas Hardy Tess of the D’Urbervilles novel out there. A different one had a run at the Savoy Theatre in 1999 (music: Stephen Edwards, lyrics: Justin Fleming), which was sung-through (as this one is). Another one, with Jessica Daley in the title role, was performed at New Wimbledon Studio in 2014, with book, music and lyrics by Alex Loveless. The earlier one had mostly poor reviews, and the latter one received a lot of positive feedback.
There is even a rock opera version, written by Annie and Jenna Pasqua, developed in New York, which made it on to the British stage in April 2011 at the King’s Head Theatre, as part of the Festival of International New Musicals, and in March 2013 at the Landor Theatre, as part of the From Page to Stage festival. There have also been several film and television adaptations: there’s a reason why it’s so often adapted – it’s a great storyline.
This concept album features a cast of 21. An orchestra of ten is directed by Michael Blore, the show’s composer. It’s hardly ground-breaking in terms of musical theatre, performed with all the flourish and variety an epic book musical would be reasonably expected to be performed with. The opening number is suitably vibrant – after all, a party is in progress – and introduces the narrative swiftly but not hurriedly. The deep vocals of James Dinsmore’s John Durbeyfield are immediately striking, warm and assured.
As an entirely sung-through production, some of the lyrics don’t quite fit the melody. But all is clear, and even for those who have never encountered the story before, this adaptation is easy to follow. ‘In My Hand’ is the musical’s ‘I wish’ number, sung sublimely by Tess (Siobhan Dillon). Dashes of dark comedy appeared in the dispensation of instructions from the alpha male Alec d’Urberville (Tam Mutu) to servants on a large estate, and then later in a song about farmer, ‘Have You Ever?’ where Izzy (Nikki Claire Cross) and Marian (Sally Joliffe) demonstrate to new employee Retty (Philippa Rose). It’s a hoot, and filled with double-entendres that had me laughing out loud.
For the most part, however, it’s a serious tale, and inevitably some of the details from the novel have been simplified. One must have a heart of stone not to be moved at least to some extent by what happens to Tess, impacted in several ways by the rigid structures of rural Victorian society. The chemistry between Tess and Angel Clare (Simon Bailey) is palpable and convincing, and despite a momentous fallout early in Act Two, not for nothing is the penultimate musical number called ‘Guardian Angel’ (geddit?).
It’s billed as being ‘in the manner of Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera’, though neither came to mind whilst listening to it, though a rock number with religious content, ‘The Greater the Sinner, The Greater the Saint’, made me think of Jesus Christ Superstar. There are one or two other numbers that could, given the upbeat style of the music, be staged with a touch of razzle-dazzle.
I very much enjoyed the soaring melodies and hummable tunes: truth be told, there aren’t very many new British musicals that are anywhere near as truly stirring and sensational as this one. Perhaps it is rather ground-breaking after all. The variation in the pace and tone in the musical numbers, all of which drive the story forward in some way, made the recording a pleasure to hear.
Majestic and mesmerising, Tess The Musical is a worthwhile experience, and I hope it won’t be too long before a fully staged production is brought to fruition.
Written by composer Michael Blore and award-winning playwright Michael Davies, the musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic Tess of the d’Urbervilles is going live on the show’s website as part of a drive to get the musical fully staged. Followers and fans can sign up to join #TeamTess and be given free access to listen to the whole show.
Set in the Wessex so beloved by Hardy, TESS tells the devastating story of Tess Durbeyfield, daughter of a poor villager who fatefully discovers that they may be related to the ancient aristocratic d’Urberville family. As Tess is sent to seek respectability with her new-found relatives, she embarks on an emotional and dramatic journey that leads to love, loss and ultimate tragedy.
Lyricist Michael Davies said: “It’s been a wonderfully exciting journey to get to this point, and we couldn’t have wished for a better cast and technical team. We’ve had amazing support and encouragement from the likes of Sir Tim Rice and, as he delicately points out, what we now need is a producer. If you see Sir Cameron, do let him know…”