This speech was given for the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s 21st Birthday dinner - April 2019
Well this is strange. I very much still see myself as an emerging theatre director, so it feels weird to be a special guest speaker tonight. Then again I have made the decision to devote my life and career to musical theatre so its nice to be back here where it all started. If it weren’t for the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society my life would be very different and so, I imagine, would most of yours.
As some of you will know, I was here between 2004 and 2007 and was studying medicine. But very quickly it became evident that my main area of study was going to be musical theatre. I remember my first year physiology professor Stuart Sage saying: “When we interviewed you I thought you showed a lot of promise, but then I saw you in every bloody musical at the ADC and I reevaluated that somewhat”. I remember replying by asking him why he went to so many musicals. He replied. “I like them because there’s always a lot going on”
And there is always a lot going on. I grew up wanting to understand the world and why we’re all here. I thought the answers might be found in science, then I thought they might be in medicine. But I’m here now knowing that the answers are in musical theatre. Musicals take elements of religion, science, storytelling, community, technology, comedy and tragedy and weave them together. Musicals are an event, They are a sharing, they help us understand why we’re here and they’re most responsible for my moments of life changing clarity.
So I left Cambridge realising that I didn't want to be a doctor and as I watched my sensible friends become surgeons and barristers and Fintech executives, I decided to write some emails to see if some professional theatre directors might let me sit in their rehearsal room. Twelve years later and I’ve follow spotted, stage managed, assistant directed, directed, made props, script edited and got lots and lots of coffee.
A career in theatre can feel somewhat purgatorial. Without the structures and architecture of a more conventional life it can sometimes feel shapeless and formless. But, a career in musical theatre can be like watching a musical itself, despite the difficulty it is full of THOSE moments. Moments when that chord progression, that lyric, that lighting change, that piece of choreography, all happen at the same time. Yes, it’s full of admin and drudgery and instability but it’s also full of those moments where everything feels just as it should. Where everything aligns and arrives at the same time, overwhelming and interlaced. Lighting up every part of the brain at once. I have often come across people that try and divide the world into art and science, but musical theatre can be both.
I started my professional career trying to balance plays and musicals. I didn't want to only do musicals because of the stigma that they are low art. Somehow a medium where a series of complex disciplines are vertiginously balanced on top of one another is somehow seen, often, as low art. But, I have always had the belief that far from musicals being lower, that they are the highest form, the true epitome of total theatre. And that belief began here.
Cambridge was the place where being intelligent and liking musicals was allowed. Where having endless discussions about lyrics and form and structure and storytelling didn’t seem overblown, but essential. In my every day life at the moment I constantly meet people who are snobby and under informed about musicals. But that never seemed to happen at Cambridge. People here cared about the form, they cared about the possibilities, they cared about what musicals had been and what they could aspire to being. Everyone wanted to be in musicals here, even the actors who spent most of their time doing Shakespeare wanted to be in a musical at the ADC.
I remember sharing cast albums, looking to find the strangest and coolest new musicals. I remember us all caring so much, and loving them so much and enjoying them so much. I remember the thrill of being with such intelligent people, watching them getting to flex their early theatrical instincts on such diverse and unexpected shows. I remember my first experiences of Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori and Michael John LaChiusa all happening as I walked through these streets or was in these rooms. I remember intense conversations about Sondheim in the ADC bar that I had never found a group of people to have with me before. You can care about musicals and be intelligent. That is why I’m grateful to CU MTS.
In my third year here I studied History and Philosophy of science (which is what medics choose for their third year if they secretly don’t want to be doctors but are too scared to tell their parents yet). The thing I found most interesting was the philosophy of scientific revolutions. How discoveries and innovation are made in science. It’s all about community. Communities of scientists who share their research and ideas and agree on shared principles. Science is built by continually standing on top of the shoulders of the giants that have come before. CUMTS was my first community. A group of people who had proceeded my time at Cambridge and a group that followed. A community of people interested in not only caring about musicals but pushing them forward. Looking for innovation and progression, to do something harder and more complicated and more impressive. Sometimes professional theatre can be impersonal and uncaring but I always look to try and build communities wherever possible and that is because of CUMTS.
Not everyone here works in musical theatre but even those that don’t, I know, that by caring about this form, you share a commitment to a broader type of thinking. A belief in the metaphysical and the philosophical. A belief in community and the ensemble, a belief in emotion and catharsis, the integration of big ideas and small ideas, in the essential notion that we all share something communal.
One of the weird things about growing up is the way that we get to notice the arcs of our lives. My first show at Cambridge was Sondheim and Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, ten years later I was associate director on the same show in the west end. The opening number asks “How did you get to be here? What was the moment?” The moment was: bar nights of new songs and late nights in Edinburgh and crammed dressing rooms and production meetings in Borders Starbucks and sharing cast albums on DC++ and debating on that couch and spending all day flambarring paper in the scene dock and that time we wheeled tuned percussion to the ADC from west road on a trolley and the first preview of Wicked that we went on a group outing to and that bench we stole from Newnham and all day rehearsals in that weird windmill type room at Clare and post show Dinners in Pizza Express and watching the sunrise from the ADC bar. Those laughs, those tears, those arguments, those ovations and eventually that final blackout. I’m grateful for every moment spent with those at CU MTS, the good and the bad. They all brought us to today.
In October 2017 I came back here for the first time in years. My then girlfriend was performing a gig in town and after it finished we decided to check out the late show at the ADC. It was the week zero home run of Six following it’s first triumphant Edinburgh festival. Everything was exactly the same as I remembered it. The same box office, those same steps, that same bar, the same corridor and the same theatre. But there was also a host of young impassioned people. People who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me. Everywhere I looked I saw ghosts and memories of then, half remembered versions of me and my friends haunting every corner, every table and every doorway. But I also saw these bright new faces, heard fragments of their excited conversations, their gossip and their woes. A new generation of talent and passion, intelligence and care. I remember feeling like I had stumbled into my own personal version of Follies. Present and past collapsing together. It all made me realise just how lucky I was and we were and we are to have this. To have shared a time where “everything was possible”. We know it wasn’t always plain sailing. We had our ups and downs. But we know that when it locked into place there was no where else any of us would rather be.
So join me in raising a toast to the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society and everyone who was here and will be.