Two years to opening night

This week we opened the new musical Henrietta with the National Youth Music Theatre. Here’s a piece I wrote for the programme about the development process.

#WeLoveNewMusicals – Henrietta from workshop to production

Welcome to Henrietta, an utterly magical new musical written by Katie Lam and Alex Parker. This is the sixth new piece I’ve supported the development of as part of NYMT’s commitment to new British Musicals and it has already been on quite a journey.

NYMT has premiered a catalogue of innovative British Musicals including The Other School, Brass, Prodigy, Battle of Boat, Superhero, Growl, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, A Little Princess and Legend Trippers. In the Spring of 2019, we put a call out for young writers to submit pitches for musicals which might benefit from a workshopping process with the space, time and talent of the NYMT company. Alex and Katie submitted their adaptation of The Railway Children which blew the team away, but as the Railway Children doesn’t have very many younger roles we set them the task of coming up with a new idea which might work across the whole age spectrum of the NYMT company.

Developing new musicals is a complex and delicate process which even the most avid theatre lover might not know much about. It takes thought, care and time – Hamilton took seven years from first idea to first night, and Lin Manuel Miranda is on record saying that the second song alone ‘My Shot’ was the work of an entire year! As part of our dramaturgical conversations with the Henrietta company over the last two weeks we have talked about choice and how as a writer and creative you are always choosing which thread to hold, which story to tell, which characters to focus on. One of the reasons that the NYMT musical in development course is so fascinating to be a part of it is that it lets young performers understand how things come to be as they are – a process that another company are embarking on this very week with the new musical A Kiss for Cinderella.

The first workshop of Henrietta took place in the summer of 2019 and a group of 28 young performers spent a week exploring the material. It looked very different to what you’re seeing today – in fact there are only two songs which have remained as originally workshopped – although many sections have been altered and repurposed. Time was spent exploring, staging, questioning and reimagining what was at that point half of a first act and a synopsis of the rest of the show. Songs were written, rewritten, abandoned and started again. Katie wrote thousands and thousands of words a day which we tried in the room. Whole characters came into existence as a result of the wonderful young actors breathing life into them – in fact the character of Henrietta’s best friend Tom is as he is now because of the warmth and skill of the actor who played what was then a role of no more than a few lines. At that point Elisabeth didn’t exist and Hendrick was Henrietta’s brother. It was also fascinating to see which parts of the piece our young company took to and found interesting – they were curious about the question of what it means to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and embraced the complexity of what it means to be a child of wartime. Their input and ideas were fed back into the next phase of the writing process.

All of this highlights how three dimensional the process of making new musicals is. There’s no blueprint – the actors and I might lift Katie’s words off the page and stage them, then Alex or Charlie will introduce underscore which calls back to a different theme or character, then the actors re learn the timing of the dialogue to the underscore. We are always telling multiple stories at once and (sometimes to the actors frustration!) things never stop changing.

During 2020 we met online with another company of young performers who read the first completed script and heard the whole piece for the first time. At this point other characters started to really come into focus and the threads of friendship, sacrifice and bravery took centre stage. The ending for Mr Reitberg was different. Another round of observations were made and incorporated.

Often on the NYMT new musicals the rewriting continues all the way through rehearsals as well but maybe because this piece has already had such a fulsome development process, the script that we handed out to our company two weeks ago has remained much the same with the odd new line or new lyric. The exception to this is the final scene which was written to take place in the kitchen but which we relocated to the train station. That brilliant suggestion was made by Stewart, our designer – the kitchen furniture is bulky and harder to make appear than the train station and he and I both felt it was too late in the game for another scene change – and also we wanted to bookend the piece and bring some joy to a place that we know as being painful from the other times we visit it during Act 1. This led to some alteration of lines, new music and a very different feel to the ending of the show.

Finally, a wonderful piece of co-incidence – our very first Henrietta in the workshop was a young actress called Faye Herlihy who has just finished performing in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Faye is the older sister of Charlotte who you will see as Henrietta tonight. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a family to develop a musical – and the NYMT family is one of the best I know.