Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gilbert and Sullivan. Lennon and McCartney. Hancock and Payne.
The musical world is built on writing partnerships, sparking off each other to create something much more than the sum of its parts.
You may not have heard of the last duo in that short list. Yet.
Together they’ve created The Girl in the Hat, a musical based on the wild, exotic, highly emotional life and times of Isabella Blow, fashion editor and talent spotter (Stella Tennant, Sophie Dahl), muse to hat designer Philip Treacy, and bon viveur, before bowing out tragically early in 2007 at 48. For Ollie Hancock, one half of the duo alongside Ed Payne, fashion was actually the least interesting aspect of her life less ordinary:
Isabella Blow’s story was something that resonated. It was her eccentricity, her bawdy, unabashed style and personality we loved. A musical felt like the right form of theatre to tell it because her life was so technicolour. She had such a huge influence on British culture, yet nobody really knows who she is, so her story – full of adventure and heart, glamour and pain – is an underdog one at heart. It’s not a story about fashion, it’s a story about someone who was involved in the world of fashion. It’s about the human spirit.
For students on Edge Hill University’s BA (Hons) in Musical Theatre this is especially exciting, and it’s probably very hard for them to keep their own hats on. They will be performing the world – yes, world! – premiere, in the Rose Theatre in January 2022.
How did that happen?
For various reasons beyond their control – we know the main culprit – it was difficult for them to stage The Girl in the Hat until now. They wrote a lot of it remotely, but worked quickly because they both felt they knew who Isabella was, sometimes even seeing themselves in her. This turned out to be quite a cathartic experience, having been in some pretty dark places in their own lives. The subject helped them to make sense of those times (“not in a self-indulgent way”) and channel those experiences into something positive:
“As much as Ed is the one at the laptop and I’m the one at the piano, our roles merge a lot of the time.”
Ollie sees the entire artistic process as collaborative. From songwriting to production, you just have to find the right collaborators. He and Ed first worked together in 2014, and they “just got on”. Things clicked, personally and professionally: “You find those people throughout your life but they don’t come along very often.”
Especially not professionally. But Ollie says that the transition from page to stage is always an adventure, with input from everyone: actors, musicians, directors, producers, set designers, costume designers. The collaborative process is a continuous one.
“That’s always the case, whether it’s church hall am-dram or commercial West End theatre,” says Ollie. “We were always keen on working collaboratively and not dictating, so what better than to work in association with a university to achieve this. “Nothing great ever happened because one person came into a rehearsal room and micromanaged every single detail and said no to every idea. Having a vision is important but being able to try things out in a safe and welcoming space is possibly the most important part of a process. A musical isn’t an architectural blueprint, it’s more of a sketch, and people add to the page to create something together. The creatives and actors who bring it to life are the most important part.”
And the ‘creatives and actors’ can take as much ownership of the show as Ed and Ollie, planning the staging, the lighting, interpreting the text, visualising the spectacle. It’s a creative experience Ollie thinks will prove invaluable to students:
“I really think that they’ll get a lot more out of workshopping and taking ownership of something totally new than perhaps rehashing an old dusty classic. They’ll be starting something totally new, that they can call their own. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along often in the industry.”
With Edge Hill’s resources at their disposal – “which would usually cost a huge amount of money”-, Ollie and Ed want this to be just the beginning of their musical’s journey. Ultimately, commercial success is the best way to give it a long and happy life. The more people see it and hear it the better. Perhaps in the future, auditioning performers will be dusting down an old classic or two from The Girl in the Hat.
For now, though, the students of Edge Hill University and the people of Ormskirk will be at the head of the queue, with the planned January 2022 production in The Rose Theatre: “hopefully we can play a small part in raising awareness of what a wonderful space Edge Hill has.”
Theatres are important to Ollie. He scarcely recalls his first musical, a genre Ollie describes as “escapism and entertainment at its finest”, but the space where the magic happens? The theatre? Well, that’s another story:
“I can remember walking into the auditorium, knowing that this was a special place. A place for creative people, a place where exciting things happen. For the next few hours, I really experienced a deep-rooted sense of belonging and purpose in my life which I don’t think is too common for a young boy. I was truly living in the moment. The colours, the set, the lights, the costumes, the effects and the actors just captivated me and took me to another world.”
Ed had a similarly transformative experience. For him, though, it was definitely down to the show – Les Miserables in London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 1988:
“For a small boy from Hereford, sitting in a huge West End auditorium when the lights dropped, it was actually quite scary. But as they came back up and the first few bars of “Look Down” were played, taking the audience back to 19th Century France, I went on that magical journey with them, note by note. I was never quite the same again!”
Ollie and Ed are particularly passionate about celebrating British work. They look across the Atlantic and see new shows taking the US by storm. The Brits love an old classic, but they’d like to see similar enthusiasm for new stuff – and not just because they want to pack out their own shows:
Musicals like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hanson, and Waitress have enjoyed huge success, and there are musicals just as good being written over here by British people about British things! I just think British audiences tend to be a bit more sceptical when it comes to new work unless it’s already proven to be a big success elsewhere.
So, as cheerleaders of young British talent, what words of wisdom do they have:
“I’d say don’t be too hard on yourself,” suggests Ollie. “There’ll be consistent rejections, long and difficult days. You have to fail a lot to learn, there simply isn’t another way. I’m someone who’s always learned best by just doing. If you want to do something, just start! Starting is the most challenging, but once you get a bit of momentum and meet people who can give you more opportunities, life quickly becomes incredibly exciting. So many people in life don’t know what they want to do. If you do, don’t waste that gift – life’s short.”
So there you go – just get scribbling. Dream that dream.
Book now to see the world premiere of the latest show from two of the UK’s brightest young things.