WRITER CLAUDIO MACOR AND COMPOSER PAUL BOYD
IN CONVERSATION WITH NMN’S PETER AUKER
Peter Auker: Claudio, perhaps you could you give us a quick introduction to the play and its setting?
Claudio Macor: Well it’s set in South America, or somewhere in South America – not in a specific place but somewhere I’ve created. It’s called La Roca, which is a shanty town, and it’s set in a bar down by the docks. The bar is owned by Elvira, an aging prostitute who has a gigolo Massimo and a prostitute Rita working for her. It’s basically the machinations of the various characters – there’s a corrupt government official Falchi, who is in love with Elvira, who comes in and threatens to knock everything down and get rid of everything. Of course, the play is a film noir style, and it is written in a film noir dialogue style.
PA: So in fact it’s not actually a film that you have transferred to the stage?
CM: No, it’s not based on a film – it’s not based on Gilda or Casablanca or Double Indemnity or any of those films, but when you see it you’ll see flavours of all those films, and inspiration from all those films because I do love the film noir genre very much. It comes off the back of having done The Tailor Made Man first of all as a play and then as a musical a couple of years ago. I’ve done the play eight times, and in those various productions, both in London and off-Broadway, I was lucky to meet a lot of people who knew William Haines or who had worked in the Hollywood system. And after having done the musical I thought “I wonder what the film noir films, would have been like if they had been allowed free rein, they would have allowed no censorship, no production code, and no bombastic film moguls screaming at writers and directors to keep more tame. That got my mind going and I thought “what if I did my film noir with everything they were not allowed to do – gay love story, drugs, crime, prostitutes, everything that they were not allowed to do in the 1940s.
PA: Real life, in fact.
CM: Exactly – real life, but in a film noir style.
Paul Boyd: Some of the critics in last night – press night – were saying that was what was really interesting about it – that it isn’t just a film sort of regurgitated up on stage, it is a play with an original story, original characters, almost written in the mindset of someone from the 40s or 50s who was writing a screenplay for one of these movies. Even though it’s set in somewhere as unattractive as La Roca, because it’s written through the eyes and staged through the eyes of “old” Hollywood, it’s very glamorous, so the cast is very beautiful – the clothes they’re wearing, or in some cases the lack of clothes they’re wearing, they say “Hollywood” rather than Argentina in 1945.
CM: I can safely say I have the most beautiful cast in London! They are extraordinarily good looking. I have the incredible Judith Paris who brings enormous experience, at the National and the RSC and Broadway and the West End. She plays Elvira, and is delivering a truly impeccable performance. Jordan Alexander, who is very beautiful, but boy can he act and has got a perfect American accent – he’s playing Massimo the gigolo. Suzanna Allman is playing Rita – very much in a Rita Hayworth style. She even looks a bit like her and moves like her, and is as beautiful as her! So we really capture the Rita Hayworth of Gilda on stage. Matt Mella plays Massimo’s lover – he’s the gay interest. Ned Wolfgang Kelly plays the government official Falchi incredibly well. And Ross Harper Miller plays the drug pusher who’s very dirty and very scuzzy and a great great character – my favourite character that I have ever written. Personally, if I were still an actor that’s the role I’d like to play.
PB: And I had to try and get a bit of that through the music as well, which has been my challenge – to bring glamour. You know, if you were making that story in terms of today’s cinematic style it would be grittier, more realistic. This has a kind of gloss to it which is really kind of glamorous.
PA: Claudio, have you always been an enthusiast of film noir then?
CM: Very much so. I’m an enormous film buff and know a lot about Hollywood, which is why it was so easy for me to do the story of William Haines in the Tailor Made Man because of my background of a knowledge of Hollywood and how it all works, and machinations and everything. And that is why I put it into In The Dead of Night, because I could turn it into a film noir without the restrictions of the time. Without, particularly, the production code where, for example, you were not allowed to kiss for longer than ten seconds on screen and things like that.
PA: Yep, they had a thick book of rules, didn’t they?
CM: Oh yes, a very thick book of rules and regulations and do’s and don’ts and maybe nots! I remember recently, eighteen months or so ago reading that when Notorious was submitted – with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, the Alfred Hitchcock film, was submitted to the censorship in 1947 or so, it was banned because the kissing was too long! It was all ridiculous things – you weren’t allowed to show a flushing toilet and stuff like that.
PA: Yes, I’ve heard about that! And Paul, what about you? How did the film noir idea fit in with what you were doing?
PB: I’ve tried to do what Claudio’s done – he’s written an original story in the style of that way of writing. Musically I’ve tried to do much the same thing, so it’s written to sound like what I hope is a big Hollywood movie score – all strings and brass, and soaring themes – you know. In many ways the music is much too big for a stage play. If someone was writing a stage play now and asked me to write the score I wouldn’t dare do this, but it fits with the style. Everything is heightened – there’s a heightened reality to the music. Also the nice thing about it was, when he came to me initially with the idea I thought “am I going to have to sit and listen to Argentinian tangos for months to make it authentic?” That was my concern, because you want to make sure you’re doing it right. In the end I realised that back in the day, in cinema, the guys who composed the music for all these movies, they did 20 or 30 movies a year they didn’t have time to do research, so they listened to one or two songs. That’s why the music in those old Hollywood era film, they all have that similar sound.
PA: A lot of them were European composers, weren’t they, who had moved over to the States.
PB: Exactly so – and they used the same musicians in the studio so the bands always sounded the same, and the balance of instruments was the same. There were only so many string players around – this was burgeoning Hollywood, so that was the challenge, to get the right sound. And to give a little of the flavour of the tango and rhumba and meringue, obviously the different Argentinian dances, but not to swamp it with that because it almost would become too authentic.
CM: The music was incredibly important because what Paul Boyd has done so sensationally well is he has really created a Hollywood score, as he said. It is not a play with a bit of music attached to it just to do transitions or to cover scenes or things like that, it is truly a full orchestrated Hollywood score. Something that you would get in an MGM movie – it is that big. It’s glorious, and it’s very full, and it really adds an enormous amount. What I’ve done in the play – I call it a play with dance. There are six dance sequences that carry the story forward. Because South America is so dance driven – it is the continent of dance really. You know, the salsas, the tangos and the rhumbas all come from South America. We have incorporated that into the play – we thought “we can’t do a play set in South America in the forties without any dancing at all – it would be weird.” So we incorporated six fantastic dance sequences that Anthony Whiteman has choreographed, and we do have a very very good amazing dance ensemble who put those dance sequences across extremely well. For that I’m incredibly grateful and excited about what the guys have done. They’ve done and amazing job. The dancing isn’t just “tacked on” – it’s done like in a musical where the scene goes into dance rather than into song. It is part of the story. It’s not just there because I like South American dancing. It’s there for a reason. Very much like a song in a good musical – the song carries the story forward. It’s an unusual and original idea and concept.
PA: I’m assuming, Paul, that as you’re in a fairly small theatre you’re using mainly keyboards and sampled orchestral sounds?
PB: Yes, and obviously it’s all click-tracked as well, there’s no live instruments there – again, like a film, the music comes from somewhere else. So it sounds like a huge, huge orchestra and that has been pre-recorded to play along with the action, and to give us the opening sequence and the closing sequence.
PA: So it’s mostly background music then? I know it’s not a musical as such, but are there any songs included to be played live?
PB: We allowed ourselves one, because even in a film like Gilda, which is one of my favourite films, Rita Hayworth performs Put The Blame On Mame, it wasn’t actually her voice that was used – she mimed along to it – and I think Casablanca, which I’ve not seen for a long time but Claudio keeps telling me there were five songs in Casablanca. Our problem was it’s on stage and it mustn’t be a musical so you have to be very careful about how many songs you put in. But we allowed ourselves one song. There’s a French character in the play, played by Tristan Robin, who at one point enters with a guitar and he sings a traditional French song called A Bordeaux; he sings a couple of verses of that down by the dock. To make it fit with the rest of the show, what happens is he plays it live and then the orchestra, which we know is pre-recorded, but the people watching hopefully will just have bought into the idea of the film, the orchestra joins him and takes over in the way that you might do that in a film. Hopefully it dovetails one to the other.
PA: Were you inspired as a composer by the original film noir film music?
PB: Well, I did a lot of random searches on the internet, which is a tool that we have nowadays that we didn’t have when I first started. I remember I used to have to go to the library and take away albums and CDs and things. Nowadays you can do a random search on Google or something and you put in something like “love songs” or “cinematic drama”, you know, “murder music” – things like this that come up, and you listen to all kinds of music. And you get the iconic ones – you only have to hear the music from Jaws or the music from Psycho, and you know immediately what to think. And that’s the secret – not to copy the style of a particular composer or a group of composers but to copy their intention. What was it, for example, about the music from Jaws that John Williams got right, that has “dread” running through it? What is it from the “stab” music in that lovely shrill violin music that they have in Psycho that nowadays that’s part of our language now isn’t it? So that was the secret – find out what is that little magical element because I think cinema does that better than theatre. Cinema uses music better than theatre does, outside musicals. For me, that’s where the research had to be.
PA: Can we talk a bit about your background? Claudio, I understand you started off as an actor before branching off into writing and directing?
CM: Yes, I was an actor. My parents were Italian and they emigrated to South Africa I was brought up in South Africa. I came over here when I couldn’t stand the system over there any more! I came over to London.
PA: Do you think actors make good playwrights?
CM: I think they do, because they know the process of an actor. I worked with Athol Fugard in South Africa – the great South African playwright. And then I came over to London, I fell out of love with acting and fell in love with writing. I think they know the actor’s process, they know the needs of an actor – what an actor would like to do. It’s a good insight I think.
PA: They know the speech rhythms that work, and that sort of thing.
CM: Exactly – and also, I think – I hope – I have created characters that actors really want to perform. I know I would, if I was still an actor!
PA: Paul, what about you? Have you always composed for theatre, or have you done other genres?
PB: It’s always been theatre. My first show was back in 1992. I was still a student at the time and I wrote a musical, some producers came along and saw it – I didn’t know this was going to happen – and before I knew it, it was out on the road, so I had a show on the road when I was still a student. And that was the hamster wheel I suddenly got on to, and I’ve been on it ever since. Twenty-two musicals later and I think this is the 34th or 35th play I’ve written the music for. But I don’t think I’ve done as much in the last couple of years – I must have been very prolific when I was younger! I must have been writing 5 or 6 shows every year for a while. Nowadays I concentrate on doing one or two a year.
PA: So you’re from a theatrical rather than a musical background then.
PB: Yeah, music for me was always a method for storytelling – a language for telling stories. I think that has always informed the sort of music I put in to shows – and maybe that helps with my understanding of what music is required in theatre because it must only ever fit the show – it’s not always about the music. Even in this play, even in In The Dead of Night, the show’s not about the music. The music is there to literally underscore what’s going on, and support the storytelling. In many ways if people leave at the end of the show talking about the music, I haven’t done my job properly – I want them leaving talking about the show.
PA: Have you worked with Claudio before?
PB: I’ve known Claudio for a long time but this is our first collaboration. We’ve talked about working together, I’ve been to see lots of his shows and he’s seen lots of mine, and it’s always one of those after-show drinks and you go “Oh darling we must work together” and then you go “Yes we must”. He came to me, I was doing a show called Molly Wobbly that was running at Leicester Square in, I think, January, and he came to me afterwards and said “listen, I’m doing a play and I need a tango written for two boys to dance to.” So I said “that would be interesting, I haven’t written a tango for a long time – that would be fun.” So about 2 weeks later he sent me the script. There was now about 15 dances in it, opening and closing music, and incidental music. I said “what have you done?” So he said “well if you’re doing it you’re not just going to write one song!” Suddenly it became this epic that I’d taken on. So it was the first time we’d worked together and I loved the script, I just thought “yes, I can see where he’s going to, this is a show that needs music.” It’s not a play where the music would be tacked on. It’s intrinsic because of the style of it and the heightened reality of the story, it needed music and that’s when I really got on board with it and thought I could actually make a contribution here, you know.
PA: Did he give you a fairly free rein in terms of the music? Did he just send you away and say “come back with the music”?
PB: Yes, yes he did. He knows me – he knows how to work with me! What was interesting was that the collaboration really came from my work with Anthony Whiteman who did the choreography. That was necessarily a much closer collaborative relationship. In a sense it was up to him to bring the music to life because the idea was that it would set the scene, but it was up to Anthony what was needed. There were a couple of different styles that would be needed for the show – one, for example, would be where I would just present the music to Anthony and say “here you go – there’s that dance”, and Anthony would work on it and I might get a phone call that night saying “you know the middle section can it be a beat faster or can it be two bars longer or should we lose a bit”. So there was give and take between he and I. With Claudio what would happen for the scenes that he directed that needed scored I would watch them. I would let him block them – I’d say “pretend there’s no music – you block it and let me watch it”. And then I would come in and watch it and perhaps take a little sneaky video of it and then go away and score it as if I was writing a film. So it was interesting to do it two different ways – sometimes I’d come in with the music first, and Anthony or someone else would have to make something of the music, and other times the story was more important and music was secondary, and I’d just have to emphasise what they were doing.
PA: It’s fantastic when you get a collaborative environment which really works isn’t it? Does that extend to the actors Claudio? Are you finding that your cast are really engaging with the play – it’s not “just another job” for them?
CM: Very much so. I don’t think any of them are thinking of it as just another job. Because the idea behind the play is so original and because the characters are so great to play, an actor can really get their teeth into it. They’re not sort of “twee” or “drawing room drama” that you just sort of come on and go. You really get your teeth into it. You get down and dirty in all senses of the word! And they are really really relishing it. It has been tough to get the style, to get them to do it in the style and to get the actors to stick to the script, because the moment you start ad libbing you go away from the noir style and it sticks out like a sore thumb. So I’ve had to be very strict with that – not that I’m precious, I’m never precious, I like it when actors innovate and create, but this one – the moment you start – you know, you can’t say “Romeo Romeo where are you?” You know, it’s got to be “wherefore art thou”. It just doesn’t work, and it’s exactly the same here – the moment you move away from the noir style of writing it’s weird and it stands out. But they have taken it on board, have learnt how to say all the names, character names and place names in Spanish or South American, which puts you immediately in the place, and they really have captured and cracked the style. It’s just a joy to work with everyone.
PA: I would have thought the small theatre as well, would add to the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of the film noir style?
PA: Would it work in a larger theatre? Or do you think of it as especially suitable for a small space?
CM: I was asked this a few times at the press night last night – “do you want to transfer it into a larger theatre”? Well obviously I would, but I would keep it very much the same. I would be very very scared – and it would be a very large mistake – to start having huge dance numbers and huge ensembles just to fill a large theatre.
PA: It would change it into something it’s not, wouldn’t it?
CM: Exactly. And that is my fear. It is the type of thing that you can start adding and adding – and everyone’s got great ideas, but often the more you add the more you ruin it. I think that would be my only fear if I do transfer to a bigger theatre I would pretty much keep it the same. Maybe one or two dances more, but not very large. We’ve already got eleven which is pretty big.
PA: Well, thank you Claudio and Paul – we are really out of time there, but it has been fascinating to talk to you both and I wish you every success with the play.
CM: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you!