17 Mar 2016 To coincide with the exciting news (for Londoners) that UKIP! The Musical is coming to London in two weeks' time, we are republishing Alex's account of the show and his role in its conception and production. This satirical musical premiered in London last year before transferring to the Edinburgh Festival in August, selling out its 22-show run and winning The Stage award for best ensemble cast. It is now returning to London for a six-show run at the Waterloo East theatre.
When Wednesday 30 March – Sunday 3 April, 7.30 pm; Sunday 3 April matinee, 4.00 pm
How much Tickets £18, concessions £15
Buy tickets and get more information here.
Richard writes Furthermore, Alex is joining me and a host of other wine-trade musos for Skin Côntact LIVE AGAIN! on Thursday 12 May. This charity rock concert for the wine trade raises funds for Wine Relief. You can find all the details on SkinContactLive.com. See details of last year's spine-tingling event here.
1 Sep 2015 Looking back over the last couple of pieces I've written for this site, I realise they contain a bigger soupçon of autobiography than intended at the time. Wine–music interaction and the nature of modern satire have been preoccupations during the past few months, for a very specific if rather surprising reason which has seen me turn my house upside down, set up a record label, scour the internet for audio clips of Enoch Powell [extreme right wing British politician], and brim with pride like never before at my brilliant girlfriend.
Graciously taking the hint, I guess, Jancis has invited me to go off-piste this month for a behind-the-scenes tour of what I've been up to.
I'll say from the start: none of this was my idea. Back in 2013, my partner Cath took the gutsy decision to leave her position of Head of Drama at a London secondary school and enrol on the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art/Birkbeck College MA Text & Performance course. During a particular module in early 2014, the students had to come up with an idea for a production they would like to stage. Cath proposed the title 'UKIP! The Musical'.
UKIP, for anyone who doesn't follow British politics, is a party that has risen to prominence in recent years under the charismatic, if gaffe-prone, leadership of former stockbroker Nigel Farage. The acronym stands for United Kingdom Independence Party; the core policy is exit from the European Union. The opportunity then to impose much tighter controls on immigration has arguably both invited the most fervent support and stoked the greatest controversy. What began as a grassroots movement took the third largest share of the popular vote in this year's general election, despite returning only a single MP to the House of Commons.
There is no denying that this party has enlivened political debate and media coverage in Britain. Its members revel in an off-the-cuff frankness that the major parties cannot risk, while the tension between UKIP's desire to present a rational front and the often appalling views of those it attracts has been a constant source of hilarity and horror.
This, then, is an organisation ripe for satire, and just the phrase 'UKIP! The Musical' somehow struck an appropriate chord. According to Cath, 'the absurdity of the peppy title seemed to suit the absurdity of UKIP and the perpetually grinning Farage'. Fortunately she had not just the idea but also the skills to realise it. We noted at the time that someone was bound to be writing a piece like this – it seemed so obvious – and that, as a music graduate and trained actress with a strong political streak and an encyclopaedic enthusiasm for British comedy, Cath would probably do it better than anybody.
She set to work, submitting a draft of Act I and a good deal of academic background as her Masters dissertation. (She managed not just to pass this at the first attempt, but to be awarded a Distinction.) Last summer, she casually mentioned, 'I'd like to submit a CD of the songs as part of the dissertation.' I knew what this meant. As well as Chef, Sommelier and Handyman, my domestic duties would now include Recording Engineer. This was fine with me; it beats ironing. 'I think a couple of the songs would benefit from a proper arrangement, not just me on piano', she added. Right; we'll add Musical Arranger to the list too.
Arranging is fun, and satisfying. Once I get the chords, melody and lyrics from Cath, the first stage is to select an appropriate group of instruments, after which each part can be elaborated. Those I can actually play – guitar, bass, keyboards, cello – get recorded 'live' in turn, while any others on the list, which could be percussion, woodwind, brass or general strings, come courtesy of modern technology: I write the notes into a computer and get acceptably realistic sounds back. For vocal duties, Cath roped in friends from the MA course (plus my pro-singer brother), and come the September 2014 deadline we had a CD that, though neither particularly professional nor polished, gave a decent flavour of eight terrific songs.
That flavour proved appealing. People started asking when the show would be performed. A plan was hatched to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe in summer 2015. So began the long hard trek from half-finished draft to a musical people would actually pay to see. I witnessed it from close quarters: the debates over what should happen in Act II, so often the Achilles heel of even very successful satires such as The Book of Mormon ; the endless iterative rewriting, polishing the characters while ensuring there were always enough jokes; the establishment of a theatre company to produce the show. The company needed a name, so Cath and I began a wine-fuelled brainstorming session that continued way past bedtime. At 2 am, too many bottles and dozens of rejected names later, just as sleep approached, Hell Bent Theatre Company was christened.
The company was co-founded with another MA graduate: the fiendishly talented and absurdly not-even-30-yet Jessica Williams, who was to direct the show. Come spring, the casting call went out, and for a week I would arrive home from work to find some nervous-looking thespian sitting on a low bench in the hall, having to endure the sound of very good singing from behind the closed door opposite while waiting for his or her own shot at the prize.
Some prize: the lucky few would be required to attend three rehearsals a week for four months, and then perform 22 shows in Edinburgh, plus three London previews. Unpaid. Once again, though, that title worked its magic, and 67 souls applied, of whom 11 were chosen to form an exceptional cast. It's a great yield: I think about the number of samples I have to taste as a wine buyer to find 11 I really like and feel a twinge of jealousy.
As the preview shows approached, I was back on duty, preparing the sound files to be played over the theatre PA. This included traditional sound effects (clocks chiming, creaking doors, etc), some spoken-word cues such as the aforementioned Enoch Powell excerpts – really hard to track down unsullied by background music – and recorded accompaniments for songs where a bigger sound was needed. Although Cath played the piano live on stage for the majority, some relied on a more developed arrangement and greater volume, so the drafts from the dissertation CD were worked up into suitable backing tracks along with a new, Tower of Power-inspired funk number.
This seemed to sow a dangerous idea in Cath's mind. 'Wouldn't it be great', she said, 'if we had CDs to sell after the shows in Edinburgh'. Jess agreed. They looked at me. What could I say? It would be great, as a potential revenue stream, as a memento of the show for its creators and cast, and as a promotional calling card. 'OK then.'
A demo disc, just to give a flavour, would no longer do. This had to be a professional job, carefully recorded, slickly produced, with artwork and credits and copyright, for which a member of the public would feel happy exchanging £10 – moreover, which a musical theatre fan could listen to after the Avenue Q soundtrack, say, and not consider second-rate. The timescale was two weeks, the studio budget zero. Here's how we did it.
Step one: make recording studio. I've amassed a reasonable amount of gear over the years, and we set it all up in our sitting room. We replaced pictures with acoustic panels, and rigged microphones for soloists (left and right, below) and the ensemble cast (centre).
Step two: record cast. Over a Sunday and a weekday evening, the actors came in to record their songs – soloists first, then the ensemble. What an amazing bunch, getting 11 songs down in so short a time, under serious pressure, and in stifling heat. Air-con, even an open window, would have introduced too much extraneous noise.
Step three: complete the arrangements. Only five songs out of the 11 already had instrumental parts recorded for the preview shows. The rest had to be orchestrated in the final fortnight, and I didn't do anything fancy. Cath's live piano was the starting point, around which I added drums, bass, clarinet, brass and a bit of live cello. For the finale, a brilliant heavy rock Ode To Joy score was provided by Malcolm Godsman, the musical director Cath hired for the Edinburgh run, and so I got into full Skin Côntact mode and layered in some Brian May-style guitar.
Step four: edit. Choose the best takes, align the singers' consonants, cut out breaths, squeaks and other distractions. Dull, painstaking work; feels like hand-destemming Pinot Noir.
Step five: mix. The most fascinating, infuriating, rewarding stage for the audio geek. This is where every instrument and vocal line gets adjusted so that they not only sit nicely together, but also give a coherent sense of a performance taking place in an appropriate space. (Hint: not a sitting room.) There's something akin to winemaking here too, receiving the raw material, processing and blending, building up layers of sound into a balanced whole with a distinct personality. But there is also the added narrative imperative: a mix needs to tell a story and keep the listener engaged, so will tend to unfold over time, guided of course by the lyrics and structure of the song.
To give an idea of the outcome, if not quite the process itself, here is a small 'before and after' demonstration. It's the chorus from the opening number, first the raw piano and vocal recording session and then the final mix. The crackly 78 rpm sound is a nod to the nostalgia referenced by the script, and you'll notice the extra instruments in the end result, but also I hope the sound comes across as more pleasing and balanced, and the impression of space theatrical rather than domestic.
I find wine a useful mixing aid, up to a point. The task is hugely absorbing, and requires a combination of intense focus and pressurised creativity that is easier to achieve if very slightly inebriated. Drink too much, though, and one's hearing becomes temporarily affected. Specifically, alcohol dampens sensitivity to bass frequencies, so it's all too easy to boost those excessively in a late-night mix session (which they normally are). The wine critic probably writes the best notes in the middle of a large tasting, when warmed up but not woozy. So it is with mixing.
Quality needs to be good enough to stimulate but not distractingly stellar – 17/20 is about right. For the final big push, getting the 11 mixes ready for the CD manufacturer, I plumped for Lucien Le Moine Bourgogne Rouge 2009, all cherries and truffles, and the following night Poggio Antico's Cabernet/Sangiovese blend from Montalcino, called Madre, the 2005 now deliciously mature but still refreshingly structured. They worked well, and at 2 am on the morning of the manufacturing deadline, I pressed 'send' on the final, irrevocable versions, happy I'd done a good job. Or so I thought, because I'd forgotten about...
Step six: despair. I believe this is fairly common among real audio engineers as well as rank amateurs like myself – the feeling of utter deflation when you hear your perfected mix with fresh ears and realise it's terrible. I got the despair pretty badly the next day, compounded by the fact that for the first time in my life I couldn't go back and tweak it. The CDs were already being pressed. And the music sounded so bassy! I must have got drunk after all, overcooked the low end, sent off this mud when I thought I was delivering shimmering audio quicksilver.
It turns out alcohol isn't the only thing that affects your hearing. Tiredness does too. I was sleep-deprived, my ears were exhausted, and I realised after the day of anguish that I just wasn't able to hear treble properly. Once I'd had some sleep, balance was restored. The songs sounded OK! Not Grammy-winning, perhaps, but they passed muster. In fact it's probably among the better albums recorded by a wine merchant in a fortnight with no budget this year.
The CDs were delivered to Edinburgh the day before the technical rehearsal. The show opened on 7 August to glowing reviews from, among others, The Stage and our own beloved Tam, who so generously plugged it here. I stayed in Edinburgh for the first five shows to supervise the live sound then kept tabs on progress from London. The stack of positive press and the social-media buzz grew daily. Every one of the 22 shows sold out its 120-seater venue. Last week, the cast won the coveted Award for Acting Excellence at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from The Stage. It really could not have gone better.
It's been a truly thrilling journey so far, and I feel very privileged to have made a contribution. Given the success in Edinburgh, I dare say it isn't over yet. Something tells me I may be pressed into service once again. Meanwhile, though, I have an enormous pile of ironing to do.
Finally, here's the first arrangement I did for the show, and still perhaps my favourite.
Poster image © 2015 Hell Bent Theatre Company
All audio files ℗ 2015 Alex Hunt/Hell Bent Records