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August 2018

The composer of Jerry Springer: The Opera is in three Fringe shows this year. Mark Fisher catches up with Richard Thomas

The scene is the Edinburgh Playhouse. On stage is Elvis Costello. With me in the grand circle is Richard Thomas. He’s the composer of Jerry Springer: The Opera, the ribald send-up of confessional TV that wowed Edinburgh Fringe audiences in 2002, transferred to the National Theatre in London and finally made it to Off-Broadway earlier this year. That’s when the New York Times called it “a work of stirring prophecy”.

So when Costello plays Face In The Crowd, the title song from a musical he’s writing, it’s natural to ask the Olivier Award-winner sitting next to me for his Broadway tips. “As soon as I hear someone’s writing songs for a musical, I think, ‘Good luck!’” he says. “The pitfalls are many and unforeseen because the songs can’t just exist by themselves like in a gig. But I’m not surprised Costello is doing a musical because he’s got a great dramatic sense and he certainly knows how to pace a show.”

Thomas is in Scotland (and, hence, free to join me at the gig) to work on My Left/Right Foot The Musical, a satire about an am-dram troupe trying to do their bit for the disabled. The bulk of the score of the Birds of Paradise/NTS collaboration has been composed by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, with Thomas brought in as an additional songwriter. “They’re parachuting me in because I can do the inappropriate comedy,” he laughs. “Writer Robert Softley Gale is a delightful provocateur. We’re plugging in to the divine punk ethic.” That, though, is just the start of his Edinburgh presence. Thomas, whose Fringe career dates back 30 years when he was half of double-act Miles and Milner, is involved in two more shows. He’ll be at the piano for Jonny Woo’s All-Star Brexit Cabaret, and for Jayde Adams: The Divine Ms Jayde.

“Musicals take for ever to get on – years,” he says. “What’s lovely about the Fringe is you do a thing and you get it on. With Jayde we’ve been working a few months and there’s ten numbers in it. Likewise, Jonny Woo’s All-Star Brexit Cabaret – there’s still the same concern, joy, exasperation and anticipation of trying to land every number, but it’s nice to have this fierce deadline of 1 August.” For the Jonny Woo show, his 17 topical toe-tappers include Mama Merkel’s Eurovision, The Ballot Box Ballad and Swivel Eyed Loon, with Adams taking a turn as Boris Johnson and Le Gateau Chocolat playing Nigel Farage. Because of the turmoil of the Brexit negotiations, he’s on stand-by for last-minute rewrites. “We knew it was going to change all along, so we tried to come up with a narrative that would accommodate that,” he says, admitting the Boris number has already been reworked. “I set out by asking, ‘What would this be like if it were a Broadway musical? We had the eye on the bravura side of things.’ In The Divine Ms Jayde, he’s working with the Edinburgh Comedy Award Best Newcomer nominee for an evening of diva-esque sparkle and fabulous frocks. “I’ve got very high hopes for Jayde,” he says. “She taught herself how to sing and she’s doing this fantastic high opera stuff. She’s also a great rapper and a brilliant comedian. It’s more of a personal show, with the songs emerging out of the stand-up, but there’s an arc to it, so you might be hoodwinked and come out saying,

‘Wow! That was amazing stand-up but it feels like I’ve been to a musical.’”

Writing songs to order – and rewriting them when they don’t hit the mark – is something he relishes. Read about the great Broadway composers from Sondheim to Kander and Ebb and you’ll find examples of many fine songs that were jettisoned because they didn’t quite fit. Thomas adores that hard-headed Tin Pan Alley pragmatism. He doesn’t take every criticism lying down, but even after 15 years, he did see the merit in writing three new songs for Jerry Springer. “When we were doing Jerry Springer on Off-Broadway, I had to go to the producers just off 42nd Street and sell the new songs,” he says. “I love that. If there’s room for improvement, why wouldn’t you try it? The need for clarity in musicals is paramount. It doesn’t mean being obvious, it just means every song has to be on the front foot. You try your utmost, but if a song doesn’t land then obviously there’s a problem and it has to go.” He adds: “Doing these three shows in Edinburgh, I’ve had to write quickly. Jayde Adams, for example, will come down to the studio in my back garden in London and we’ll work it out. It’s just old-fashioned songwriting: two people in a room and you don’t get out until the thing works.”

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