From pop-rock to serious theatre: Why musicians turn to the stage

More British bands than ever are now crossing the threshold to stage their own theatre shows

Cora Bissett in 'What Girls Are Made Of'. Courtesy Mihaela Bodlovic
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The year is 1993. On Britain's indie rock scene, Radiohead are enduring some damning reviews for their debut album, Pablo Honey, while Blur struggle to afford hotel rooms on their Modern Life is Rubbish tour. Both bands play gigs with a hyped Scottish quartet, Darlingheart, who will soon vanish. But their teenage singer, Cora Bissett, keeps a diary.

Twenty five years on, and her behind-the-curtain insights will now take centre stage, in what Bissett calls "a play with songs" – not, in fact, a musical. What Girls Are Made Of has been rapturously received since debuting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer, and those backstage recollections are particularly memorable: posh Radiohead, parties with Blur. "It's affectionate, I'd be very surprised if any of those bands took offence," laughs the singer-turned-playwright. "We were just another wee band."

That autobiographical tale recently transferred to London’s Soho Theatre and heads to Melbourne next month, with interest from America, too. The show’s set-up is noticeably gig-like, as the actors are also musicians: Bissett’s goal is to attract a different kind of theatre audience. “It’s part of my life’s mission,” she says. “I can’t bear the elitism of theatre.”

Why British bands in particular are making the move to theatre

An intriguingly diverse range of bands are now also crossing that threshold. The legendary synth duo Pet Shop Boys were early pop / theatre pioneers: their latest cabaret-fuelled play, Musik, the sequel to 2001's Closer to Heaven, recently transferred from Edinburgh to London.

'Grief is the Thing with Feathers' starred Cillian Murphy, with music by Teho Teardo, an Italian ex-punk rocker.

British bands in particular are following that trend. Members of Belle and Sebastian, The Hoosiers and Maximo Park were all involved with different Edinburgh Festival Fringe plays this August. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, folk-rockers the Avett Brothers are co-creating an intriguing nautical show, Swept Away, with director Michael Mayer. A decade ago, Mayer directed Green Day's revolutionary punk musical American Idiot, which brought many rock fans to the genre.

Theatre can seem stuffy and exclusive, but the personnel and processes are frequently fascinating. In early September, London's Young Vic Theatre announced that experimental musician Erland Cooper would score its coming production Portia Coughlan, starring Oscar-nominated Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga (Loving; Ad Astra). Cooper emerged from an indie-folk band, Erland and the Carnival, then moved into TV and film soundtracks. This stage offered an interesting new challenge. "I can only imagine that theatre has more of an immediacy to it," says Cooper. "I'm really interested in collaborating early on by immersing the actors with some of the music; perhaps an ambient atmosphere."

Experimental musician Erland Cooper scored upcoming production 'Portia Coughlan'. Courtesy Neil Thomson. 

The show's director, Caroline Byrne, had often played his solo work "to help her imagine and create her own worlds", Cooper says. So does he already have sounds in mind, for this haunting tale of a troubled soul? "I'm happy to let the exploration of the narrative, landscape, people and place guide me," he says. "I do feel perhaps there could be an arc of melancholic hope. But we'll see."

From Bowie to The Gorillaz: the good, bad and the ugly stage shows

Scores can also lead to a wider creative involvement. The dance act Underworld were unlikely theatregoers when director Danny Boyle persuaded them to soundtrack his take on Frankenstein for London's National Theatre in 2011. That monster hit continues to receive global "encore" screenings, and Underworld went on to co-write their own theatre productions, such as 2017's Fatherland.

These shows often challenge audiences, too. One of David Bowie's final projects was Lazarus, a musical based on the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, which bemused many fans. Comedian and music podcaster Michael Legge, for example, named his 2017 stand-up special after two Bowie albums, Low / Heroes: it ends with an entertaining – but respectful – routine about Lazarus's mixed reception. Legge avoided that show, and "my friend was in it so I wouldn't have wanted to be horrible about his work," he admits. "That said, it didn't sound great, did it?"

Did Lazarus tarnish the great man's legacy, then? "You can't tarnish Bowie, he hit the target too many times," Legge insists. "I love his mistakes."

Such huge potential follies can take off, as Blur's Damon Albarn would attest to. In 2007, Albarn, his Gorillaz bandmate Jamie Hewlett and director Chen Shi-Zheng created Monkey, Journey to the West, a grand opera based on a Chinese novel. Seemingly niche, it packed huge and prestigious venues, including London's 02 Arena and New York's Lincoln Centre.

Rock theatre in the modern age

In fairness, new versions of Lazarus continue to be staged globally, too. That show was created with the acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who launched another notable show last year, at Galway's Black Box Theatre. Grief is the Thing with Feathers starred Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, Dunkirk) with music by Teho Teardo, an Italian ex-punk rocker. "It's always different," says Teardo, on working with Walsh.

“We don’t follow the path of the previous play. We set up a new landscape.” Teardo worked with various rock acts, before diversifying: could he imagine doing theatre, back then? “No, my punk rock days were a sort of nihilist spasm,” he says. “Theatre and film came accidentally; maybe the best way, in my opinion.”

Teardo’s score emerged as an album in March, as the play transferred to London’s Barbican Centre. Its dark strings and electronics were heavily influenced by the source novel, about a traumatised family. “When I was done with the music, that book was still so powerful that I could have erased all the music, just to start working again,” he says.

Compared to the stress of album sessions, where egos often clash, the differing tone of theatrical composition can be refreshing.

“I think actually the band would never have been enough for me, even if we had gone on,” admits Bissett, looking back. “I loved singing, but I wanted my songs to be able to expand. To tell more stories.”

It’s a good stage to reach.