Ahead of Leeds Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Carol, running from 20th November – 19th January, I chat to composer John Biddle about his role creating music for the show…
What enticed you to be part of the project?
I couldn’t imagine a more evocative story to help create for audiences at this time of year – the magic, combined with that edge of fear that it needs in order to force Scrooge on his journey, is a wonderful mixture to work with; and the whole team are so brilliant on this project, I’m lucky to be part of it!
Tell us a little bit about your career history, what composition are you most proud of?
I guess I got really into music singing as a little choirboy in a church when I was young (that and my dad’s Fleetwood Mac records); I went on with the singing and became a choral scholar at Durham Cathedral while I was doing a music degree there, and then worked as a classical baritone in London for a number of years. But at the same time I was getting involved in a few theatre projects, mainly as an actor, and that took over for a few years; and finally I made the pretty logical step and put the music and the theatre together, and I absolutely love being involved in this part of the process now.
What is the music like for A Christmas Carol? What musical pieces have inspired you along the process?
I took the lead from Debbie’s [McAndew] gorgeous adaptation really, which weaves in the words of several traditional carols and hymns with the action of the play. That, combined with the repeated idea of bells that runs through the script, and the Victorian dockside feel of the design, helped give us a palette of sounds, with ghostly pianos, french horn, violin and eerie voices, that just seemed to fit the story well.
With all those references built into the script, there was a fair bit of external material to draw on already in there – for instance, there’s a whole section of the story built around the hymn A Few More Years Shall Roll (I used G.W.Martin’s tune Leominster); I always really enjoy starting with an existing melody and then reshaping or placing it in different contexts to change its effect. Britten does that in his piece St Nicholas, so that kept coming to mind while I was working on that section.
Has there been any major challenges?
One challenge of shows like this is often who ends up available for each scene – I always start with rose-tinted ideas of having the whole cast singing every bit of music, and then gradually through the rehearsals discover that of course, the actors are quite busy doing things like acting, frantically changing costumes, sprinting round to the other wing etc, and you have to roll with the process. But so often, after you’ve made the changes, you find you prefer the new version.
What is your favourite piece of music written for a theatrical performance and why?
I saw a wonderful show this year about ageing and loss of memory called The Nature of Forgetting, by Theatre Re – it was here at Leeds Playhouse, part of their Every Third Minute festival – and it had an incredible live score composed by Alex Judd. I’ve particularly loved listening again to the piece called The Present.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I’ve composed for the production of Oliver Twist at Hull Truck this Christmas too, so a bumper dose of festive Dickens for me! Then I’m working in Madrid on a devised show called Muckers with Caroline Horton, who I’ve been lucky enough to work with on a few projects; it’s a children’s show about gender with a half-Spanish/half-British team, which feels a lovely shaped project, especially at the moment. In the new year I’m doing some work on Kes here in Leeds, and then another show in development, called The Family Sex Show, with This Egg.