Making musical comedy

 24 January 2011

Richard Thomas co-wrote ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, 'Shoes' and 'Anna Nicole'. Despite death threats and a high-profile blasphemy case, he is passionate about his creative career.

'Shoes' was shown in the West End.
'Shoes' was shown in the West End.

Turning a creative interest into a career

Richard was inspired to work in musicals early on. In 1982, he queued overnight to get tickets to Richard Eyre's Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre.

"It was a huge hit. Every number got five or six encores. By the end the actors were screaming at the audience to shut up. I thought, 'so this is what shows are'."

Loving musicals didn’t lead directly to writing them. Richard spent eight years as half of comedy duo Miles and Milne.

After the duo broke up, he spent two years in a squat practicing his musical craft. He then spent several years writing music for TV.

“Don't judge the writing as you do it. Just come back to it later."

"I had a reputation for writing music at a miraculous pace. Say you needed a track written in the style of the theme from Planet of the Apes. I was the guy who you'd call late at night who'd go to Tower Records to buy the original CD, and deliver the piece by dawn."

Richard didn't enjoy TV as an industry, but it paid the bills. "It let me do three months of writing my own material, then three months back in TV to earn the money to do my own writing again."

Building a successful musical

"The original idea for ‘Jerry Springer’ was me, a piano, one act, a 50-seat theatre. That worked well enough to go to a 100-seater, and then again to get investment and scale up to a 150-seat theatre.

"We then managed to get £250,000 of investment to take the show to Edinburgh, which lead to four months in the National Theatre, then the West End.

"It was only two years from me first sitting down at the piano to having a massive West End hit."

Succeeding after setbacks

‘Springer’ ended in acrimony, Richard says. "It was the classic situation. We were about to sign a huge deal with Sony and to move the production to Broadway. It all fell through. Pretty much everyone involved fell out for various reasons. We did eventually get to Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House, which was sublime.”

Thomas has since written five half-hour operas for BBC2, Kombat Opera – which earned two Rose D'Or TV awards – as well as an opera about Anna Nicole Smith for the Royal Opera House and a show about standup comedians in Germany, in German.

He also recently premiered a musical dance piece, ‘Shoes’, for Sadlers Well Theatre, which transferred to the West End after a successful two-week run.

Musical writing advice

A good day for a writer, Richard says, is about 'reaching the cool' – getting into a creative, uncritical zone where inspiration flows.

"On a good day, I wake up at 6am. I make a healthy porridge and I'm at the keyboard immediately after. I'm not worrying about where the writing is going. I know at 8:30am whether I'm in the zone or not.”

"It was only two years from me first sitting down at the piano to having a massive West End hit."

"The secret to writing is to generate tons of material. I have a system where I turn out five short musical sketches a day. Anything from 10 seconds to two minutes, but it has to be actual material, not ‘ideas’ or ‘plans for the future’.

“Don't judge the writing as you do it. Just come back to it later. If 80 percent of what you produce is terrible, that still gives you 20 percent that's fantastic."

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