“Alice and other stories…” - continuing our look back at Anthony Phillips’ reminiscences for TWR’s sister publication, The Pavilion here are his thoughts on the Alice musical. Memorabilia: TWR/The Pavilion archive.
TP: How did the Alice and Masquerade projects come about?
AP: Masquerade came first. It was a book by Kit Williams which was pretty famous. The story had a treasure trail with lots of clues which people followed. Because it was so famous I suppose they tried to cash in on all the available marketing areas and one idea that came up was a musical. Kit Williams knew Tony Smith and approached him about it. I assume that Genesis were asked. Obviously they were too busy and it wasn’t really their kind of thing and so he asked various other writers, including Rupert Hine who was flavour of the month at that stage. This was after I had done Sides with Rupert and although that album has its fans, it hadn’t done what it was expected to do in terms of sales and so my album career was very much up in the air at that stage. I wasn’t going to get another big deal after Wise After The Event and Sides, but Rupert was still producing various artists, including some of the New Wave acts. Whether or not he really liked it, I don’t know, but he was very much a survivor and knew which way to swim. I didn’t particularly like the music he was going along with but that’s just my own personal opinion. As things turned out, we had this very strange arrangement/ Rupert and Jeanette, his girlfriend, who wrote the lyrics, were supposed to do the main writing and I was sort of involved on the side to help write parts or do some arrangements.
TP: When does all of this date from?
AP: This would have been between late 1979 and early 1980, just after Sides had come out. Tony Smith was vaguely involved with the co-ordination of the whole thing but his now wife, Susie was involved with us in the meetings. She didn’t know any of us very well and the areas of general activity and parameters of who was going to do what by when were all terribly vague. It was a question of coming up with some songs by a certain date to convince the people representing Kit Williams that we had the right version.
|It got very complicated because Rupert was producing people and was never really around and so I found myself having these odd sessions with Jeanette where we sort of half wrote things but because I wasn’t supposed to be the main writer, I didn’t know how far to push it. I actually wrote a lot of material and there wasn’t really a lot else going to be honest. I found the whole idea rather fascinating with the various characters in he story such as Tara which is where Tara’s Theme stems from. There was this crazy crow called Craw which inspired a rather silly song with a South African accent. It was good fun not having to take things quite so seriously and act out a few parts through the music as you might do in drama, which does allow you to explore unusual areas. So, I wrote lots and lots of stuff but because I was treading on toes to a certain extent regardless of whether it was good or bad, a lot of it got rejected as it was basically supposed to be Rupert’s thing but Rupert wasn’t really working on it. I think he wanted to do more on it but he was going where the money was which was the production side of things. It was a curiously ill-conceived scenario.|
We eventually got three or four demos out which were OK but it never felt cohesive at all and to be honest, I felt having subsequently done Alice, and in the process having learnt a bit about musicals, that the attitude towards Masquerade was a bit blasé. You don’t walk into a musical and say: “Oh we know how to write rock songs, it’s a piece of cake…” It has been shown time and time again that that is not the case and their attitude was slightly blasé. Inevitably in the end it all sort of petered out into nothing. I think that Rod Argent did a version which went as far as a theatrical workshop. Rod’s version was obviously much more organised and integrated but once again, with these things, they are so complicated , with so many elements that have to be right. If there is one thing that doesn’t seem to be spot on, you will never get the backing and I don’t think it went beyond a workshop at the Old Vic.
I was frustrated because I had liked some of the songs and it was an interesting world that had been opened up. I mentioned to my friend, Richard Scott who had just come down from York University that I had these songs. I had had a go at doing the words but it wasn’t really from the heart with a lot of them and so I found writing that to be difficult. To work with a professional lyric writer and to take any subject and write about it isn’t really my strong point and so I was quite happy to pass them onto Richard. We pretty much followed the book where there are all these ideas about the sun and the moon. There were rumours that Kate Bush was going to play one of the parts. There were the other characters I have mentioned such as Tara and Craw, and there was a strange one called Magic Carpet which \I remember Richard Scott demoed using a crazy Irish voice, so some of them were fun to do.
There was one called Fire, which is not to be confused with the Arthur Brown song, which was quite potent. I enjoyed the idea of finales and of bringing themes together a sit is a lot like a concert in a way bit with a lot more freedom to act out parts because of the story line.
So, Richard did a lot of the words and we demoed them back in the early part of 1981. Looking back now, I suppose it was rather naïve and I don’t know what we thought we were going to get out of it because the musical had long gone and the story idea was all but dead but I didn’t want to lose the music. We weren’t going to get an album deal on it at that point with pseudo-musical songs. I suppose it was just a desire to get it out of your system and that whole time was a strange era as well. This was post Sides and very much the Punk/New Wave era which had given people like me no chance of cracking it on a major scale.
It was almost as if you were guilty before trial and the press were going to savage anything you did, so it was definitely a time of soul-searching in a way. I think that Rupert’s involvement with Masquerade petered out in the summer of 1980. I then did 1984 and the Masquerade demos with Richard after that album around April or May 1981. I had this feeling that maybe one or two of the songs had something and I didn’t want to let it go. Inevitably we played them to a few people who said that they were very nice but nobody knew what to say or do; it didn’t fit into any kind of bag really. Tony Smith was quite positive about some of the songs. He liked them when he’d heard them done properly and so he suggested changing some of them and basing the whole thing around The Hunting Of The Snark which was a favourite novel of his.
|I think it may well have been his idea to subsequently suggest Alice as well because The Hunting Of The Snark was also by Lewis Carroll and he was a big fan. Back then it seemed as though quite a long time then went by although in retrospect, it wasn’t that long as a lot of things happened for me in that summer. I finished doing these demos with Richard in May. I then did Antiques with Quique so there was all that as well. This was also the end of the Send era and the whole thing of moving to London and buying my house was going on, which was quite dramatic. I was also having the studio built and then started Invisible Men so when we came round to Alice the following summer it was only actually a year later it seemed longer because so much had gone on in between. Effectively what Richard and I did during Invisible Men was that we thought some of the songs we had done were too strong to let go and so we took a few of them aside. Richard got this idea, a slightly novel approach to looking at the Alice “myth”. I call it that because it has been used so many times.|
With encouragement from Tony Smith we demoed four or five songs which worked out pretty well. Walls & Bridges was one of them and that had come from a piece written or the wedding of two friends of mine the previous summer (Lights On The Hill). That wasn’t in the original Masquerade, in fact the funny thing is that not much in Alice came through from Masquerade but some pieces were influenced and inspired by it. Tara’s Theme, which eventually ended up as a piano piece on Ivory Moon (see feature in previous edition of TWR) was init at the start and there was another song called Questions and another called Guilty and one about the Cheshire Cat which was quite rhythmic and dancey. I can’t recall exactly how this happened, but it was suggested that we send it to Leeds Playhouse and on the basis of those songs and Richard’s book; the synopsis which was a very simple version of the story, they accepted it and commissioned us to write the whole thing. They were obviously looking for a way of getting away from just regular plays and wanted to dip their toes in something that could be bigger financially and could make some money. If you get a musical that takes off, it is a big risk and a long shot in many respects. One of the key elements was that Nicholas Hytner was working for them. He was already doing plays up there and was carving a bit of a niche for himself both in plays and in opera as well.
The idea was that they knew Richard had no theatrical experience but they thought the whole thing might work. There was an idea of this new dream team of Richard’s ideas coupled with Nick’s theatrical experience and know-how would manage to carve a brilliant product. It came close but it just didn’t quite work. Nick has been incredibly successful since with Miss Saigon and in the realm of films with The Madness Of King George. He is an extremely talented guy and very nice but he is quite remote and it was difficult to get to know him. I got to know some of the others quite well. It was a great experience actually although we were paid next to nothing for it. I think I actually lost money over those six months and it was a ludicrous thing to do at the time because I had just moved into a new house and had a mortgage as well as a house full of lodgers. I couldn’t really afford to be doing it and I paid the price for it because after six months of not earning a great deal apart from a few royalties, I was really back against the wall when it came down to it. It was an opportunity I had to take, however, because not many people get the chance to have a musical performed. One of the biggest thrills for me was when they were rehearsing in Covent Garden before we went up to Leeds, and seeing somebody else dancing to them, it was a fantastic experience and a marvellous ego-trip.
The musical itself had a lot of ups and downs. Being in Leeds during March was some experience in terms of the cold with a one bar electric fire in the room and the house, owned by this wild German lady called Gertrude Pfaffinger. She knew John Owen-Edwards who was the musical director, and he and I both stayed there. She had these wild staring eyes and she was very Wagnerian with a shock of fair hair. The first time I arrived there she was talking to John about The Jewel In The Crown and she suddenly turned to me and said: “And what is your name?!!” I was so frightened of this woman that whatever disasters were going on with the musical, I was far, far more worried about Gertrude.
One night I got the keys wrong and she was out and I thought I had locked her out and so she couldn’t get in! I think my panic about here affected John and we were both completely panic stricken about this woman. I lost the keys to my own flat inside and I called her down and she said: “I’m sorry, I cannot help you, you vill haf to call ze poleece” So, faced with that, all sorts of things started going wring; the fire burnt the sofa, I blocked up the sink and in the end I had washing up in the bath, The musical was a side-show compared to Gertrude and I am convinced she still has a “wanted” sign up for me! It was an incredible experience!
The musical was an education. After Leeds Playhouse said yes we worked on developing the idea quite a lot further and we had to send up pretty much finished demos of most of it by the end of 1983. It still changed after that in rehearsal but we really had to flesh it out and write lots of extra bits but it was great fun and I loved this idea of writing lots of different themes and trying to combine them with some dance moments and some song moments. The great discipline I learnt was that in most of the songs the action has to flow through them, you can’t have frozen moments where you are talking about just an emotion except for the odd ballad, but most of the time the music was the vehicle for the action, moving through. You are also able to be more declamatory and more dramatic in a way which one would be rather guarded about on an album and I quite liked that, actually. It was rather fun because I had to write dances like a quadrille and I found it tremendously exciting, composing various themes and cross-referencing them. I have always liked that kind of thing. It wasn’t fashionable to be doing that in rock at all, but in this field you could do these things.
So, by the end of the year we had rough demos of most of it and I had to learn a few different styles. There were a couple of set pieces with three sort of washerwomen type characters doing a silly sort of dance and I had to learn boogie woogie for one track called Duck & Dive. It was a million miles away from working with Genesis and that was quite good actually. But I would be sitting in this rehearsal room and having to learn how to do it - so much for the great composer! I relied heavily on John Owen-Edwards who had done a lot of things with Andrew Lloyd-Webber and also the main keyboard player; Kevin Fitzsimmonds. The problem was that we didn’t have very much money for it. We had about £80,000 whereas Starlight Express which ran concurrently had over two million and it sounded like it as well which was a problem.
We had three or four weeks’ rehearsal at Leeds after the preliminary rehearsals in London. We had a band of five people and the sound was terrible. The worst thing from my own personal point of view was that I thought I was going up there just as a composer and that the skilled side of the arrangements, which is a totally different area, was going to be done by John Owen-Edwards and what actually happened was that we got up there because there wasn’t enough money for the various singers to rehearse in advance so John was always in rehearsal because so many people needed to have specialist rehearsals as all the time the show was moving up concurrently so John and Kevin were both constantly rehearsing people.
Nobody said that I had to do this but it suddenly dawned on me that I was kicking my heels a lot of the time with the odd re-write and it all got pretty silly because John got quite ill. There were a lot of colds going around and I suddenly realised that I had to do this and I hadn’t prepared for it. The awful thing is that in London I had had time whilst I was down there because we had submitted the demos by Christmas and I had two months during which we were refining things in which I really could have thought about the arrangements and I always thought that there was no point thinking about it then.
John also kept telling me to forget the arrangements. He was such a nice guy but he was almost too relaxed for me. He was saying: “You never arrange, you never worry about the music until the last moment because it changes with the drama…” and he was right. No music is sacred. If the drama doesn’t work the music was out unless it was a fantastic ballad, so he was right in that sense but suddenly it was me with a few weeks to go and I had to arrange the WHOLE show! I have never ever worked as hard in my life as that and that was definitely the worst thing. I would have three hours’ sleep a night and I would wake up in a state of complete panic and start work again.
We both got colds, and John would sometimes come back from rehearsals completely finished and then do a few arrangements and he would fall asleep! It was a pretty crazy period because I was working as fast as I could and it was a bit messy. The one tragedy was that even though I say so myself, the score sounded impressive when it was in short score form for piano. I remember during rehearsals people would gather round the piano and start singing and Nick Hytner was complimentary about the finale when we interwove all the themes but it just didn’t work. It was a mixture of the arrangements and the sound not being very good. We didn’t have he right number of musicians. It was basically guitar, bass, drums and two keyboards, one being a piano, and then mixing it up. I had to take my Polymoog and all my synths up there and that’s how low budget it was. They didn’t pay me for it and I didn’t get any hire fees. It was crazy and I think I left them there after the show.
Looking back on it now, I was incredibly naïve to accept that but I think that I was so frightened of it all to be honest. That whole musical world seemed to be a big edifice because it is so different and I felt the weight of responsibility. Richard was more confident than I was. Most rock guys pooh, pooh musicals but when you actually get down to it, this isn’t straightforward, what with trying to link all these pieces so that the action making sense and people believe all what they see. It’s not just a case of writing a simple rock song., there is so much more to it than that. I went and listened to quite a few musicals and records and I suddenly realised that this was quite different so it was pretty daunting. I had the feeling that I didn’t quite belong there but they were very positive about it. The cast loved some of it although to this day I felt that the cast were disappointed with the arrangements which was a mixture of me and the sound itself.
The band weren’t enough and it is a tragedy although it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Richard wouldn’t mind me saying this because what he achieved as a first timer was fantastic. It was regarded not to have fallen down because of the music, but it fell down because it just didn’t quite hang together. It worked up to a point, and Richard did a fantastic job with his first time of writing the words, and the “book” as they call it when often you have two different people doing the two things. The chances of him getting both things absolutely right first time round were pretty slim regardless of whether Nick Hytner was involved or not. We got better reviews than Starlight Express, which was on at the same time but you suddenly got the feeling that things weren’t quite right. The first night was the most delicious experience, I can’t describe it fully to you, but over the next couple of weeks it began to seem as though we were so close and yet so far and we were still carried away by the euphoria of it all.
TP: How long did it actually run for?
AP: About six weeks. It was sold out all the time and it had good reviews. There were one or two difficult interviews I did at the time (see later for one of these) along the lines of this is this man’s big moment; was he right to leave Genesis? That, of course, put a hell of a lot of pressure on me to equate the two because our chances of making it were small. How many new musicals make it every year? One or two maximum, and even then that’s not always the case. Here were we, swanning in at the age of thirty and expecting to get to London first time round with a musical which was ludicrous. It’s just unfortunate that is one of those winner takes all games as it is not like a film which can do quite well, you have a run there if it hasn’t got that vital extra spark, you get nowhere. You know, caput, finito, nothing. It did end slightly acrimoniously really and there was a fair bit of falling out going on. Not, I hasten to add, involving me, or not directly anyway. I think there was an enormous amount of pressure on people and I think Richard and Nick at the end didn’t quite hit it off, the chemistry wasn’t quite right and so it didn’t work out and so that was rather sad. But at the same time it was exciting, the feeling of being in a team. You do get close to people in a way that can be called superficial because it’s not long lasting but it doesn’t feel superficial and you open up on all sorts of things because basically you are undergoing a difficult experience and you need people and so your emotions are very much open and you do speak with an amount of candour which is refreshing.
I would love to have another go but it is such a high stakes game. After that, from a financial point of view, I did pay the price. You have to have a fair bit of money in the bank to enable you to embark on something for six months which might make you no money at all. It was good experience and it was all round something I don’t regret at all, actually.
TP: What became of the music afterwards. I know one or two pieces have been used but what happened to he rest of it?
AP: Well, we tried to turn one or two of the songs from it into other things but once again, that is one of the sad thing about it. One or two members of the cast used a couple of the songs as audition pieces and went on doing that because they loved them but that’s the problem with “musical” songs, they often don’t work outside of musicals because they are too flowery, they are too declamatory, and it all sounds all too OTT, too Shirley Bassey-esque. I kept hammering away at the publisher at Hit & Run to send songs to so and so but it always seemed to be with publishers that before you open your mouth and ask is a song any good, the answer is “no”. They always seemed to keep meeting brick walls and I think also there wasn’t really the energy to do anything with it.
Every time we went to the powers that be, it was always closed doors. It was very frustrating because I felt a lot of these songs were very close. With Walls & Bridges, we took the first demo of that song to people and the response was always very positive but it was again more of the kind of reaction along the lines of: “this is a very pretty little song but I can’t see anybody covering it…” Maybe you have to accept that I write in a way which is reasonably individual and it is perhaps too individual to be not sort of coverable and commercial. Not a lot of Genesis songs have been covered and that is a simple principle that if you have a style that is set in one way, the publisher won’t hear it in terms of being covered by anyone else. The stiff didn’t really cut it either way really. A few of the songs have been used, as you say, as instrumentals, but with the vast majority of it, nothing has happened to it at all. It would be nice if it could be staged again, but who is going to do that…?