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PINK ANGORA SWEATER A New British musical

07 May 2019

Origins 

Many moons ago I came across a book in my local library. Libraries have been a very good source of ideas for me so I mourn their passing. You can go in looking for one thing and come out with something else and your life has been changed forever. Anyway, the book was called ‘Nightmare of Ecstasy’ and it was all about this strange but appealing chap called Ed Wood. He looked a little like Errol Flynn. 

I’d never heard of Ed Wood before this. Though I had seen a few of his unique films on the telly as a boy. Especially remember seeing Plan 9 From Outer Space as a youngster and not knowing what to make of it. Was it arthouse or was it just a piece of crap? But it definitely stayed in my memory. Which is more than many so called important movies have over the years.

At the time I read the book I was just beginning to write musicals after putting my rock career to one side. So everything I picked up at this time I guess I was thinking, could this make a musical? 

Ed Wood was definitely different. Looked cool. A misfit. An outsider. He was brave. Fearless. Number one I found him interesting and if I did I’m sure other people would too. And he never gave up. He persevered. I liked this guy. He was like me. He just liked to wear women’s clothes. So what? I was a new romantic once. I used to hire costumes for gigs. A different persona/image each time. I’d worn everything on stage from a blue antique bullfighters get up to a beautiful regal tailcoat from a BBC series on Casanova. Wore a tacky silver space coat from Dr Who I borrowed from Bermans and Nathan’s on many occasions. Often walked down Oxford Street dressed in furs, full make up, bright blonde hair looking like an extra from the Night of the Living Dead. Ed was ok. He could have joined my band.

I recall thinking the idea of Ed Wood being a legitimate war hero, a kind of Audie Murphy type figure, but only because he was secretly wearing women’s underwear under his uniform and didn’t want to get caught would make a great scene in a show or a film. I must also add I had considered writing a screenplay at this point.

Then came the Ed Wood movie, starring Johnny Depp and Oscar winning Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, which was/is fabulous, but never featured the war hero/underwear sequence strangely?

I then put the Ed Wood Musical idea to one side, but always planned to return to it one day. I do this a lot and if it’s a strong idea it always reappears somewhere down the line but perhaps at a more convenient time. This also happened with From Here To Eternity for example.

Whiz forward a few years and I’ve written a few more shows, even had a few up and running and I’d bought a new recording console which gave me scope to record more ambitious projects without cost or outside interference. Just me and guitar, piano or whatever instrument I could lay my hands on. I went on a binge of writing and recording musical concept albums. Things that even if no one else wanted to listen to I did and so did my brilliant mum and I could perhaps send it to Tim Rice whose opinion I always respected the most (apart from mum of course!)

So Ed Wood The Musical was born. I wrote it and recorded, mixed it all with me playing all the roles very quickly. Perhaps in a week? Then From Here To Eternity happened or began to happen, so again Ed Wood was put on hold. Knowing that a good idea always has its day.

A year or so ago I decided to return to Ed Wood but this time put it into shape for a future production. In other words sit down and write the book. And it needed a fresh lick of paint. A new title. Ed Wood was predictable and a little boring, too much like the movie. So I rechristened it Pink Angora Sweater, suddenly it felt timely, more relevant, a real possibility. I wrote the book in three days. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t like work at all. It wrote itself really. A good sign. And three new songs for this new revamp, Pink Angora Sweater, Star, Sweethearts were all written and recorded just me and the guitar, live in a good morning session. Another good sign. I was on a roll. One song I had already written but was just sitting around doing nothing but felt like it could fit Ed’s story or what was now, Pink Angora Sweater, was called You Lost Me On Friday. So why not, it’s not ethical, but I wanted a hit. And I felt it was a good song. A big song. Bugger ethics. It’s in the second half.

Last summer I contacted The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. How about trying out a new show? I was now after all these years of struggle a West End Composer? It’s British, it’s cool, the kids will love it..thankfully the Central met me and surprisingly gave me the green light. A date? How about Sept 13th 2018. Suddenly this is real, it’s happening. 

I chose the young actors from the Centrals spotlight link. Or rather they chose me. I didn’t listen to one voice I just liked their look. Or should I say, they looked right.

So I launched Pink Angora Sweater. A blurb and a few images I’d mocked up myself. A little twitter and a few emails. I wanted it all to be low key, different, unique, not a predictable launch. Ed after all wasn’t a predictable guy. People in the business soon began getting back to me, they liked the title, the idea, Ed Wood and his crazy bunch of renegades were back and in demand. Maybe this kooky idea wasn’t so kooky after all?

I also didn’t want to put too much pressure on the concept or the kids. If the presentation didn’t work then no one would know vibe. But I knew deep down I had something rather special. But more importantly it was the right time.

I had two days. One day to meet the actors, rehearse. And then a second day to put it on its feet and present at 3pm. No pressure. So I invited Johnny Depp. 

Surprisingly his agent got back to me. He’s on tour. He might come or might not. He’s that kind of guy. Cool. I told the actors on the morning of the showcase, oh and it looks like Depps coming. The rumour went round the Central like wildfire. It was all very Ed Wood. But more of that later..

I had chosen six students to play the main characters, Ed Wood, Bunny, Dolores, Bela Lugosi, George Weiss/Orson Welles (doubling up) and Kathy. All great. One problem though. I’d given songs to all the actors and none to Bela. You see I’d made the decision it would be an hour long presentation. No more. Not the full show. A show of the show. And Bela this time around was to be a speaking role only. I felt bad for the youngster as Bela but that’s the way it was to be. 

I thought no more or it… 

My mind was totally full with organising, rehearsing and enjoying seeing it all come to life. The songs from the first moment played like a dream. I’d chosen to feature ten from the score. Each one came alive from the get go. Good job, we didn’t have time to make any of them work. And an early favourite, especially with the young girls of the cast, you guessed it, You Lost Me On Friday. A tender ballad performed by a sensitive Ed Wood. My unethical last edition to the score. Good job I trust instincts more than ethics.

But how do I present this? As usual I leave everything to the last minute. Soak up the ambience, the situation and what I have to play with. Concentrate on the positive and erase the negative. Adapt with what I have. No point given all the action to a character if that performer is the weakest etc Of course to others this is deemed as unprofessional or dangerous. I like to think on my feet.

I needed to hear the book read before I approached the final draft I would actually present for the showcase. If it was weak or the actors were. I’d simply read the synopsis and we’d do the greatest hits. It was a good story and score I was confident of that. And even average singers with a fine pianist at hand couldn’t mess them up. But all the students were good singers. I was impressed. Again my instinct on getting the right look for each role had paid off. A risk? Perhaps, but a risk worth taking.

The book read well. Very well. It was funny. Had pathos. Moved along quickly. Even just reading it all, including lyrics and it told the story and the characters came alive. This gave me a dilemma. But a good one. I now knew I had to also present more of the book than I had intended. 

I went back to my hotel on the night before the showcase buzzing with excitement, but still unsure of what was the best route for the presentation. Synopsis and songs? A few scenes and songs? One character as narrator and songs? Then it hit me. Radio play.

Ed Wood is after all obsessed with Orson Welles. A main chunk of the story is Ed’s burning desire to be the next Orson, a triple threat. We even have a song performed by Orson after he meets a broken Ed Wood in a Hollywood bar called Don’t Lose The Dream.

Orson Welles led the Mercury Theatre Company. Indeed most of this troupe of struggling working actors became a mainstay in Welles breakthrough and groundbreaking movies, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, actors such as Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorhead etc

How would Ed have presented his own life story? Like Orson Welles of course. Or as Orson Welles adapted many brilliant stories for the radio in NYC with his Mercury Theatre Company. Infamous radio plays like War of the Worlds which made the young Welles a household name. So that’s what I would do. It all made sense. We would do the workshop showcase of Pink Angora Sweater as a Mercury Theatre radio play and I would narrate. Perfect. Obvious really. Though only obvious at 1 am the night before the day of the show.

So I spent a long night adapting the book of Pink Angora Sweater into a radio play in my hotel room. I changed not one word of dialogue or scenes or songs. Simply put in new narration/information and reformatted it all on my iPad. I finished just in time to have a shave and grab a little breakfast and set off for the Central. I sent the format of the new presentation script to the MD shattered but elated. More shattered really..

Rather pleased with myself and confident this was going to work, I checked my emails before I got on the tube. As in most new things especially musicals disaster is always only moments away, I knew this, but thought, hoped this time it would be different, but no here it was. Bela Lugosi was missing.

Or rather the actor, remember the one I mentioned who didn’t have any songs to perform, who was due to play Bela? Well he had an urgent family crisis and therefore wasn’t able to make the performance. This was 8. 30 am, the presentation was 3pm.

I had no time to find a new actor. Nor any desire to do so. I’m a great believer of turning the negative into the positive so that’s what I did. 

I wrote back to the Central. No problems, I’m playing Bela Lugosi.

It made more sense to me than others would imagine. I’d once applied for a place at the Central School but couldn’t get a grant from Gateshead Council. Indeed I’d lived along the road from the School as a struggling young pop singer and would be actor and many, many times sat outside waiting for my dole check wishing I could join the students inside. So I finally got in, and as an actor.

Ten minutes before we are due to perform the world preview of Pink Angora Sweater and with guests arriving a student rushes up to me and whispers, Johnny Depp is in the foyer. This is all getting surreal and very Ed Wood. Ok I reply. Cool.

The guests take their places, more than I had expected, much more. Maybe I’m not the unknown composer after all? 3pm comes and I couldn’t resist the moment.

I waited another five minutes.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry about the delay but apparently Johnny Depp is here and we’re waiting for him to come and join us. Or words to that affect.

A few more late guests arrived and took their seat, including one chap who could have been Depp or even Depps dad.

And then after all those years beginning with a simple visit to my local library we performed the first ever performance of Pink Angora Sweater The Musical.

I very much look forward to many more.

Stuart Brayson