Sunday 25 August 2013

Scott Alan - A profile of a talented guy

Scott Alan at the piano

When Scott Alan flew over a few weeks ago to host his O2 gig, I was lucky enough to grab an hour of the man’s time later that week at the bar of London’s Hippodrome. It’s a measure of his recognition and acclaim that our conversation was frequently interrupted by fans keen to grab a photo or an autograph. A charmingly polite celebrity, Alan obliged all requests and yet the conversation between us flowed effortlessly around these moments, as we talked about his life, his forthcoming musical Home and his love for London.

I had previously encountered Alan’s work performed in various cabaret routines and was aware of his talent, but the O2 evening had been my first occasion of getting a broader understanding of his writing. My understanding of his broader catalogue could not have been more informative. I was sat next to his mother Marcia, just flown in from New York and who as a typical Jewish mother could not have been bursting with more pride at her son’s work commanding such a prestigious London venue. In the absence of a printed programme for the night, it was my delight and privilege to explain to her who was who amongst a cast that included the likes of Cynthia Erivo, Nathan James and even John Owen-Jones. Marcia in return shared some of her recollections of the (very) young Scott. Apparently his musical inclinations were manifest even in the toddler years wheeling a melodious Fisher-Price pushalong from the age of 2, whilst various elementary-school teachers were to confidently predict a career on stage.

In between a delightful infancy and a successful adulthood, Alan is on record as having deeply suffered during his childhood and adolescence, trying to cope with a world that would not accept his sexuality and the sense of profound loneliness that engendered. As a gay teenager, he tells of having found high school hellish, feeling isolated and suicidal. Outside of school and aware that his sexuality was unconventional and as a consequence, knowing from a very early age that he would not be fulfilling the “traditional Jewish” routine of career, marriage and kids, he found the expectations of his family in those years almost unbearable, making his inner torment even harder to endure.

Alan (2nd r) with some of the performers at the O2

Those difficult times are now, most emphatically, consigned to history. It is clear that Alan and his family have all worked hard to forge fresh and powerful ties of warmth and his relationship with his mother and sister is evidently loving. Indeed at the gig, the bond that stretched from the composer on stage to his mom and sis in the stalls, was almost palpable. Alan is nothing if not open about his journey and acknowledges that the challenge to keep on top of depression can be ongoing. But the gloriously rude strength of his mental health is actually to be celebrated. He exemplifies a human victory over depression that is inspirational and in a world of transient and often flawed celebrities who battle and sometimes fall victim to, their demons, there can be few finer role models that evidence, so wholesomely, that depression can be controlled and mastered.

Alan talks of having written a lot about loneliness and in some depth refers to his favourite composition, Anything Worth Holding Onto, a song that speaks from the depths of depression. On the night at the O2, singer Cynthia Erivo gave herself, her soul and her tears totally to the number, yet whilst rehearsing, Erivo complained that she “just wasn’t getting it”, that there was an absence of connection with the lyrics and that she was struggling to perform the number. It is a credit to both writer and singer that Alan patiently worked with her to guide her towards the evening’s performance where, that even though all rehearsals of the song had proved a challenge, on the night itself and sat like a vulnerable teenager on the edge of the Indigo’s dwarfing stage, Erivo found it within her to bring words, music and above all her sublime interpretation, into an alignment of almost planetary perfection. The ovation that the song received was proof enough.

Cynthia Erivo in rehearsal for the O2 concert

Erivo was to sing again for Alan later that night, in a number that could not have been further removed from depression, as she portrayed a gloriously rebellious and cooky teenager, stoned out of her brains on dope. The song was from Home, a musical for four women, that Alan has been writing words and music for over the best part of 13 years with Christy Hall writing the show’s book. Home explores the relationship between a mother and her daughter Katherine, with three of the cast required to play Katherine from teenager through to mature adult, in a tale that will inspire and amuse its audience, as well as take them on an emotional rollercoaster.

Whilst some of Home’s songs have been released and performed (only recently, I was stunned by Kerry Ellis’ performance of Never Neverland at her Pheasantry concert), the O2 gig was the first occasion that the entire collection of songs had been recited in their entirety. With some of Broadway’s and the West End’s finest women on stage for the performance, Alan was understandably overwhelmed at both the outstanding performance values that all the artistes had put into his songs, as well as the reception the collection received. He says that whilst Home had enjoyed readings in the States, he had never seen a crowd respond to the material so perfectly, getting every joke and responding to each song’s emotional punch. Alan is at pains to emphasise that this had just been a sing through of songs, with none of the show’s dialogue included at all. Modestly and charmingly he rates Hall’s book even higher than his compositions, adding that his heart is in the show and that pending its premiere, he is simply not fulfilled.

Home is clearly a project that he and Hall have immersed themselves in. Before I met with Alan, I had spoken with his talented and perceptive bookwriter, where she described the show as “not only the kind of story people need to hear, but also a story that Scott and I were clearly meant to tell.” Alan resoundingly echoes her words and Hall’s description of their writing process is grinningly endorsed by the composer. I share with Alan the observation that Hall made, that when “we get in our work mode, neither of us sleep. We will quite literally give until we drop. It is just the stuff we are made of” and all he can do is nod in agreement. Hall had been delightfully free and candid in how she describes the writing process. “It's not all work and no play. Scott and I can be very silly and playful together… we always hit a wall when working and that usually leads to us sharing a bottle of wine and making fun of ourselves or talking to his sweet dog, Billy, in ridiculous voices... He's just a big dork when it really comes right down to it and to be honest? I adore him for it.”

The writing of a musical is, to those of us mere mortals looking in, a sorcerer’s combination of talent, wit and wisdom. The extent to which Hall so openly describes that creative and profoundly private professional intimacy, with words that Alan wholeheartedly agrees with, is a rare glimpse into the magicians’ workshop that they have built. Theirs is clearly a blessed creative collaboration and one can only hope that their professional union continues to yield future fruit.

Notwithstanding the Manhattan base of Hall and Alan, it seems likely that London may prove the launch pad for Home’s fully fledged emergence. Aside from the warmth of the reception to the songs at the O2, Alan is struck by the unpretentious nature of some of the UK’s leading musical theatre performers who have expressed their desire to work with him. Born and bred in New York, he describes it as a relative rarity for an established Broadway performer to reach out to a composer and say “ I want to work with you”, but in London he feels such pretensions are almost non-existent and he speaks of being bowled over by the requests he has received from leading West End names to perform his material.

It is of course also quite possible that one of the reasons Alan was so exhausted late that evening at the Hippodrome, was that he had just Eurostar’d to Paris and back with Eponine’s creator and latter day Edith Piaf, Frances Ruffelle (there had been much Parisian banter tweeted by Alan, suggesting that he planned to get Ruffelle to sing On My Own, on a rainy street corner in the city…) That Alan’s list of O2 performers went on to include Willemijn Verkaik, Richard Fleeshman, Siobhan Dillon and Julie Atherton speaks volumes for the immensity of respect that he has earned over here and when we met he had in fact spent a long session, post-Paris, in meetings discussing Home’s possible London launch. He was of course appropriately professionally coy revealing no details at all of the talks, but his excitement at the possibility of a London premiere is a delight to see as he repeatedly comments how much he looks on London as a second home.

The reason for our meeting at the Hippodrome was that Shoshana Bean (accompanied by many of Alan’s singers from the O2 guesting) was performing there in a hastily arranged event thrown together in the flurry of excitement that the Alan gig had generated. Bean’s act was shortly to commence and with all appropriate courtesies, Alan headed off through the crowds to hear his friend perform. As he walked off, pausing to sign autographs on request, he struck me as a perfect combination of charm, modesty and great talent. To quote John Dempsey’s lyric from The Witches of Eastwick he truly is “all manner of man in one man”. Whilst New York is unquestionably his home, I suspect that London will be enjoying the privilege of offering this man the Home he truly longs to see.

Pictures by Darren Bell

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