Interview: Michael Bruce

April 20, 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews

At just 27, Michael Bruce has been making waves on the musical theatre scene since his debut concert in 2009, and his recently-released album Unwritten Songs had critics and fans buzzing with enthusiasm. WEG chats to him about enjoying his success and what’s next.

Composer Michael Bruce

You first attracted attention when you won the Notes for the Stage writing competition in 2007. What made you enter?

I was working as a musical director on a cruise ship at the time, and a friend of mine told me about it. I had a little bit of leave so I came back to the UK and I thought, I’ll write something and send it off. I’d always been writing songs, and started writing musicals towards the end of my uni education [at LIPA.] I’d already had a show up in Edinburgh, Hey Diddle Diddle, which was a really good first example of putting something in front of an audience that might not work. It worked in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t as well received as I’d been led to believe that it may have been. When you’re at uni, you’ve got very sort of narrow perspective on the entire industry and what the public want, so it was quite a learning curve I think. It was one of the reasons I realised I always need to work with a book writer, because I’d done it all myself and the book was the weakest bit. But it wasn’t until I entered Notes for the Stage that my writing career kind of kicked off.

I know they say you should never have favourites, but do you have secret love for one particular track on Unwritten Songs?

It depends, you see – on the album it’s different to doing live. Because they’re theatre songs, things sometimes don’t translate so well in recording as they do live. Besides Portrait of a Princess, which is probably the most notorious, I’m quite proud of Continental. That’s one of the ones that definitely works better in person, but I think it works quite well on the album. Then I guess Unwritten Song, the last one on the album and the last one that I wrote. I always write for characters; I know the journeys, who the people are, and I can say what I want to through them, but it’s always someone else. Then I had a really weird year last year, I lost family members and things, and it was Paul [Spicer] who suggested I write about that. It was difficult, but I did it. And actually I’m really proud of it because it is more autobiographical than the rest of my work. Completely honestly, ‘Unwritten Song’ was what we’d put at the bottom of the set list because I hadn’t written it yet, but then we thought that would be a really good name, because it was the song that I never wanted to have to write.

Portrait of a Princess is up to 69,000 views on YouTube (view here). Did you ever think that it would get so much attention?

I hoped, because I knew it was something new and because it hadn’t been done before in such a musical theatre context. I guess you always set about to do these things with the view that they will do really well, because what’s the point of doing it if not? I was surprised about how well it’s been received, so quickly. I suppose part of me thinks, well, it should be. I didn’t do the video; I was in meetings about the whole process and how it was going to be, but I was away when it happened, and I owe a lot to the people who produced it and were in it. I don’t feel like it’s something that’s just mine, I think it belongs to everybody who was involved. So I’m pleased it’s doing well for their sake as well as mine.

How does it feel to have the support of people like Stephen Fry?

It’s great. I’d met Stephen once before with Julie, just socially, listening to a bit of my music and things. It’s incredible for somebody that high profile to really get behind this sort of work. He’s really supportive of my writing and musical theatre, and I’m really glad that he managed to come and see the launch, and see what I do, because it’s hard sometimes to get across. That’s why I’m so pleased to have the album now, because for so long you’re saying, “I sort of write this, and I do that,” but unless people are hearing it for themselves, I think it’s difficult to sell yourself as a writer. It’s like I really exist now.

Most of the tracks on Unwritten Songs are cabaret heaven. Will sheet music be available?

Yes – imminently. That’s so exciting, because it’s like you exist even more then, and people will start being able to do the songs. I’m lucky in a way because some people have got hold of the music already, so sometimes I’ve been in an audition where somebody’s sung one of my songs, which is really surreal. I don’t sit on a lot of audition panels anymore, but I’m looking forward to people in drama schools hopefully picking up the songbook and maybe doing it for things. That will help with the album, and the album will help the songbook. I feel bad, because people have been emailing me for the last two years asking for the sheet music for Portrait of a Princess.

How do you go about selecting the actors to sing each song? Were many written with people in mind, or did you just write them and allocate later?

We’ve done a lot of sitting around, thinking about who should sing what songs. Portrait of a Princess was written for Julie, so that was a no-brainer. Some of the other ones were people I worked with – I worked with Ross Hunter on one of the Confused.com adverts [for which Michael arranged the music], and he was so great in the studio that I thought, why don’t we get him to take part? A lot of them are from the Apollo concert two years ago. I remember Emily [Tierney] came and did Continental about two weeks before, because we still hadn’t found anyone who could sing it, and she just nailed it from day one. I’d written that quite a while ago and never found the right voice for it, and then she was it. We tried to find people who were different in their own way and who had come from a slightly different background. We seem to have quite a lot of people from Wicked, but that’s just because a lot of the good people seem to have passed through that show at one time or another! I’ve known Ashleigh [Gray] for years, and she’s a great one.

Have you done much acting or singing yourself?

I did, when I went to uni I started out as a singer-songwriter; I had my own band that were very short-lived and I did a lot of solo piano stuff, singing and playing. I did some things at uni, but professionally since. I remember once, on the cruise ship, having to go on in one of the shows because there were so many people off ill. They had nobody to cover and I had to go on in a production of Buddy and play a backing singer. Before all that I did dancing, that’s how I started out on the stage when I was younger. I was Scottish champion in highland dancing but I did ballet and tap, and modern and jazz and all that stuff too. It was how I started out with showbiz, I guess.

Do you think things like Twitter and online ventures like M Magazine are making things easier for people starting out and working in musical theatre?

Oh definitely. What Twitter’s doing is pulling a [theatre] community together and making everybody aware of what’s going on. What’s great about what we’ve done with the Portrait of a Princess video, it’s sort of pushed itself out of that little sphere and into the wider marketplace. That’s the most exciting thing, because Stephen Fry can say, “Check Michael’s video out,” and he’s got over 2 million people following. It’s free advertising, and it’s that thing of being able to get a community together. With writers, for instance – there are a few of the people who are around at the minute who get in touch with each other on Twitter, and I can only suppose it’s going to get better.

Do you have a muse? Or anyone who you’d love to write a song for in future?

I don’t have a muse, so that’s open if somebody wants to be one! I don’t like writing with people, to be honest. I like collaborating with a book writer on a musical, and I like being in rehearsals and being in a company, but when it comes to actually writing I like to be on my own for that. That’s why I do music and lyrics; I don’t tend to like to collaborate on that, because I find it just makes it much longer and it ends up less good, there’s just more editing going on. There are people who I’d like to see do my songs that I have already; I’d love to see Kristin Chenoweth try Continental. They make stars in America in a way that the West End don’t, because in the West End they take stars from TV and they stick them in shows, but the theatre in New York manages to create stars of its own. A legend like Bernadette Peters would be great to write for. We’ll see.

Would you be thrilled or horrified if Glee featured your songs?

I would love it. I’m half-hoping they get hold of Portrait of a Princess. Maybe I could be on Glee!

Which musicals and writers have influenced you in your career?

Well, my dissertation was on Sondheim and the craft of songwriting, and specifically Sunday in the Park with George, but with reference to other composers at the time such as Jason Robert Brown, Michael LaChiusa and Adam Guettel. So all of their work, probably. And I love Andrew Lloyd Webber as well. When I was studying, there was a bit of stigma attached to that. The tutors always pick Sondheim because it’s very good acting material, but I think Andrew Lloyd Webber has got some great stuff as well. I think what he does is write memorable tunes in a way the mass market are able to relate to. Growing up I loved Diane Warren, who is a pop songwriter. I saw a documentary video about her life and how she worked and everything, and I watched it constantly. She wrote How Do I Live Without You, Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing, Because You Loved Me, lots of 80s and 90s stuff. She did a lot of ballads.

Tell me about Much Ado About Nothing, which you’re working on with Catherine Tate and David Tennant. Is it quite a shaken-up version?

I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about what we’re actually doing with it, but we’re in week two of rehearsals now and it’s going to be really good fun. Really accessible Shakespeare. The two stars, Catherine and David, are lovely and really, really good – I can’t actually express how good they are. But it’s going to be good, fun, summery stuff. It’s almost sold out already, so it’s going to have a good atmosphere, hopefully. Of all the Shakespeares that have been around recently I think it will probably be one that everybody can take something away from. Every scene is great. There are songs in it, and there will be more songs than are in the original – there is a lot of music in it, I can say that. It’s not a musical theatre twist, though.

What’s next for you after Much Ado?

It runs until September, but I’m done on press night. Then I’m doing another gig at the Pheasantry in June, and I’m working on a new show for the Bush Theatre [where he is resident composer] but that’s in its infancy stages at the minute. Then there are a few other bits and bobs of projects that I can pick up again. The Pheasantry gig is a sort of ‘unplugged’ reworking of the album, with some extra bits. I’m going to perform a little bit as well. At the Apollo gig I sang a couple of songs, but what was important about the album was that it wasn’t about my performance, because I’m not Mark Evans or whoever, but I’d quite like to perform some stuff at this one.

What’s the best show you’ve seen lately and why?

Clybourne Park. It was just fabulous, really special. And as they were in Wyndham’s just before us, it was nice to be in the theatre and kind of soak up the surroundings a little bit. But that play itself is just so well done.

What would you say has been the absolute highlight of your career so far?

Probably the Apollo concert [A Little Less Ordinary] in 2009. That was a pretty special night, and I had all of my family there. It all seemed to come together and the atmosphere was just electric that night, I remember, the reaction of the audience. The Delfont Rooms were great as well, but they were so much more intimate and small in scale. The Apollo was one of those moments where it was just kind of, “Wow.” It felt quite epic for me and I enjoyed it, which I thought I wouldn’t. I actually had a lovely time.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years’ time?

I would like to have written some hit musicals, I think. The main plan is that I write. It’s great having the album with stuff from shows, but to have proper, full-scale shows produced and running, either here in the West End or New York – that’s where I want to go. I also want to keep doing comedy, I love doing it and it’s one of the things that keeps me going. I did a show last year, The Great British Country Fete, which a lot of West End people didn’t really know. It was at the Bush Theatre and went on tour and to Latitude festival, and it was a three-hander. I wrote it with the comedian Russell Kane, and it was the height of silly comedy. I’ve never laughed as much as when doing rehearsals for that. It was ridiculous in the way that Continental is ridiculous; it’s just my sense of humour. I also want to cross into film a little bit, but in a new way. It’s early days to talk about it, but I’m looking at making a film out of one of the projects. It will be a musical film, but that’s just a new avenue I’m starting to journey down, which is a bit exciting. A whole new ballgame.

Michael’s next gig, an acoustic reimagining of Unwritten Songs, is at The Pheasantry on June 19th. Tickets £20, contact 0845 602 7017 or Click Here

Unwritten Songs is available from iTunes, Amazon and Dress Circle. The songbook will be available from May 23rd.

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