I first saw Love Story when this new musical premièred at Chichester and I completely fell in love with it. I got to know Stephen Clark while he was working on Martin Guerre and I was writing The Musical World of Boublil and Schonberg, so I was thrilled to be asked to interview him about the creative process involved in writing the book and lyrics for Love Story. I was intrigued to know how different it is to be writing a contemporary musical rather than a period piece.
Stephen: When you’re writing a period piece it’s much harder to be comedic because the whole world of contemporary reference is immediately ruled out. So I was very pleased to be working on a more or less contemporary piece with educated characters who could reveal an inherent sharpness and wit.
Margaret: How did you feel about working on such an iconic film?
Stephen: It’s a great start to have such a well loved title, but the musical is based more on the novella than the film. The book sold over 20 million copies and it’s one of the world’s best known films. It’s been a privilege to adapt it because it’s so well written; it’s elegant, witty and pacey. Although the film was written first, the novella was actually written afterwards and published before the film was made. So because the novella itself is very filmic, I had to reduce the number of locations for the stage, rationalizing where things took place and colliding scenes with locations we’re already in, so the scenes became longer and more theatrical. I’ve gone a little bit deeper with the characters because the nature of time is different in the theatre and you can uncover a few more layers while still respecting the essence of the narrative and the characters. It was initially in two acts but after doing a workshop we learnt that it didn’t need an interval. Once you’ve established that world it’s important to stay in it and not burst the bubble you’ve created.
Margaret: Is it easier to write lyrics when you’ve also written the book/dialogue for the musical?
Stephen: Yes, because one thing I’m passionate about is that the book and lyrics have the same voice and that’s easier if it’s the same person writing both. Jenny is great to write for because Erich established such a feisty, funny woman who is tough and sharp but compassionate too. Once I’d typed up a lot of Erich’s dialogue it was in my muscles somehow so it was quite easy to continue writing new scenes in that style of language. Sometimes when you’re writing, the characters develop a kind of autonomy and they surprise you with what they do or say and it’s great when that happens.
Margaret: Jenny’s father Phil finds it very hard to understand why she’s giving up her piano studies in Paris.
Stephen: The piano is such an important part of Jenny’s life, it is part of her mother’s legacy and it’s part of her identity. For us the piano is such a gift because it legitimises the music and in a musical it is wonderful for there to be an organic reason to have a piano around. Indeed she is singing and playing because it’s in her DNA. So when she denies that it’s a very complicated thing for her father on all sorts of levels.
Margaret: Have you enjoyed working with Howard?
Stephen: It’s a privilege to work with Howard. He has such a distinctive voice and he completely understands the drama of the moment so that the music always reinforces or develops a scene. The important thing when writing a book musical as opposed to a though-sung one is that you have to find those places where the emotions are sufficiently heightened to justify songs.
Margaret: The Pasta song always brings the house down. I imagine that was a lot of fun to write?
Stephen: I wanted it to be a funny song with couplets and bounce and I always knew I wanted to do as many crazy rhymes with different sorts of pasta as possible. So once you’ve thought of that you’re half way there. Rhyme is primarily about catching or exciting the ear and drawing attention to a particular thought. If you really want to make an idea land in the audience’s mind then you put it in the line that rhymes, because there is something so satisfying and resolved about it that it will stay in the mind longer than the unrhymed lines. Other songs you approach in a different way and some songs are reprised with a poignant twist. You may only need a tiny moment of a melody to trigger the learnt response to the first time that melody was stated.
Margaret: I think the most powerful reprise is ‘Everything We Know’. When you hear it the last time with the linguistic twists of ‘could’ to ‘can’ and ‘love’ to ‘life’ it’s almost unbearably poignant.
Stephen: I started with the thought: ‘Just a little more now’ and that one line enabled me to write the rest of the lyric because then I knew exactly what the song and its reprise was about. Their relationship is strong and their feelings are honest, they just don’t have enough ‘now’ – ‘now’ has been taken away from them. As it’s a story about just two people we were initially worried about writing too many duets, so much so that the first draft didn’t have any and then we realized we’d gone too far! It takes around five years to write a musical because it is very much a process of learning the intricate balance of the story-telling, the book, the role of the music and the function of the songs. It has to be discovered in a gradual process, you can’t just decide it at the outset – you have to learn it as you go along adjusting, refining and changing.
Margaret: I loved the way you introduced the spirit of Jenny’s mother, which isn’t in the original.
Stephen: Jenny lost her mum when she was very little but I just felt that she would always have been a presence in her life. People often do talk to those they’ve lost even if they don’t necessarily believe in God. It was a theatrical way of dealing with the extraordinariness of the moment. Jenny is conjuring up her mum through the extremity of her need for comfort and to have some questions answered.
Margaret: I’ve always felt you have a gift for writing very movingly about love, and when Jenny says that love isn’t about what you feel but what you do, that seems to define the emotional heart of the musical.
Stephen: The musical theatre genre often takes love for granted but I believe it merits respect and proper investigation: what is particular about the love between these two people? Love isn’t just an abstract noun, every relationship has its own hue, its own colour of love and you have to find the emotional truth that makes it particular to that story. Jenny and Oliver are fighting towards an unconditional love, which is harder between two adults than a parent and child. Jenny is tough and she tells it like it is and it’s the combination of her honesty and humour that enables Oliver to grow up emotionally. Jenny is such a terrific character that you laugh a lot and it’s important to me that the evening is more about the affirmation of love than the terrible sadness of loss.
See Show Updates July 2010 for the Love Story Review and more photos.
Love Story photos by Manuel Harlan