Young composer Michael Bruce speaks to Matthew Amer as he prepares to bring his music to the West End in a unique concert.
CV in brief
Where did you grow up?
Aberdeen, Scotland, the granite city, which is lovely to go back and visit. For what I do now, there’s nothing in Aberdeen. I had a brilliant childhood but, in terms of turning professional in the arts, nobody does that in Aberdeen.
Where does your love of music come from?
Nobody is really a musician in my family. My grandma had an organ. In the Second World War she used to play in the bomb shelters, she used to have an accordion and used to go down and entertain people. My parents are not musical at all, my brother’s not musical; nobody’s serious about it in that kind of way. I’m a bit of a strange child.
We didn’t have a piano in our house because my parents didn’t have anywhere to put one. We had this rule at school. You weren’t allowed to have piano lessons unless you had your own piano. So I taught myself in music shops; I’d go in and start playing. At school if there was ever a piano I was on it. I think, in a way, that made it more appealing because I didn’t have access to one, so when I did have one it was like ‘wow’.
Do you play anything else?
I learned violin at school because we weren’t allowed a piano. I hated it; it’s a horrible instrument to learn as a kid because it just sounds so awful for the first five years. Your dad’s trying to read his paper while he’s watching the evening news and you’re standing there scraping that. It’s not the best.
What is the worst job you have ever had?
When it came to leaving school, I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I thought I know I want to keep writing and I know there are places you can go, but the one I went to, LIPA [Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts], you had to be 18 before you could go and I was only 17 when I left school, so I worked in Sainsbury’s for a year. All my friends went off to uni and I worked in a Sainsbury’s that was near my high school, so all the teachers used to come through and I’d be sat at the checkout. I was one of the top academic students and they’d be like ‘What are you doing here?’ Actually, it did me a lot of good because it taught me a lot about real life and the value of money.
When did you write your first musical?
A guy in Liverpool had got commissioned by the Arts Council to write a piece. He’d written a script and it was one of those deals where you can pretty much do what you like as long as local people are involved. He approached LIPA and asked are there any students who would be interested in writing songs for this musical. The song writing teacher put me forward.
That was the first musical theatre I’d written. As soon as I started writing I realised this was completely different because in a musical you’ve got a character and a story. If you’re writing a song you know where they are at the beginning and where they need to be by the end of the song. That journey is kind of mapped out.
I was never very good at writing about myself. A lot of pop song writers write really heartfelt things about themselves. I’ve never been good at that, but what I can do is say what I want to say but through a character. It was pretty instant. The first song I wrote for this show is going to be in the concert. We’ve combined it with one of the newest songs from my latest show, which should be quite interesting.
What was your first professional theatrical job?
When I left [LIPA] I was really lucky. The following year I had one of my shows go to Edinburgh. I literally did that for a month then had three or four job offers and picked the one which was best for me, which was as an assistant MD to a Musical Director for this big company who used to do cruise ships, pantos, tours, things like that. I learned so much. I got thrown in the deep end constantly.
Who are you inspirations?
Sondheim, he’s the main one. I went through a bit of a phase, and I think a lot of people do this when they go to drama school… Even though it’s great writing, there seems to be a snobbery about it if it’s not Sondheim. And there’s a particular thing about Andrew Lloyd Webber. I went through that phase and then I kind of went ‘Do you know what, I kind of like a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stuff, why can’t I, why is it not valid?’ It is, it’s half of the west end, it’s half of Broadway.
If you could claim one song as your own, what would it be?
I suppose a lot of people would say Send In The Clowns, although I didn’t like it originally because I heard it as a pop record and it isn’t a pop record, you have to see it in the context of the show. I’m big on acting. For a lot of people it’s now becoming about singing and riffing and twirls and vocal tricks. I want to be moved.
… And if you could wipe one song off the face of the planet?
That Eurovision song, My Time, that’s awful, it’s a horrendous song. All respect to the two people who wrote it [Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren], two idols of mine, but the song is just eurgh.
Your big break came when you won a competition to write a Christmas song. What is your favourite Christmas song?
I’d say Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. It’s classy, it’s a good one. It’s got that tint of sadness about it, but it’s also festive. It’s hopeful.
How do you feel about having a concert of your songs performed in the West End?
I’m incredibly excited but I’m also bricking myself, because I know, well I hope the work is good. The work, I think, should stand up for itself and the people coming on to sing it are the best around, so there shouldn’t be any problems there. Because I’m MD-ing it I’m sat at the piano conducting it with nodding, so there’s element for error there.
I can and I can’t believe it’s happening to be honest. It does seem like a ridiculous idea to put on a West End concert of somebody that nobody really knows about, but brilliant for them to be doing it.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring composers, what would it be?
I would say ‘Do it.’ If you’ve got a talent then that will win through. As well, when I say do it, actually do it, put the work on. If it’s in a village hall, get it on. Get your family in to see it, get a bunch of your friends. You don’t need a big set, you don’t need a West End stage. Just get the work out there and then you’ll see if the work’s good.
What ambitions do you have?
We’re in a lot of talks at the moment about Ed. We were offered a transfer to the New Players theatre, and we turned that down because we got some better offers that I can’t divulge at the minute, they’re all still up in the air. The overwhelming response was that it will scale up very well and sit in the West End perhaps quite nicely. So that’s encouraging.
Hopefully it will keep snowballing from here. It’s difficult making a living from writing musicals. As long as I can keep afloat financially then I should be alright.
The gala concert of Michael Bruce’s work plays for one night only at the Apollo theatre on 1 November.