Back in the autumn of 2003, a trio of theatre professionals in their early 20s produced a one-off performance highlighting new musical theatre from America; Notes From New York was born. Four years on, and the same team have produced a number of events, including Not(es) From New York, featuring new British musical theatre, and Christmas In New York, which returns for a second West End outing this December. Matthew Amer spoke to the only performing member of the threesome, and The Alternate’s newest blogger, Paul Spicer.
“It seems to be the way we tend to do it,” explains Spicer, as he tells of how festive spectacular Christmas In New York was conceived. “We go ‘we’ve got a spare few weeks, let’s just put together a little something.’ Then suddenly, before you know it it’s become this beast that we work on 24/7.”
Spicer wraps his coat around him as we sit in the upper circle bar of the Lyric, where Christmas In New York will take to the usually Cabaret-filled stage on 9 December. There is a chill in the air signalling the arrival of winter just in time for work on this year’s festive production to go into overdrive as rehearsals begin in earnest. It seems fitting and sets the frost-encrusted mood.
It is odd to think that Spicer, along with collaborators David Randall and Neil Eckersley, started planning this production way back in the comforting warmth of June, when forgetting a hat and scarf wasn’t cause for an entire day of shivering misery. Yet the festive spirit, it seems, runs through the entire process, and doesn’t just appear, like mince pies and decorations, at the beginning of November. “We’re like kids at Christmas with the running order,” Spicer fittingly says of himself and Randall, who share a love of yuletide music. “I absolutely adore Christmas. I absolutely adore New York, in so many ways. I’ve been a few times and to be able to try and find the feeling and create it on stage somehow…” He drifts off into thoughts of baubly fabulousness.
"When they give us the songs for the first time it’s like gold for us"
Creating that feeling of wonder, joy and wide-eyed childish innocence on stage is a longer process than one might think. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the show is only presented for one night, it is not a thrown together fiasco, as Spicer found out when he began to work on such one-off performances. “I thought, before I did this one night show, that people just come along and go ‘I’ll sing a song, I’ll do this and that’, but we always want to work it in a different way; we treat every single Notes From New York event like the run of a show. It’s very thought out and it takes a hell of a lot of time and effort, but it’s so rewarding that it just flies by.”
Just one of the facets of the show that needs to be thought out is the order in which the songs are performed. It is a job which Spicer takes great pride in: “Bashing it out takes a long time, to get the highs and the lows. We get hung up on through lines as well, to our own detriment sometimes. But they’re never concerts, they’re never somebody sat on a stage with a score, getting up and singing something. It is designed to get you feeling something. I don’t see the point of theatre if you don’t come out feeling something. Whether you’ve been moved to tears or you’ve laughed a hell of a lot… or both.”
Though Spicer has often worked in cabaret, he is keen to ensure that Christmas In New York does not fall into that classification, a mistake that has been made by some theatre commentators: “If you pull together a lot of songs from all different parts of the spectrum, people don’t know what to call it so they instantly hit on cabaret, and I understand why they do it. I just see our show more as a song cycle, like a journey, and cabaret I see as a whole other form of entertainment. It’s really strange what we’ve created, and I don’t want to make out like I think we’ve formed a different kind of theatre, we haven’t, but I think we’ve found a little niche that wasn’t there before.”
It is odd to think that had a text message not been sent back in 2003, London audiences would have had to wait even longer to be introduced to some of the work of composers such as Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Lippa. From that one text grew a barrage of emails, which in turn grew into a series of shows under the Notes From New York banner. Behind it all is a simmering passion. “When they give us the songs for the first time,” Spicer beams, “it’s like gold for us. We’re always trying to find those songs that people are harping on about that haven’t been in London yet to try for the next show. It doesn’t happen sometimes, and it’s a shame, but obviously there are all kinds of reasons why.”
For all three of the Christmas In New York team – and Spicer makes it very clear that bringing the show together is most definitely a team affair, with each member adding his own unique qualities – the last four years have been a learning process. The group were all in their early 20s when they embarked on the adventure. “We learnt as we went along,” says Spicer, “which sounds a bit risky, but I suppose you have to take risks in life. You learn from your mistakes as well, and we’ve made a few. Now we can see the pitfalls before they come. Our shows are stressful; they’re beyond stressful sometimes. You just have to learn how to multitask.”
"Unless you have the love, there’s no point you being in the theatre"
It helps, of course, if you happen to have friends who are also incredible performers. It makes casting shows a lot easier. Oliver Tompsett, who starred in last year’s Christmas In New York before taking on the lead role of Fiyero in Wicked, and who is returning for this year’s festive extravaganza, was at college with Spicer. His success, according to Spicer, “has just been a long time coming”.
But, like decorating a Christmas tree, there is more to casting than just throwing decorations around willy nilly. Dressing the tree – or casting a show – with the ‘wow’ factor is a precise art: “If I saw this show – if it wasn’t anything to do with us – I’d want to go and see a cast that was surprising and that was also kind of current, and I think we do that every time, which I’m really proud of.” Indeed, performers such as Samuel Barnett and Amy Nuttall, have both appeared in Notes From New York productions when they were less known for their musical exploits. Barnett hit the headlines as one of the original History Boys, and Nuttall, who was still appearing in Emmerdale when she took to the Notes From New York stage, has gone on to lead the West End casts of Guys And Dolls and Cabaret. “Notes From New York was, from the very start, all about, to its very core, premiering new composers, writers, songs and also cast members,” Spicer summarises succinctly.
It would be easy, having read this far, to believe that Spicer is a producer who spends all of his time planning one night only shows. But that would be to undersell him. The sparkling eyes, chiselled jaw and lemon-juicing cheekbones would be lost behind the scenes. Spicer not only produces, but he performs, in both Christmas In New York and in shows he has no controlling interest in. While planning this year’s yuletide party, he was actually performing each night in a world tour of Mamma Mia!, kept in the loop with the use of his trusty laptop. A veteran of many a tour, this particular jaunt has changed him. “I think I went away not really knowing what I was doing and what I was about, especially personally and a lot to do with work as well, and I’ve come back a lot more open… I’ve grown up, basically.” Touring, he says, was “something that I had to get out of my system. I always figured I was going to learn more about life if I was all over the place, not just staying in my flat in Honour Oak Park.”
As exciting an experience as playing to around 4000 people each night in arenas around the world can be, the more grown up, centred Spicer has his eyes firmly set on London these days, and staying put for a while; a few epiphanies on his trip have made sure of that. As to what he will be doing, he is staying tight lipped. A coy look across the room at Eckersley gets a nod of approval, suggesting that something is in the pipeline, but there are a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross before it will be possible to say anything.
Whatever it is that Spicer does in the future, he will be putting one hundred percent into it. What is clear from meeting the man is his total commitment to theatre as an art form and as a profession. “I don’t think a lot of people realise how unglamorous a lot of it is,” he says, having spent the five minutes before I arrive clearing old Starbucks cups away, “and how a lot of people just do it because they have a great time doing it. Unless you have the love, there’s no point you being in the theatre really.” Normally when someone with male model good looks and teeth that glitter like a frosty morning says that, I would be more cynical than a suspicious snowman told to stand near a fire, but Spicer has a sincerity about him that underscores any sickly sentiment: “I want to die knowing that I did something that mattered in theatre. That’s really general and really wishy washy, but that’s all I care about in life really. I have no grand aspirations, I just want to do something that made people go ‘wow, that’s nice’ or ‘wow, that’s inspired me.’”
He has already premiered the work of some of America’s finest musical composers in the West End. At only 26, you wouldn’t bet against Spicer bringing musical cheer – at Christmas and all year round – to London for many years to come.
Christmas In New York takes to the Lyric stage on 9 December. em>MA