Q&A: Richard Thomas

Published February 7, 2011

Best known for creating an opera for the National Theatre out of controversial American chat show Jerry Springer, composer and lyricist Richard Thomas’s distinctive writing style is once more entertaining crowds in London; not once, but twice.

Dance show Shoes, his paean to footwear, transfers from Sadler’s Wells to the West End’s Peacock theatre this week while Anna Nicole, Thomas and composer Mark Anthony Turnage’s new opera about Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, opens at the Royal Opera House on 17 February. Caroline Bishop snatched a chat with Thomas amid his busy schedule.

You have said you had no interest in shoes, so why write a show about them?
RT: I had a meeting with [Sadler’s Wells’s Artistic Director] Alistair Spalding and he said ‘do you have any ideas for a dance show?’ I pulled up my list of ideas, and in the dance section – which is quite thin actually – I said how about a show called Shoes? He said ‘I’ll buy it, I get it, that’s a brilliant idea’. This is the shortest meeting I’ve ever had where I’ve managed to sell a thing. It was literally two lines on a page and he bought the idea.

But why did that idea come into your head?
RT: Red shoes, shoes… it’s such an earthy idea. Now I realise I think a lot of it was semantically linked to words like ‘sole’ and ‘leather’ and ‘upper’. I don’t know, it seems like an obviously simple idea. I think it was lucky I didn’t realise it was such a good idea until about three months in. He [Spalding] saw it straight away, he was smart. I think I was lucky, but sometimes you’re lucky with an idea.

How did you get inspiration for the show?
RT: I got a little flipcam and I would go and interview people everywhere on the street. I found that if you ask anybody anywhere, ‘can you tell me a bit about your shoes?’ or, ‘where did you get your shoes from?’ everyone will answer and it feels like a very neutral, lovely question. I wish I’d known this when I was a teenager. Basically it will get a conversation started. It’s a neutral zone.

What was your favourite shoe to write about?
RT: Ugg boots I really enjoyed. I loved writing about [Salvatore] Ferragamo, that was very beautiful. His story is great and that was fun to write. There’s a number called Old Shoes, where this woman is getting married and goes through the history of the disasters that befell anybody who wore the wedding shoes; that was a really lovely one to write and Sidi Larbi [Cherkaoui] did the most fantastic choreography to it.

There are some giant laughs but it’s also very beautiful. I love comedy, that’s what I was brought up on. I guess my schtick is comedy with stealth emotion. Hopefully you come out thinking ‘oh I feel quite moved and exulted by this show, how on earth did that happen, it’s just about f***king shoes?’ That’s the trick.

You have a very distinctive lyrical style…

RT: You know what it is, I’m not afraid – if I blow my own trumpet – to risk. There’s always a line, in any opening number I do in pretty much any show, where it’s a gauge of how the crowd is feeling. The first line [in Shoes] is ‘if you don’t like shoes, it’s going to be a very long evening’. It’s a big a capella moment. I said to everybody, ‘if that doesn’t get a laugh, we’re probably going to be in trouble, but we might get them by 10 minutes in’. It’s always got a laugh and in a way it’s freed people up to go ‘oh it’s ok, we get it, there’s an irony, we’re taking the piss’. But then half way through you realise actually no. When we’re singing this lovely song about the thermostatic qualities of Ugg boots, there’s weird sort of beauty about it. You think yes, it’s a really good idea these things that are protecting us from the elements. If you are a person and you don’t wear shoes, your life expectancy is probably halved. A shoe or a flip flop or some sort of foot covering is what separates you from an early death. So I was trying to get at that but I also wanted to keep it super-light as well.

Do you write with the aim of challenging people’s preconceptions about what can be staged at venues like Sadler’s Wells and the National Theatre?
RT: One of the best compliments paid to me ever was, I overheard someone say ‘I’ve been coming to Sadler’s for 10 years, it’s the first time I’ve heard laughter in the building.’ Which is unfair. But it is always heartening when you hear a good laugh, because you never know in comedy.

It’s in my bones after years doing it. I’m hyper aware and very knowledgeable of comic timing and I know how to annotate it and create it and write it, but also I think I know how to write quite emotional music and sentimental music. So I can sort of have my comedy cake and eat it. I think that brings – whether it’s an opera or a dance or a musical – certain surprising demands, and not many people do it. I know that sounds like I’m arrogant, but I know that not many people would try it and why would they? It’s quite difficult, very rigorous and unrelenting, it takes a lot of rewriting and it’s a pain in the ass to get right. But once you get it right it seems completely effortless. And I think that’s why people are surprised when they find themselves laughing in a dance context: ‘hang on, isn’t this supposed to be serious contemporary dance? Why are we having fun and enjoying ourselves?’

You are best known for Jerry Springer The Opera at the National Theatre. Did that change things for you?
RT: Yeah. I guess it led to work. I did a show out in Germany, I did five half hour comedy operas for BBC2. I’ve got this Anna Nicole thing at the Royal Opera. It would have been harder to get that. It’s all on the back of Jerry, definitely. It’s kind of your calling card. I’m very grateful to that show, even though there were a lot of problems with it. It made me who I’m not!

The show was labelled blasphemous by Christian groups and a BBC screening of it attracted 55,000 complaints. Did you enjoy the headlines?
RT: No, I didn’t enjoy the controversy. When it first came out what I enjoyed was the fact that I thought that people thought it was going to be controversial but came in and were surprised at how crafted [it was] and what an emotional punch it packed. We had all these great reviews and people flew in from all over the world and religious newspapers reviewed it and everyone said there was no problem. The only problem came when the BBC broadcast it and The Christian Voice basically orchestrated this email hate campaign against the show and the writers and the producers, which was very successful. But those people had never seen it. Occasionally in the later years I had people saying ‘oh I just wanted you to know, I was one of the protesters but I saw the video recently and I realised it was a very moral piece’. I remember saying to this person, ‘well what do you want me to say? Do you think I respect that? I don’t, so get out of my f***ing way because I don’t respect you.’ How could anyone stand and protest about a thing they haven’t seen? They disgust me!

Also, they f***ed with the commerciality of the show, definitely. I think the Americans were reluctant to take it on. I had a big publishing deal which fell through. But you know what, the way I look at it is if I’d have made a s**t load of money I probably would have blown it all and I wouldn’t have written all this new stuff.

Did it change your life, personally, as well?
RT: Yeah, I think when you’ve been plugging away in the business for quite a while, a little part of you relaxes and goes, ‘yeah I can do this, I was right’. Because you’re so full of doubts and fears, when something happens that really connects with the crowd and really works, and that feels like it’s special, you go ‘great, it’s worth all the heartache’.

You must have some self-belief…
RT: Perseverance, tenacity, stubbornness; I think I was always stubborn. If I think it can be better I will keep going until it’s better. It’s a form of ignorance!

Tell me about Anna Nicole, your new opera based on the life story of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, for the Royal Opera House.
RT: I started it before Shoes actually. I’ve only written the libretto, the guy who is writing the music is Mark Anthony Turnage. The idea came to us separately. We met on and off between two and three times a month and just rewrote and rewrote and did all these workshops, just kept at it.

What was the Royal Opera’s reaction to the idea?
RT: They were surprisingly open about it. They were really pretty cool straight away. They had Richard Jones directing so they felt confident that he could bring something to it. To be fair, they really took a risk actually. But on the other hand they wanted something comedic and it is a great story. You can see it’s quite a simple idea for an opera but it definitely works. It’s an amazing story: death, infidelity, betrayal, sex, lust, desire.

Can we expect some typical Richard Thomas lyrics?
RT: Oh yeah, definitely. But I’ve tried to tone it down as much as possible. Why? Well, there’s a limit isn’t there? I think the most important thing about it is the story, the lovely narrative sweep, that was the most interesting thing about it, getting that right, and keeping it simple. Because it’s opera the trick is to really make it simple so it’s clear what’s going on.

Have you talked to Anna Nicole’s family?
RT: I didn’t talk to family, but I spoke to a couple of her designers. It’s not a documentary…  What’s interesting is that, for someone whose life was so chronicled to the last detail, it’s quite hard to find out her real life story. That’s what’s interesting. Media in general, certainly American media, there’s so much bluster. Where’s the heart or the essence or the truth? It’s very hard to find the truth. The show sort of reflects that.

You have to present your take on it…
RT: Yeah, absolutely, and hope that no one sues. It’s a show about a group of highly litigious people, what was I thinking?!

Do you think it will bring a different audience to the Royal Opera?
RT: I think that’s what they’re hoping, and they’ve kept their ticket prices down, which is good. I know that with Jerry Springer 50% of the audience had never been to the National Theatre before. Shoes, that was a pretty broad demographic there, which is nice. I think Sadler’s Wells have a good audience actually. I guess the crowd that goes to the Peacock is slightly different to the Sadler’s Wells crowd, but it’s a good crowd. I like that Peacock crowd.

What else is up your sleeve?
RT: I’ve just finished a score for a movie by David Hoyle. It’s hard to describe his act, but he’s this great crypto-insane drag act. He’s hilarious and incredibly dark. I just wrote some highly sentimental songs for this movie which is called Uncle David and the story is very simple. Uncle David takes his nephew Ashley, who is 17 or 18, and kills him in a trailer park via three injections of heroine. It’s super funny!

Sounds hilarious.
RT: It is!