Interview: Neil Marcus

The award-winning Jewish producer tells Judi Herman why he's fanatical about musical theatre

As a producer with form, particularly in musical theatre and cabaret, you spend years working on a project. On Fanatical in particular since 2015…
Musicals take a long time to gestate. The process from getting an idea to getting it on stage takes years. I developed a show called The A to Z of Mrs P, about Mrs Pearsall, who created the A-Z street atlas, with a book by Kindertransport writer Diane Samuels and a score by a great singer-songwriter, Gwyneth Herbert. That took five years.

Fanatical is set at a sci-fi convention, where fans flock to meet their idols. Wasn’t there a film about it?
Galaxy Quest! Actually, there are a few films. It’s very fertile fare because it’s an exciting environment with its own traditions. But this show is an homage to the genre of people that love sci-fi. And there are musicals that have crossed over before from science fiction to musical theatre, Little Shop of Horrors, for example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Return to the Forbidden Planet.

Neil Marcus

Neil Marcus

This one could also become a cult musical with any luck, but it is actually about a cult in a way, isn’t it? A cult phenomenon.
It’s about fandom and loving the things you love, which is a universal message. Although it is set at comic convention, with TV series like Game of Thrones and the Marvel Universe, it’s become much more popular. The world of “geek chic” is a different place to what it was five or 10 years ago. So I don’t think it’s cult, I think it’s quite broad and populist now.

There must be a love story at the heart of it. Do two fans get together?
Essentially, the plot [focuses on] a cult sci-fi comic called Angel 8, which is made into a TV series. Scott Furnish is the scriptwriter – a sort of Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or George RR Martin (Game of Thrones) character. Andra is a vlogger helping conference supervisor Trix to organise the first Angel 8 Convention. Scott turns up at the end of act one to say the series has been cancelled. In act two everything goes wrong and everything goes right and there is a love story.

If the music is as good as the story it’s got the potential to be a big hit.
I think it’s a really hot score. Fun, catchy music by British composer/lyricist Matt Board book by American Reina Hardy. They met in New York at a musical theatre writing event, realised they were both huge sci-fi fans and started putting some songs together. About five years ago I went to a ‘Search for a Composer’ competition hosted by Twitter, where I heard two or three numbers and a bit of what would become act one. I picked the show up then and I’ve been developing it ever since.

Fanatical 1 © Scott Rylander.jpg

That takes me on to what you do. You look for shows to develop while they are still being written. Do you seed them with your advice and the money you’re raising?
It depends. The production company is set up to champion the composers and lyricists I most admire. Though we picked up this project when there were a couple of songs written, the other projects I’m developing actually started from scratch. The Wigmaker, with a score by actor Douglas Hodge, who is also a great songwriter, and a book by Bryony Lavery, is a fantasy piece set in a New York wigmaker’s studio, which we’re hoping to put into production next year. That was Doug’s idea, then Bryony came on board. We also did another piece by Diane Samuels and Gwyneth Herbert called The Rhythm Method. It headlined at Bush Theatre’s Fertility Fest a few months back. Those are two very different shows by writers I admire.

You’re also working on a musical called The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. I see Maria Friedman is involved…
I directed a cabaret with Maria a few years back. Maria directed the workshop on The Happy Prince that we did in 2016. She first made me aware of the piece. She is a champion of the creative team of book writer Michael Barry and Hal Cazalet, the celebrated opera tenor, who wrote the score.

Most people work on one project at a time, but you have seem to have many on the go at once.
It is quite a high-risk game but the hope is that one of them will bear fruit. Fanatical is our first proper run. It’s a big challenge raising the funds and getting the work on.

Would you say you nurture young talent?
For five years I ran Mercury Musical Developments, an organisation to develop the craft of composers and lyricists. It’s all about how to get better at writing songs.

Can you tell me a bit about your Jewish background?
I grew up in Manchester as part of the Reform synagogue, Jackson’s Row. My wife Claire is a doctor in Guildford and we have three boys, so we are now part of North West Surrey Synagogue.

Why do you think Jews are so deeply embedded in musical theatre?
Many say musical theatre is an American art form. Certainly, in the 1920s and 30s, that fusion of jazz, Yiddish theatre and operetta created the melting pot that gave us shows like Kern’s Showboat, and the Gershwins’ early work set up an art form that’s escalated. Many of those songwriters were off the boat at Ellis Island and music is one of the ways they communicated, so it grew up in that tradition; and I think talent spawns talent. Up until the last 20 years, almost every American songwriter bar Cole Porter was Jewish. In Britain we’ve had Lionel Bart and Don Black, but it’s not quite the same infiltration of the art form. They feed each other – Broadway and the West End.

How is it staging Fanatical at the new Playground Theatre?
It’s a great space and we’re going to deck it out like a science fiction convention immersive experience! On 27 November come in fancy dress as your favourite sci-fi character!

By Judi Herman

Fanatical photos by Scott Rylander

Fanatical: A Sci-Fi Convention Musical runs until Sunday 9 December. 7.30pm, 3pm (Wed & Sat only). £12.50-£25. The Playground Theatre, W10 6RQ. 020 8960 0110.

Click here to read our review of Fanatical.