Cameron Mackintosh hasn’t met John Kielty yet. When the pair do press the flesh this weekend at the premiere of Sundowe, the musical composed by Kielty with his brothers Gerry and James and which won the Mackintosh sanctioned Highland Quest MacMusical competition, it will be a fascinating meeting of minds worth being a fly on the wall for. Fortunately we have BBC Scotland cameras to do the job for us via a three part TV documentary currently mid-way through its run. And who knows, the pair might even find they have something in common.
Mackintosh is the ebullient theatrical producer and a Knight of the Realm who turned west end musicals into a global brand, and who effectively shaped populist entertainment as we know it. Kielty on the other hand, is a gobby upstart weaned on Dr Who videos and who mis-spent most of his formative years even further busking on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with his band The Martians. By this time he’d already been acting on stage and television for a few years, and would go on to become the songwriting partner of fellow Martian and future Fame Academy winner David Sneddon.
With such a pedigree, it should come as no surprise that the Kieltys’ winning musical is no piece of copy-cat West End bombast. Rather, The Sundowe’s tale of Vampyres, Zombies and buskers cops its cult TV moves from the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Monkees. In a canny piece of self-referential casting, The Martians themselves save the world.
“We have a huge appetite for television,” understates Kielty. “We all have an entire wall of VHS tapes full of stuff, and Sundowe is what’s been exhumed out of that. The Martians are grumpy wee Scots guys arguing over pennies. But this gives us the opportunity to show it to a much bigger audience. We originally entered three pieces in the competition, one of which was like an evil Muppet Show.”
While Gerry Kielty will cheerily admit to an antipathy towards theatre, his brother has a track record in shows such as Guys And Dolls at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, and in rock n’ roll musicals Come On Feel the Noise and Three Steps To Heaven. He’s also appeared on Top Of The Pops with the now ex Martian Sneddon, whose brief stint in the spotlight saw him happily move behind the scenes, where he’s now writing for the Sugababes and others.
“I learnt everything I know about musical theatre from Les Miserables,” John Kielty admits, “and musicals are cheating in a way, because they go straight for your heart.”
Cut from similarly commercial cloth as Mackintosh, then, one can’t help but wonder why someone like Kielty would want to sign up for something which, on paper at least, sounds like a cheesy exercise in political box-ticking to sort out cultural entitlement and geographical spread in one fell swoop.
The Highland Quest was launched in 2004 in an unlikely alliance between Mackintosh, Inverness’s Eden Court Theatre, then in the throes of a multi million pound redevelopment, and the then Scottish Executive to find a new musical that would appeal to a contemporary audience in Scotland. More than 130 entries were gradually whittled down to 40, and a final ten developed enough to present a 25 minute showcase before a winner was found.
While such activity sounds noble enough, the need for a competition to disseminate such material perhaps wasn’t entirely necessary. Contemporary musicals in Scotland, after all, have been in abundance of late, with Forbes Masson being the man who set the ball-rolling. His trilogy of high-camp post-modern explorations of his inner demons, Stiff, Mince and Pants, were unashamedly knowing pieces of showbiz fantasy-wish-fulfilment.
More recently, Grid Iron scored a major hit with Fierce, a ‘hip-hopera’ set in a sink estate where skate-boarding graffiti artists attempt to make their mark. Novelist Irvine Welsh took a similarly gritty approach with Blackpool, a musical written with punk legend Vic Godard and performed by students at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh. All of these were pre-dated by David Greig’s Danny 306 + Me (4 Ever,) a musical for children written for The Traverse, and which incorporated puppets onstage alongside actors. Greig himself is currently developing a new work with Edinburgh band, Ballboy.
In the last year, Oran Mor has knocked out a succession of mini-musicals, including Dave Anderson’s Tir Na Nog and visual artist Adrian Wiszniewski’s collaboration with Paddy Cunneen and the Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra, G.B.H.
As one of the judges, even Anthony Drewe, who with writing partner George Stiles is this week overseeing the openings of Honk in Newbury, Peter Pan in Birmingham and Jack And The Beanstalk at The Barbican, has some reservations concerning The Highland Quest’s competitive aspect.
“I have slightly mixed feelings,” he admits, “because it implies that because there is one winner, all the rest aren’t worth anything, but that’s not the case. There is something insidious about saying you’re the winner, but this is more about nurturing talent, and what is hard is getting on that first rung of the ladder. In America they’re so much better at it. So many writers here have other jobs, whereas in America there are lengthy workshops to develop new musicals.”
While John Kielty suggests the Highland Quest judges didn’t fully understand Sundowe until the laughs came from the audience during its showcase performance, Drewe is unequivocal in his praise for both creation and creators.
“It reminded me of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video,” he says. “It’s the sort of thing The Rocky Horror Show did so well in its day.”
As noted earlier, in terms of creative input, The Sundowe is a three-way split between Kielty and his two brothers Gerry and James. Like John, Gerry plays in The Martians, and is an even more prolific song-writer than his sibling. If John is the mouth-piece of the project, providing the drive and ambition to make things happen, Gerry provides a historical context to suggest their creation is about a whole lot more than ghosts and ghoulies.
“If you pull out the history,” Gerry Kielty asserts, “and just try and be cool, you’re not left with anything. A lot of people think Scotland’s just about tartan, but all that was only invented in the 18th century. That whole tartan shortbread idea is so one-sided, to think that it’s just the last hundred years that matter. The heart of the matter in Scotland is the past, and not being able to move on from that past because as a country it can’t deal with its ghosts, and can’t move on because of that.”
As the public face of Sundowe, John and Gerry are boundless in their will to succeed. Then there’s James. You won’t see James Kielty in any of the publicity pictures for Sundowe. He doesn’t appear in the show, and hasn’t even been on-set yet. Without him, though, it’s doubtful whether Sundowe’s more fanciful indulgences would have been breathed into life by John and Gerry.
“He doesn’t like change,” is how his brother puts it. “James is a devourer of stories. He’s been writing stories about fictitious versions of his friends for years, and he’s got the most fertile of imaginations. We say he’s got spiders in his mind.”
Where those spiders go from here, however, is anybody’s guess. As Drewe observes, “This is hopefully just the beginning for the Kieltys. They’ve proved very flexible, and are quick at responding to things and writing stuff. What happens afterwards should prove very interesting.”
As for the goggle-eyed brothers themselves, while they claim to have no expectations of what might come out of Sundowe, they can barely contain their hunger for the big time.
“I would love to market The Martians on the back of this,” John Kielty admits. “I dream of albums. I dream of a comedy series. I dream of all these things, but then again, maybe Skye’s the limit.”
Sundowe, Eden Court Theatre, November 30-December 15, and will tour the Highlands in 2008. Parts Two and Three of MacMusical can be seen on BBC2 Scotland on November 29 and December 6, repeated on Sundays
The Herald, November 27th 2008