When the eponymous ice-cold monarch in Dundee Rep’s seasonal production of The Snow steps up to the microphone, as played by Sophie Reid, she more resembles a pop princess than a lost queen. The song Reid belts out too leans more towards tweenage bubblegum euphoria picked up from Eurovision than anything more pompous. Elsewhere in Andrew Panton’s production, the numbers possess the multi-cultural spirit of Celtic-tinged indie-pop by way of folktronic Scandic chorales echoing from the fjords.
This vibrant musical reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen’s frosty folk tale is the work of writer and lyrics Scott Gilmour and composer Claire McKenzie. As Noisemaker, the Herald Angel winning duo are spearheading a new generation of musical theatre-makers at home and abroad, with international collaborations alongside theatres in America and elsewhere currently ongoing. For now, at least, it is the pair’s current self-penned Christmas show which concerns them most. A co-commission by Dundee Rep and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, where it will play in 2020, The Snow Queen is the result of an artistic investment in its creators championed by Dundee Rep artistic director Andrew Panton over a long period.
“We’ve had an amazing relationship with Dundee Rep,” Gilmour explains. “We’ve worked with Andrew for a while, and we developed our show, Little Red and the Wolf, here. Andrew was keen for us to develop a musical Christmas show and continue that relationship.”
Given Panton’s own relationship with musical theatre in his other role as a visiting professor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, finding a story that was right for Noisemaker was crucial. As McKenzie explains, “We always talked about finding a story where song was important from the start rather than being something added on.”
While The Snow Queen wasn’t an obvious choice, it left Gilmour and McKenzie plenty to play with.
“The original folk tale is steeped in religion and magic,” Gilmour points out, “and that didn’t really resonate with us. Looking at how to do it differently, we thought about how a younger protagonist is affected by decisions made by previous generations, and how something that was supposed to do good was corrupted. We also wanted to find a voice for a young woman that was something different from being a princess.”
As McKenzie admits, “It’s a tricky one, because it’s not an obvious one to sell, and a Christmas show is really important for any theatre, so we had to get it right, but I think the music we’ve used lends itself to it being for the whole family.”
Gilmour and McKenzie joined forces as Noisemaker while they were both students at the RCS. Gilmour was training as an actor on the BA Musical Theatre course, and has gone on to appear in the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s production of A Christmas Carol, The 306: Day with the National Theatre of Scotland in Perth, and Little Johnny’s Big Gay Wedding with Random Accomplice. McKenzie studied composition and musical direction, and has worked extensively at the Royal Lyceum and Citizens Theatres, and is currently an associate artist with Dundee Rep.
The pair’s first collaboration was on Freakshow, a piece first seen in Glasgow at the Arches as part of the On the Verge festival of new theatre by RCS students before an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run and transferring to the Roundhouse in London. Five years on, Noisemaker are making waves globally, having made connections with everyone from the Walt Disney Organisation to Goodsped Musicals in Connecticut, where, in partnership with Dundee Rep, a new show, Hi, My Name is Ben, will be premiering in 2019.
Closer to home, in 2017, another Noisemaker show, Atlantic: A Scottish Story, was awarded a Herald Angel. More recently, Noisemaker were part of the team on another Herald Angel winning show when they composed the score for My Left/Right Foot, Robert Softley Gale’s comic musical for Birds of Paradise and the National Theatre of Scotland. Other shows have included Forest Boy, seen in Edinburgh, London and New York, Ceilidh with Noise Opera and The Girl Who in Edinburgh. Another new show, Legend Trippers, looks set to be produced by the National Youth Music Theatre. This year as well, Noisemaker received a Scottish SME Business Award for their writing partnership, a first for an arts organisation to be acknowledged in this sector. All of which suggests there is something of a renaissance in musical theatre in Scotland.
“I think it’s definitely finding more of a voice than ever before,” says Gilmour, “and there seems to be a real appetite for it. My Left/Right Foot came about because Robert specifically wanted to make a musical, which was great, though you have to be slightly careful with that notion, because if you’re not starting with a strong story first it can potentially be quite destructive.”
McKenzie points out that when Noisemaker started out, “it felt like there wasn’t any new musical theatre around at all, but I think a lot of theatres cottoned on to the fact that if you got a new musical right, that it could have a long life, and could be really beneficial for whichever theatre it originated from.”
The Snow Queen is testament to this, not least for the way it combines pop cultural savvy with a song-led story that translates for young people and adults to have fun with while not denying a more serious undertone.
“On one level I think it works as an experience to come and see the show with family and friends, and the story of The Snow Queen lends itself naturally to imaginary spectacle and fun. Ultimately, though, we were attracted to the story because it’s about empowerment for young people. Looking at some of the things going on in the world just now, trying to find a voice in the midst of these big global threats can sometimes feel like too much to take on, but sometimes one little voice can make a difference.
“Whatever lens you’re looking at that through – socially, revolutionary, politically – it can work, and at this time of year especially, when people are looking back at things that have happened in their lives, that can resonate with older audiences as much as younger ones.”
The Snow Queen, Dundee Rep until December 31.
The Herald, December 13th 2018