Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips @i_ebookreview
Soundtrack by Michael Jackson, Shaggy, The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, The Muppets, Nat King Cole, David Rovics, Sam Cooke, John K and Fred Ebb, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters
All my life I have made up words to songs. As a student I used to entertain my companions on the way to and from the pub by making up ‘different’ lyrics to pop songs and musicals. It was just something I did. I heard music as a soundtrack in my head all the time and used the melody to write my own version of songs. I had a love of musical theatre and sort of wished that the world could be like that, people breaking out into song in the oddest places without any provocation. Strangely, I never thought about a career as a lyricist (I didn’t know you could). When I ‘became’ a writer for a job in my late 20s I chose screenwriting because I needed to earn a living. But life takes you on all kinds of unexpected paths and sometimes all the creativity inside you just hits that perfect moment. I’m lucky. For me the moment lasted the best part of 10 years. And changed my life.
In 2003 I started working with an advocacy group for adults labelled with learning disability who wanted to learn drama. I had no experience of ‘learning disability’ but plenty of experience of practical drama. It was challenging to begin with. Most of the group couldn’t read or write, some couldn’t or didn’t even speak. However, an amazing thing happened. Music unlocked the door.
One member of the group who never spoke beyond ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Happy’ just came alive when we started to use music. He revealed a talent for singing as well as a keen memory of 50s and 60s music. Consequently I started using music to bind together our flexible scripts. I found that by changing the lyrics of familiar pop songs to suit the story we managed to create dramas that the cast could engage with and which entertained an audience.
In 2004 we did a comedy musical version of Hamlet (called Piglet!) which included ‘ghosty’ pigs doing a song and dance version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (song starts 04:40) and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me alongside my adaptation of a well-known classic with one word changed! ‘Piglet, do you want to know a secret.’ This was followed up by devised musical plays around the theme of Fairtrade – Go Bananas which featured Day-oh and Wake up and Smell the Coffee which featured, among other songs You’re the cream in my coffee and a play on recycling using the title of a David Rovics song The End of the Age of Oil and built around that song. Performed at the Scottish Parliament, we opened the event with our ‘star’ singer (the man who didn’t speak, remember) singing Amazing Grace accapella. That was a high point of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Our most ambitious project was performed in 2008. Aiken Drum’s Recycled Musical was our first full musical. For the uninitiated, Aiken Drum is a traditional Scots tale which deals with how people view ‘outsiders’. It was a really political piece in many ways. We set it in a sort of fictional Industrial Revolution town called Trade Town. All the songs were adapted from pop songs. For example I adapted the lyrics of Wonderful World (song starts 0:38) –
‘Don’t know much about industry,
Don’t know much about commodities,
Don’t know much about stocks and shares…’
and my favourite line
Don’t know why you want to work for money, I don’t think consumerism’s funny.’
And we also butchered Cabaret’s classic Money Makes the World go round
‘When you haven’t any shoes on your feet and your coat’s thin as paper and you look thirty pounds underweight
My advice is get a job, get a mortgage, pay with credit, have all the luxuries you need
Cause money makes the world go around…’
Having moved 200 miles north I no longer work with the group, but I have taken our experiences from that time and published them as a novel, A Week with No Labels, which includes all the ‘dramas’ I’ve mentioned and a few more besides. It includes many of the ‘created/adapted’ lyrics. Described by Julia Jones as ‘perhaps the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year’, it is a tribute to my time with this amazing bunch of people who changed the course of my life and changed me irrevocably as well. Without the music there would have been no creativity. Without ABC there would have been no novel.
On the way to writing A Week with No Labels I have learned that music and creativity is for everyone. And that life can be a musical. One shouldn’t take it too seriously, one shouldn’t strive for perfection because what’s most important in life is to live and love and be creative together. The song which was always in my mind while I penned A Week With No Labels and remains there whenever I think about it is You’ve got a friend. Sung by my friend, Larry. Among other things he taught me that in our real life musicals the voice is less important than the heart. So maybe music is about more than just words.
Cally Phillips has worked as a screenwriter and playwright for 20 years and is now focussed on fiction writing. Committed to a life of creativity, she publishes advocacy work through Guerrilla Midgie Press and other writing through HoAmPresst Publishing. She writes in silence but still makes up songs, sometimes to extant tunes, sometimes recycling other melodies. Only the dogs get to hear these masterpieces. She is currently director of the Edinburgh eBook Festival and reviews for Reading Between the Lines Collective. She is also a member of the Authors Electric Writers Collective. A Week With no Labels is available in ebook format for Kindle and epub and as a paperback.Her website is here. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @i_ebookreview