The Musical in her Mind: An interview with Shauna Carrick

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway’ - Broadway is the promised land for many musical theatre enthusiasts who dream of one day performing in the likes of the Gershwin Theatre. This is a dream for many, and a reality for few, but musical composer Shauna Carrick is making her musical dreams a reality by carving out her own way in the world of the musical theatre. Having just finished a second run in Smock Alley Theatre as part of their annual festival, with her most recent musical Tír na nÓg, Carrick is now attending the London-based workshop ‘Books, Music and Lyrics,’ which is geared for people who write musicals to learn from other people in the industry and develop their skills.

Carrick was first introduced to the spectacle and excitement of musical theatre at the age of eight years old, when her family went to see a production of Miss Saigon. “I had never experienced anything like this before and I was instantly obsessed. I bought the tapes, I went home, I learned them all off by heart, I sang them all throughout the house.” This exposure to the stage led to Carrick taking part in her school musical, and joining the Musical Society whilst studying science in UCD. Carrick credits her experience with the society for exposing her to the many different areas of theatre, “I didn’t just learn how to direct, I was a workshops manager, I was a treasurer...I did everything from going to finding props for Cabaret, all the way to directing a show, to budgeting, to everything else and I think nothing educated me more in knowing that this is what I wanted to do by being involved with that.”

After she graduated, Carrick set to work on writing her first musical, Chromatics, a show which chronicled the lives of a group of friends, living in Dublin and the different choices they faced in the real world. One storyline in particular, follows a young woman Kate who discovers she’s pregnant and the choices she is faced with. “Ultimately, in Chromatics, Kate loses her child, she doesn’t have an abortion. She lives on an island where she has a choice to make and those choices have a lot of implications, some of them being making a criminal decision in the eyes of some people...For me it’s really interesting to explore Kate’s choices, the choices she debates over, the choices that she gets to make and the choice she doesn’t get to make.”

Cast of Chromatics. Photo credit: Al Craig

First performed at the Scene and Heard festival in the Smock Alley Theatre, the early rendition of the show was “just thirty minutes of songs all stuck together with a little bit of narration in between.” Chromatics was performed by a cast of Carrick’s friends, many of whom she met through the Musical Society, and who helped Carrick develop the show into a full length two act show. “There is no better way to develop your show, than to see what people think about it. All of the feedback may not be right for you and maybe you think that ‘okay that person didn’t quite get what I was going for,’ but there is no better feeling in learning. I think for anyone who wants to try and create something is putting it in front of people and sharing it with them. Scene and Heard is such a safe space to get constructive criticism, but also really valuable advice from people who are genuinely interested in your show and they want to come and see it.”

It was through this collaborative effort, that Carrick and the Polliwog Theatre Collective took Chromatics to The Other Palace on the West-End in May 2018, with seasoned director Andrew Keates at the helm. “It was very interesting for a London director to come and direct our Irish show, because he actually came in and saw a lot of things that we were saying and what we were doing, that we didn’t necessarily see as inherently different or inherently Irish and he was able to pick them out and say ‘people in the UK don’t think things like this or don’t know these things, and you need to tell them,’ so that was really interesting for me, to see our own lives from someone else’s perspective.”

Having finished the script and fine-tuned the characters, Carrick then “had to hand it over to a different director - to take my baby, and rip it apart and put it back together again” for the West-End stage. “The experience was second to none, and I learned so much from working with people like Andrew, he has so much experience, he has so much knowledge about musical theatre in general and just made want to really up my game.”

Cast and crew of Tír na nÓg. Photo credit: Polliwog Theatre Collective.

Carrick describes how she looks for passion in telling Irish stories through musical theatre. “I don’t believe that there are enough Irish stories in musical theatre, despite the fact that I think that we are people of storytelling and singing and dancing. Pop into any pub, past 10pm at the weekends, and you’ll find somebody having a singsong somewhere.” This passion for Irish culture is further exemplified in her latest show, Tír na nÓg, which blends both the English and Irish languages together to retell the famous children’s fable of Oisin and Tír na nÓg. “I thought that the next thing I write I’d love to have everybody in the family come and for me it was only natural to weave some Irish into that as well, because I’m quite passionate about that we should embrace the Irish language.”

“I suppose there is still a little bit of an old-fashioned view of musical theatre. People think of musical theatre as jazz hands and sparkles...I hear people say ‘musicals just aren’t my thing.’”

In experimenting with this new style of musical, Carrick is attempting to not only fill a void in Irish theatre, but also change the outdated misconceptions that people who would not describe themselves as ‘musical theatre nerds’ have. “I suppose there is still a little bit of an old-fashioned view of musical theatre. People think of musical theatre as jazz hands and sparkles...I hear people say ‘musicals just aren’t my thing.’ I reply ‘you just haven’t found your musical yet, don’t worry.’ Musicals can sometimes be looked down upon a little bit in the wider theatre community but I see that it’s improving.”

For those looking to get a taste of the Irish musical theatre scene, the Bord Gais Theatre hosts many UK touring companies such as Legally Blonde, Miss Saigon and Wicked. Carrick also cites the recent run of Come From Away in the Abbey Theatre, which she described as “phenomenal and not something I ever expected to happen.”

Looking towards the future, what Carrick hopes to get out of the workshops in London is “ to figure out how I work with other people and to figure out what are the kinds of other people that I would like to work with, because I do think sometimes it gets quite lonely, being the only person writing a whole musical.” Mentioning that she and her friend Kathy Moore have written a number of songs together that they are hoping to share together, later in the year, Carrick describes the potential writing partner as “somebody who also understands conveying emotion. Someone once told me ‘people in a musical shouldn’t just start singing out of number. They should sing because words by themselves  are not enough to express what they need to express.’” Could Carrick & Moore join the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Kander & Ebb? Only time and an emotional ballad will tell.