Most of the time, we're just vaguely conscious of the musical qualities of speech – the rhythms and pitches that make up the spontaneous melody of conversation. Usually there's an implied harmony as well, that composers have teased out in projects as various as Steve Reich's Different Trains and Scott Johnson's John Somebody, both based on the composers' analyses of recorded speech.
London Road, the musical that opens Thursday at Canadian Stage in Toronto, does something similar with the chatter of a whole community – Ispwich, a town in the southeast of England, that in 2006 was wracked by a series of murders of sex-trade workers. Five women were killed in similar circumstances over a span of about six weeks, during which time Ipswich got to know the fear and intense media scrutiny that comes with being the hunting ground of a serial killer.
The script of London Road is an edited transcript of interviews done in the community by Alecky Blythe, whose previous "verbatim theatre" productions are the exacting cousins of a Canadian classic from the early '70s, The Farm Show. But London's National Theatre, where Blythe was working as a playwright-in-residence, wanted a musical, and suggested she work with a staff composer she had never met: Adam Cork.
"It wasn't planned by the two of us," Cork says by telephone from his home in London. Setting the entire script to music, following the rhythms and pitches of the original transcripts, he says, seemed the only way to achieve Blythe's goal of transmitting her gathered texts in forms as close as possible to the originals, down to each speaker's lilt and specific accent.
"Initially I was a little bit stuck as to how to do it musically," Cork says. He began with some "very forensic samples" – no pun intended, apparently – and made a few settings of exactly what he heard in each voice on the tapes. "I tried being very attached to actual pitches, without much repetition of text, and without regular metre, like a stream-of-consciousness style. That was interesting, but we felt we wanted something a bit more accessible" – a bit closer to the familiar diatonic landscape of most musical theatre, with more or less regular metres, and periods of repetition that would feel like choruses. The sheer amount of text, much more than for any conventional musical, was a continual challenge, which he sometimes met with a kind of speech-patter that runs in loose connection with the instrumentals.
The score he ultimately produced, after three or four workshops and many revisions of text and music, has a surprisingly sunny feeling to it, given the subject of the piece. Casting has been a difficult task on both sides of the Atlantic, due to the exacting yet also conversational style of the music.
London Road was a hit during its premiere production at the National's small Cottesloe Theatre in 2011, and again when it was revived a year later on the main Olivier stage. It won the 2011 Critics' Circle Award for best musical, but was also criticized for transforming a tale of murdered and devalued women into an uplifting show about community spirit. "Who would have thought a story inspired by the Ipswich murders," wrote Catherine Bennett in The Observer, "would one day send audiences home with the same kind of warm feeling as, say, The Full Monty?"
But Cork says the murders (for which former bartender Steve Wright was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2008) are really not the substance of London Road.
"It's not so much about a crime as about the way a community reacts to a traumatic event," he says. "It's about something that could happen to any community."
The Canadian Stage production of London Road runs Jan. 23 through Feb. 9.