The duo behind brilliant musicals Mrs Beeton Says… and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Eamonn O’Dwyer and Helen Watts, share the process and real-life inspiration behind their shows, and leave us on tenterhooks for their next collaborative project.
Your most recent musical is Mrs Beeton Says…, a historical and warm show about the life of journalist and entrepreneur Isabella Beeton. What inspired you to tell her story?
Eamonn: Helen and I had been talking about finding a subject for a new musical for a little while, so I suppose I was feeling highly receptive to all ideas. I was with my sisters in Italy and, as we normally do when we get together, we were discussing food! A few chefs and recipes were mentioned: Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and the rest, and then someone said ‘Mrs Beeton’. I remember thinking ‘now there’s a name that I know, but a story that I don’t’. Within 10 minutes of Googling her, I’d ordered two copies of her Book of Household Management, and I was on the phone the to Helen telling her we’d found our story.
Helen: The most amazing thing about Isabella Beeton is the common misconception of her as an elderly matron covered in flour and dripping – it really couldn’t be further from the truth! She started working with her husband as a fashion journalist for one of his magazines, and actually had a reputation in her family for being a pretty bad cook.
The early Victorian era was a time of huge social change, with women who had grown up with servants now having to fend for themselves, and conversely, women who had no social experience now having to throw dinner parties and run large households. Isabella and Sam Beeton saw a business opportunity here to create a handbook for women of all walks of society; a way to help these moving classes by writing a book that would become the cornerstone of every kitchen in the country. Although her own life was plagued by financial ruin and very personal tragedy, she unwittingly united a generation of women with a common purpose. It makes for great drama.
Prior to working together on Mrs Beeton Says… you had previously collaborated on the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — a much darker and spookier musical. What are the main differences between working on a classic horror and a musical biopic?
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is based on a very short story by Washington Irving. Although the original is hugely rich in its imagery and folklore, the plot is pretty thin and there are only four named characters. Our first task was to populate this bustling New England town with real people: families with histories, relationships and needs, rivalries and alliances, but above all with superstitions. As well as the famous Headless Horseman, Irving also makes passing references to many other ghost stories in his novella, so we took those and fleshed them out into fully realised tales, all of which are woven into the fabric of the town, and make terrifying appearances in the show. Irving also leaves his readers with more questions than answers at the end of the book, though we felt that a modern audience would need a greater sense of resolution. We’ve hung on to the sense of mystery, but definitely invented and embellished to create a more satisfying drama.
In contrast, Mrs Beeton Says… is a story about real people, and there was a responsibility to do justice to their remarkable story. We drew on research from five different biographies of Isabella and Sam Beeton (with varying opinions and levels of accuracy) to try and get a really deep understanding of this amazing couple. The other women in the musical are fictional, but based on a lot of real material from the period: diaries, articles, and even letters published in the Beetons’ magazines. Consequently we could mould and shape their stories to complement Isabella’s as we needed. But at its heart it’s a very true and personal story.
If you had to choose one song from both of your musicals, which would you choose?
That’s a very hard question!
Helen: I really enjoyed working on “The Grand Tour” in Mrs Beeton Says… We follow the Beetons on a whistle-stop tour of Europe, visiting different countries, cultures and languages, and I loved the challenge of moving between scene and song. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow I’d say it would be “The Tale of The Drunkard Jack” — it’s the story of why we put lights in pumpkins at Halloween and it’s huge fun!
Eamonn: I tend to like the heartfelt ballads most of all, but in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow my favourite is probably “Black-Eyed Susan”. It’s sung by Sabine, the mystic healer who lives in the Hollow Wood and although it begins as a sort of hymn to nature, by the end it becomes a prophetic dream. It’s also written in 5/4, which is a gloriously strange but lilting time signature. In Mrs Beeton Says… it’s definitely “Watch the Light”. Isabella sings it after the loss of her baby. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, but I’m immensely proud of it.
Which musicals have inspired your work?
Helen: I grew up on old MGM musicals, Singing in the Rain, Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and so on. Each year I’d get one on video for my birthday and watch them over and over until I had worn away the film – quite literally! I grew up in rural Dorset so trips to the theatre were few and far between, and really only for special occasions. I’m a big fan of actor-musician productions (mainly thanks to the fabulous shows at The Watermill in Berkshire) and the exciting possibilities that arise from them. When I was in my teens I saw Moll Flanders at the Salisbury Playhouse; that actor-musician production was pivotal in shaping what I like about musical theatre.
Eamonn: I didn’t actually come to musical theatre until relatively late (I didn’t even see Les Misérables until well into my twenties!) but my first real experience of a musical was doing a student production of Assassins at university. I pretty much became a Sondheim fanatic after that and listened, played and performed as much of his work as I could. One of the hardest things I find about writing now is that almost whatever I want to express, Stephen has already expressed it more elegantly and eloquently than I feel I can! But then that’s what pushes any writer to find new ways of saying things. He’s a huge inspiration to me.
What type of show do you hope to work on next?
We always have other projects and ideas on the go.
Helen is eager to write a musical for family audiences – something multi-layered that can appeal to everyone –
a bit like The Simpsons.
Eamonn is very keen to work on a contemporary story, something set in today’s world.
We’d also like to do another adaptation. There are lots of irons in the fire, but we can’t tell you what until we get the rights!