Sophie Hannah, bestselling crime writer and author of the new Hercule Poirot novels, has created an original murder mystery musical, The Generalist, in collaboration with composer Annette Armitage. Here, Sophie Hannah shares her thoughts on making a musical – devising the story, writing a libretto, and working with a composer.
There’s nothing I love more than a great musical. This has been my view ever since childhood. I grew up with Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz. When I was seventeen, I played Ado Annie in a production of Oklahoma! at my sixth form college.
‘song lyrics need to do serious plot-work and character-work’
Did I ever imagine that I would co-write a musical? Not in a million years. I’m a crime writer, not a musical theatre librettist – or at least that’s what I thought. And then I watched my daughter play Juliet in her school’s musical version of Romeo and Juliet (pop songs had been added to the original play in appropriate places). Sitting in the auditorium, I realised that this was the most engaged and delighted I had ever been while watching a Shakespeare production. Next, it occurred to me that I write murder mysteries, and perhaps they too could be enhanced by music. I wondered if a murder mystery musical had ever been written. I did some investigating and found that there had been two — one of which was based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood — but neither is regularly staged or particularly well known.
An idea I’d had for a long time, and had been wondering how to use, suddenly leapt to mind: a mystery that begins with a stranger turning up at a detective’s house and saying, ‘I am the murderer,’ and then disappearing. The detective has no more details than that to work with, no clues, and no idea which murder or murders the man is talking about: only that confession (which might be false) and the memory of the man’s face.
This became the opening scene of the musical I co-wrote with my genius composer friend, Annette Armitage. It’s now called The Generalist, but its original title was The Mystery of Mr. E, and at some stage it might be called that again. At the moment, its development for launching as a professional production requires it to have a different name.
Writing the lyrics was an amazing experience. Before I wrote crime fiction, I wrote mainly poetry for ten years and was a busy touring poet, reading and performing at festivals all over the world. Since becoming a crime writer in 2006, I’ve been focusing most of my creative energies on crime fiction, but writing this musical enabled me to use my poetry skills again, since song lyrics are really not that different from poetry. In a musical, song lyrics need to do serious plot-work and character-work — in fact, some would say that the information contained in the song lyrics of a musical ought to be the most crucial information in the whole story, so that the songs really stand out. That’s certainly true of this musical. Many characters are defined by their key songs, and the resolution of the mystery is followed immediately by one of the strongest songs in the show — one that is all about the emotional repercussions of the crime and why it was committed.
There’s a conscious Agatha Christie influence in the plot of The Generalist, and also in the character of the famous late novelist. Think The Mousetrap meets Tim Minchin’s Matilda, and you’ll have a good idea of the general tone. There are thirteen really catchy songs that Annette and I wrote together, and, once you’ve seen the show, we would love to know what your favourite song or songs are – so please do email me your thoughts at email@example.com!
I’m very excited to bring this staged reading to Norwich for the Noirwich festival. This is actually the first ever performance of the new and revised version of The Generalist, featuring three brand new songs in addition to the original ten. After Norwich, we’ll be going on to Stirling for the Bloody Scotland crime festival, and then in November to the Cambridge Literary Festival, with more exciting outings planned for 2019.
I should also mention that I will be making a brief appearance in the show myself — a brief singing appearance! I will be playing a woman who can’t help falling in love with famous murderers, thinking her love can change them…