Nicholas Lloyd Webber and James D. Reid debut their first musical, The Little Prince, at Theatre Calgary now through Feb. 28. The duo reveals how the show almost didn’t happen at all, plus dad and confidant Andrew Lloyd Webber’s thoughts on their work.
The Little Prince was such an opus in the making, coming in from Belfast, and now in Calgary, but going back to the beginning of your writing partnership: How did the two of you first meet and become writing partners?
James D. Reid: I was writing music for the BBC [in 2008], and I think one of my pieces was on the telly that Nick happened to be watching with his daughter—it was a piece for sort of pre-school TV. What I heard was Nick saw it, wondered who it was, and, by chance, his wife knew that I happened to write it. Nick contacted me to see if I was interested in sort of doing some writing together, and fortunately I had more of the same thing to write, and I much prefer writing with other people. We got together, had a try-out, and it went swimmingly well and the rest is history, really.
So, that wasn’t so long before you started developing The Little Prince, correct?
Nicholas Lloyd Webber: We finished these series of songs for the BBC, and then we were basically both looking around for something to do next. Jamie then got in touch with me and gave me the book of The Little Prince and said, “Look, I think we should have a look at doing this as a musical.” We decided to go away for a weekend and the idea was if we didn’t come up with anything by the end of the weekend, we wouldn’t pursue it. And then at about two o’clock in the morning on the last morning—and we hadn’t come up with anything—Jamie had opened the book up at a particular page, and the next thing we know, we had a song. It almost didn’t happen, basically.
Wow. What was the page, what did it say that spoke to you so strongly?
JR: It was the page where the Little Prince goes back to the garden of the roses, and he realizes that the reason the garden full of roses aren’t special to him is because of the time that he spent with his rose, and he says, “Because it is she I have tended with water drops, and because it is she I have kept glass globes for….” That repetition of “because it is she” created its own sort of rhythm. Then Nick and I started to sort of bash about with some chords and a tune. By the end—about five minutes later—we were singing the tune called “Because It Is She” that’s still in the show. What we’d been looking for and hadn’t found up until that point was the heart of the story, the thing that sort of, you know, around which everything else is based.
The Little Prince is a beloved story, but what incentivized you to go on the weekend to explore that particular story to begin with?
NLW: What the book has is a voice that speaks to different generations at the same time. Adults and children alike can both get something from it at the same time in different ways. It has layers upon layers upon layers of meaning, and it’s really inspirational and magical, and there’s something incredibly heartfelt and pure about it. The fact that it has this timeless quality lends itself to any kind of piece that can be put on the stage.
JR: Any good Shakespeare has universal truths, perhaps what [author Antoine de] Saint-Exupéry has tapped in are universal truths that are universal truths for both children and adults alike. We’re seeing that in the faces of the audiences. I witnessed one woman rediscover the smile of her five-year-old self. It was quite amazing to watch.
NLW: It’s just such a joy for us to—after six years of hard work—be in a situation where it’s tangible now, and audience members can come up to us and talk about what we’ve done.
JR: We’re getting these wonderful, sort of rapturous encores from adult audiences, and then when you cut to the children’s matinees, they’re screaming at the stage like One Direction has come up on.
What was it about The Little Prince that said to you this was right not just for the stage, but as a musical?
NLW: Its rather otherworldly quality. There’s, you know, automatically a sort of musical air to the piece. That really spoke to us as composers.
JR: What the Saint-Exupéry has is the pictures in the book, those are there to create a mode of thinking for adults so that they’re reading a book that’s for them. What Saint-Exupéry has in terms of the drawings, we don’t have those drawings so we use the music—those are our drawings.
How does your writing process work?
JR: For the initial two years, we were in the same room every day. We didn’t rush headlong in to writing music. We discussed characters very carefully and discussed musical styles that we felt represented these characters.
NLW: For example, the snake we decided to take her, bring her to life in a sort of Dietrich-Piaf type way. All the characters have very much their own complete world, musically, that they exist in. The only limit was our imagination and ourselves, which was really rather liberating.
So it’s incredibly collaborative.
JR: I don’t think there’s a note in the whole show that either of us haven’t had a hand in as it were. It might be one of us discovers a theme that we come up with and then the other person extrapolates on it or adds [to]. It’s a constant back and forth of ideas.
NLW: This is where a creative partnership can work so well, is having another person’s ears. They’ll spot something you might have played just idly or subconsciously, and they’ve gone, “Hang on, what was that?” Having someone to bounce off like that has been really helpful for both Jamie and I.
Coming from a television and film score-writing world, what has surprised you most about the process of writing a full musical?
JR: How much time and effort it takes. It takes over your life and consumes you.
NLW: To make sure that we were making sense. All of your themes that you build up, and actually once you’ve established them, it’s just very important to make sure that you can keep those things running throughout.
JR: You have to have a clear book. Your story has to make sense because once you’ve got the audience on board, rather than ten steps behind, they can then enjoy the music and the experience a lot more rather than trying to work out what’s going on.
Did you consult, Nick, your father at all during the long process?
NLW: He came to a workshop or two, I think, but we didn’t consult him. I only played him some of the more detailed stuff right before Christmas, right before we opened actually.
How was his reaction to it? It’s such a wonderful thing to watch your child accomplish anything, but certainly accomplish something that you both share?
NLW: I had the loveliest of emails from him the night we opened. I’d like to think that Jamie and I have done him proud.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.