Sheffield Theatres: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Dan Gillespie Sells is known in the music industry as lead singer of indie-pop band The Feeling, but it’s in the world of theatre where he’s been making huge strides recently after writing the music for the smash-hit Sheffield Theatres show Everybody Loves Jamie. After returning to composing duties at the Crucible for a reimagining of Shakepeare’s greatest comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he reflected with Exposed on a rollercoaster year.

It’s not often a musician makes the leap to a new medium. For Dan Gillespie Sells, though, that move paid dividends. The pop star has seen massive success in recent times as the co-creator of heartfelt and electrifying musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Now performing on the West End, the show originated at Sheffield’s Crucible in a sell-out run that garnered national praise. Jamie’s true story, of a boy barred from his prom for dressing in drag, is both recent and relevant, giving the show a cultural power that few others have.

The Feeling frontman may have honed his craft in the music industry, but songwriting for the stage requires something extra. “Precision”, he repeats, like a mantra. “A lot more precision is required. You’re holding a narrative, your audience is sat in a theatre and they’re focused, so you’ve got to keep telling them a story. You don’t want the audience to get ahead of you, but you also don’t want to leave them behind.” This balancing act is what keeps a show feeling pacy and fresh, especially one with an important message. “There’s precision in every line and word you write, every melody. It all has to have a purpose, because if it doesn’t then you lose your audience. They can think, ‘Was I supposed to remember that detail?’”

Sophie Nomvete and Samuel Townsend rehearse their parts as Quince and Flute.

By contrast, the world of pop music is more… skin-deep. “In a pop song you throw all kinds of stuff in to help it rhyme and flow – some of those things are just in there to sound cool!” he laughs. “[Theatre’s] a more precise art form.” Like many creatives whose stardoms were forged in the Crucible, Sells already finds himself returning as part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I kind of love it there!” he professes. “I had such a great experience working there with Jamie… it felt like home to me. It’s a comfortable, professional, exciting, vibrant place.” While planning the hit musical, the creative team were struck by the theatre’s connection to its city. “We got a real sense of the community. The Crucible does a really good job of reaching out.”

Shakespeare’s classic comedy joins Chris Bush’s Steel in a new wave of quality theatre coming to the Crucible this autumn. The production boasts a star-studded cast, including faces familiar to Crucible-goers in Daniel Rigby (Frost/Nixon) and Pandora Colin (Julius Caesar). Sells has lent his hand to transforming the play by writing original music. In his words, audiences are in for a “cosmic” experience. “I think this is a version that’s going to speak to young people rather well – it’s not specifically for young people, but I think it feels fresh. We’ve not set it in any specific time or place; we’ve deliberately kept it about the story.”

Writing an original musical is one thing, but making music for one of the most revered comedies of all time is a completely different challenge. “It’s been fantastic, but different,” Sells explains. “There’s no question over the lyrics – no one’s going to say ‘should we change that around?’” That being said, the team weren’t afraid of making changes if they felt necessary. “It’s so rare that you need to with Shakespeare though, because it’s so beautifully written in the first place! Also, for me, rhythmically the music’s half there already. There’s music representing the magic of the fairy forest, which influences Bottom to go back and turn the play-within-a-play into a musical-within-a-play, and at that point it gets really crazy.”

Daniel Rigby rehearsing for his part of Bottom.

By adding music, actors have a natural rhythmic framework to bounce off inspired by Shakespeare’s original meter. Sells admits this helps him too, often struggling (like most of us) to follow the complex language. “The introduction of music can really help; it means that we’re working sympathetically with Shakespeare’s sense of rhythm. That really helps with the storytelling, it makes it clearer. His language doesn’t come particularly easily for me, but I follow the story best when the rhythm is intact. It’s a lovely thing to work with.”

It’s almost like Shakespeare’s language and writing is innately musical. “Yeah it is, and it needs to be”, he agrees. “When you keep it as musical as possible, somehow the meaning is less complex than if you pull it around too much. But really that’s the actor’s choice sometimes, and I think they can make the right choice in making it sound more natural.”

Due to the phenomenal success of Jamie, however, Sells’ career has followed a near-vertical trajectory. “I will be back in Sheffield to work on the film production of Jamie”, he says. “I’m doing all the music for the film. We’re shooting it in Sheffield, it’s with Warp Films, who are a Sheffield-based company, alongside Film4.” Will we be seeing Sells again after Midsummer? “I’m gonna be back in no time … I really do love Sheffield. Culturally, it’s a really lovely place and I won’t stay away for too long.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Crucible Theatre from 28 September – 20 October. Tickets and more information available at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.

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