Alexander Bermange went abroad to get his break as a musical-theatre composer. But there are signs that he is going to be as big in the West End as he is in Frankfurt
The world of musicals — glamorous on the outside, competitive and demanding on the inside — is not always an easy place to be. To succeed there, you need passion, drive, luck and at least a modicum of talent. Alexander Bermange appears to have all these qualities. Born in 1976, he wrote his first musical, Nessie, in 1994, at the age of 17.
He has gone on to act as either composer or lyricist for a further 12 musicals, as well as writing music for the non-musical theatre and composing his own comic songs.
He is resident composer/lyricist for the Radio Four show Broadcasting House, and recently wrote the music for Bill Kenwright’s production of Murder on Air at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
For a musician in his early 30s, he is beginning to look impressively prolific. Two character traits become clear from talking to Bermange — a deep love of musicals, and a drive to create his own music. The urge to create was evident from the age of six, when he began classical piano lessons. “I wasn’t very good at all, but something in me made me want to produce my own stuff.”
The love of musicals came later, when his parents took him to see Cats, Starlight Express and, particularly, Chess. Yet he resisted the temptation to study music formally at degree level, instead choosing to take modern languages at Oxford.
“The more I did research into what university music was about, it wasn’t really the kind of thing that was best suited to me as an individual,” he says. “I loved classical music, but I wanted to find my own voice as a composer. I wanted the freedom to explore, really, rather than just imitate the great composers from days gone by.”
But there was something more that drew Bermange towards musicals. “Part of it is that indescribable, irrational thrill, that goose-bump factor,” he says. “But it’s also because I love all the constituent parts. I often see a musical as being something like an axis — one that goes from west to east and north to south. The music and the lyrics will take you from left to right in terms of the narrative. But the special thing about musicals is that you can go up and down and examine the characters’ emotional states. You can open up a character’s soul, and that becomes so personal.”
This requires not only empathy, but also the determined perfectionism of a craftsman. “There is an old saying that musicals are never just written, but re-written. They are like a living thing, and you keep tweaking.”
At the age of 11, Bermange began writing fan letters to lyricist Tim Rice — Andrew Lloyd Weber’s former writing partner, and the man responsible for hits such as Evita, Joseph and The Lion King. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship. “He has been totally honest with his opinions. At the end of the day, if you want to grow as a creative artist, then you need support.”
Rice has declared his high regard for Bermange’s work, describing his last London production, Odette – The Dark Side of Swan Lake, as “a further step on his road to the front rank of British composers and lyricists”.
Bermange has also made valuable contacts while studying in Hamburg, with the result that he has written the majority of his musicals for performance in Germany rather than England.
Felix Martin, one of Germany’s principal music-theatre stars, has recorded a CD of his songs, and his latest musical has just opened in Frankfurt.
What is it like being a Jewish composer from London with a career in Germany? “One of the really striking things is how accepting and interested everyone genuinely was. For as long as I have been to Germany, I have observed a great desire to explore aspects of Judaism.”
He himself has been influenced by Jewish history and by his own upbringing in a close-knit community that is a small part of British society. As a result, he feels a keen sympathy for the socially marginalised. His musical version of The Golden Goose deals with issues of religious persecution, and opens with what he describes as a “Jewish-sounding chorale”.
Weird and Wonderful, a collection that contains two explicitly Jewish songs, is at heart a warm endorsement of unusual people “who don’t belong”.
Bermange straddles two worlds in his work. On the one hand, his compositions are influenced by the musical language of contemporary pop and rock, combined with elements of Latin dance and an often impressive array of musical references. He “worships the greats” such as Gershwin and Cole Porter, but also cites the influence of rock songwriter Jim Steinman.
On the other hand, as a lyricist, he is a little less clean-cut. His lyrics are more Stephen Sondheim than Tim Rice, and he himself aspires to the wit of Tom Lehrer. As composer or lyricist, Bermange is looking like a worthy contender to become one of the long line of Jewish musicians who have contributed to the history of the musical.
Weird & Wonderful is available at www.dresscircle.com