Justin Williams and Henry Brennan are taking the first step towards theatre’s return with In The Wings, which aims to shine a light on the shows directly affected by the industry’s shutdown and celebrate the work of those composers and writers.
Featuring a line-up of stellar West End stars, Dougie Carter (Les Misérables; Sunset Boulevard), Aaron Lee Lambert (Hamilton; Miss Saigon; Sweeney Todd), Steph Parry (Mamma Mia; 42nd Street) and Laura Pick (Wicked; The Sound of Music), each episode will feature the first live performances in a theatre with a live band since the West End closed. Filmed in strict accordance with social distancing guidelines.
You’re launching In The Wings, which has its premiere this week, what can you tell us about it?
Justin: It’s a really exciting comeback of live performance to London Theatre. It literally is the first time since the lights were put out in our iconic venues that West End singers with a live band have sang together – something we’re all missing so much. It’s about hope and the stories of creatives who didn’t get their moment in the spotlight.
Henry: It’s really a celebration of theatre – we’ve got these four fantastic shows being featured, that didn’t quite get to have their chance in front of an audience because of COVID, and have now been postponed; In the Wings gives those shows that chance in this temporary theatrical interim.
Where did the idea for In The Wings come from?
Henry: Justin and I have worked together on a few projects (as designer and musical director, respectively), but we’ve always wanted to do something together. When the industry shut down, a lot of people turned to creating online content, and for me at least, I felt it was really missing that ‘live’ element that you only get in a theatre. Justin and I got to talking about what we could do, given all of the restrictions around social distancing, and it gradually bloomed into In the Wings.
There will be four shows featured, why did you pick these ones specifically?
Justin: There were eight on our list – at least four of them, between us, we were actually linked to as creatives. I think we witnessed the hard-work of so many people around us crumble in one night as one by one phone-calls and messages lit up our phone screens all with the same story, but a unique pain, loss and fear.
Henry: All of the shows that we’ve featured have a different voice, which is what I’ve found so enjoyable about this project. There’s a real mix of styles in all of the songs the composers have written, and I hope the audience get to enjoy them as much as we have. I just wish we could have had more episodes to feature more shows.
Each episode will also feature interviews with the creatives, why did you want to include this element?
Justin: Every show has a unique story and their stolen opportunity has sent many of these creatives soul-searching. Some have grown from it, some have used it to refine their work and others have totally to start from the ground up. There’s hope and passion in the interviews and we felt hearing their real voices was powerful.
It was all filmed live in a theatre, how did you manage the social distancing rules, and what challenges did you face in bringing this all together?
Henry: There was a huge amount of preparation involved, to be honest; a lot of time was spent reading the constantly-updating government advice on how to make a workplace safe, and the more time we spent sorting it out, the more possible we realised it was. Justin and I both knew the Union Theatre quite well already from working there in the past, so we were able to map it out quite well before we got there, making sure everyone would be a safe distance apart, and keeping contact between people to an absolute minimum – none of the performers were in the venue for more than three hours, and the band was kept 4-5 metres away from the performers.
You’ve got a great line-up with the cast, how keen were they to get back on stage?
Justin: Our cast are fantastic and the most positive and committed professionals you could ask for! I mean you consider Steph Parry’s news-making attitude to a crisis for example! That’s the kind of team we had. I could see how moving the session was to each of them. There was almost a sadness when each song was done – an unspoken poignancy where we all wondered when we’d be able to do this again. It’s a feeling that will stay with me.
Henry: I think we got very lucky with our cast. Aaron, Laura, Dougie, and Steph are all such talented performers, and they brought so much to the whole project – it really wouldn’t be the same without them. I hadn’t worked with any of them before, but immediately once they were in the room, there was that real sense of camaraderie that only comes with creating something together.
What would you say to anyone thinking of tuning in to In The Wings?
Justin: Subscribe! Ha! I hope they enjoy and feel the buzz of the room in each episode. There was a first night energy and a sense of purpose – to share the new music but also to remember what live performance does for the soul. That really comes across. So I’d say savour that.
Main Image: Henry Brennan and Justin Williams