What's it all about?
Engineering Paradise is loosely based on my experiences as a schoolboy growing up in Belfast during the 1960s when the most recent round of 'Troubles', the one that ended (at least in theory) with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, was just starting up. Although Northern Ireland politics constitute the background to the story that isn't what the story is about. It's about growing up, falling in love, having your idealism bruised by the world and sleepwalking into things that you're never going to be able to get out of. The ghost of Faust haunts every page.
The title is from a Stafford Beer quote: "The Holocaust has shown us that the creation of hell on earth is just a matter of engineering. The creation of an earthly paradise is an engineering problem also." Trying to engineer a paradise of one kind or another was a popular pursuit back then. There was a great wave of optimism and idealism throughout the youth of the world. But the unfocused impulse to make the world better, to nudge human society in the direction of perfection, was easily hijacked, diverted and corrupted by older heads with agendas of their own and this is the fate of young Danny, the schoolboy protagonist of my story.
The Belfast experience was not a good one and my novel is rather dark. I was genuinely surprised when somebody suggested that it would make a good musical, but when I thought about it I remembered that there was a teenage singer/songwriter at the heart of the story and I had already provided her with a number of song lyrics – and after all, the world of stage musicals includes Cabaret and Oh What a Lovely War! as well as No, No, Nanette and Hello, Dolly!.
As a writer of musicals my biggest problem is that I know nothing about music. Lyrics I can do, and I think I can tell a story, but my musical background is zilch. I have always loved folk songs, including the works of those I would consider contemporary folk singers such as Leonard Cohen, Janis Ian, Paul Simon, Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Don McLean, and in fact this is the musical tradition most suited to the story that I have to tell.
But what I can't do is write melodies. Even if I managed to hum one I wouldn't know how to write it down. So I knew from the outset that I badly needed people to write melodies to go with my words. I don't mean 'sounds' or 'arrangements', I mean melodies. They needed to fit the words, to be memorable and attractive, and to express the mood of whatever part of the story is being told at that point. The songs needed to heighten and enrich the story, not detract from it or ignore it.
What I thought I needed was a single dedicated half-share musician collaborator, but quickly came to realise what an enormous commitment that was, and how unlikely it is that this project will ever generate any income. It's a labour of love, the most that can be realistically hoped for I think is an amateur production by a student or youth theatre group, most likely in Northern Ireland where interest in the socio-political background is likely to be highest. So a much more practical scheme, I decided, would be to throw the project open to all. I therefore took a leaf out of the book of computer code writers and turned this into an Open Source Project. I made the script and all the song lyrics available for all to read and asked anybody who was interested to set one or more of my lyrics to music.
And that approach was a resounding success! people have sent me their versions of (at time of writing) all the original songs except one, many of them spectacularly good – beyond my wildest dreams of what could be done with my words! – and these I have showcased on my Soundcloud Channel, with full acknowledgement of course.
I'm not sure if a stage musical has ever been created in this way before, but I feel that I have now proved that it works and I don't see any downside. On the contrary, the fact that different songs have different writers gives to the work a level of variety seldom achieved in stage musicals.
We are close to the end of the creative project now but there are a number of pre-existing songs of one kind and another of which I would like to have new versions to showcase, but it isn't as important of course as getting the original songs right. I will be delighted if anyone wants to give their own version of one of these for the showcase channel.
This script has been the object of more work and revision than you might realise from reading it now. The biggest problem from the outset has been length, and my original crazy ambition to tell the whole of the story in the book has been whittled down to about 25% of that story, and what I've got is still embarrassingly long, but I feel it's best to give prospective Directors everything I've got and let them do any further whittling down to suit the time slot as well as the technical and human resources available. Despite all the work that has been done on it I am aware that it's still a working draft that needs to be 'workshopped' and a number of decisions made.
Most of the songs are intended as simple 1960s style ballads needing very little accompaniment, bringing the whole work within the scope of a small company with minimal musical resources. The closing song, Leon Rosselson's History Lesson is intended to be sung acapella. The opening theme as well as Big Jim's reflective piece Circumstances offer scope for more orchestration, perhaps a keyboard with several voices, a bass and a bit of percussion, but my hope is that the whole thing could be performed very adequately using just (for example) the guitar that the character Joyce uses to accompany herself in several of the songs and an electronic keyboard. The last thing I want is to have my words buried under elaborate synthesised Big Band sounds. It's very important that the words are clearly heard. Those are my aims for the songs but I won't stipulate how they are to be achieved.
It only remains to give you the links to download THE SCRIPT and THE LYRICS. The version of the script that you will download now is in fact the first version of the little booklet (also available in printed form from Lulu.com) that I am currently sending around to theatre schools, amateur dramatic groups and the like to try to persuade one of them to stage the work. The lyrics are included in the body of the script and the available scores, mostly melody only, are included separately at the back. Many of the songs were composed without the use of scores so I am requesting people to write them for the booklet and adding them as and when I get them. Help with this aspect of the project would be greatly appreciated.
The lyrics file is a separate document containing only the lyrics where the page numbers are the same as the song numbers, making it convenient if you want to go straight to a particular song.
If there is any question that I have left unanswered or anything you would like to discuss with me please email me at email@example.com. THANKS!