Interview: Gus Gowland Talks New Musical “Mayflies”

April 2023

Brand new musical Mayflies is set for its world premiere at York Theatre Royal this month (April 28 – May 13). Written and composed by award-winning composer, lyricist and songwriter Gus Gowland, who is a resident artist at the theatre, the show stars Nuno Queimado (Alternate Alexander Hamilton in the London West End production of Hamilton, Jesus Christ Superstar), Rumi Sutton (Hex, Heathers) and Emma Thornett (War Horse, Bedknobs and Broomsticks). Gus’s first full-length musical Pieces of String was named The Stage’s Best Regional Musical of the Year and was nominated for the UK Theatre Best Musical Production award. Gus won The Stage Debut Award for Best Composer/Lyricist, and was nominated for the inaugural Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Musical Theatre Bookwriting. Here, Gus chats about writing, rotating casts, Eurovision and of course, this brand new show…

Where did the idea for Mayflies come from?

I was watching a documentary about rivers and there was a section on mayflies on the Danube. I didn’t know they had such a long gestation period, and this struck me as being similar to that of a modern relationship, which builds up online and then lives only briefly in the real world. It all grew from there.

What’s the show about?

Mayflies is about the versions of ourselves that we become throughout our relationships, about how we change over time. It’s also about love.

Why write a musical for rotating casts?

I really wanted to write something that could be played by any combination of people, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, or disability. Having a rotating cast allows us to show the material in a new way with each pairing, which is really exciting. Each pairing will bring their own unique spin on the material so I can’t wait to see them all.

Where did your love of musicals come from?

I’ve just always had it! I loved movie musicals as a kid, loved Disney. Something about the storytelling spoke to me and took hold and has never let go!

When did you write your first musical?

I was attempting to write musicals when I was still at school (I have a half-finished Marilyn Monroe one somewhere!) but my first musical piece was a one-man show called Tell Me On A Thursday. I wrote and performed in it and it’s what gave the push to really pursue writing musicals.

You trained as an actor – why  and when did you make the change from acting to writing musicals?

I’d always written songs alongside my acting career and gradually the musical writing began to take more precedence than performing. I slowly realised that the bit of acting that I liked was the rehearsals, when you get to make the show. Writing is all about that part, about the making, and then you hand it over to other people to perform. That suits me!

Pieces of String – What did the awards and nominations for both the show and you personally mean?

The recognition that Pieces of String received was phenomenal and far beyond my expectations. They felt like a real confirmation that focusing on writing was the right step for me and made me feel that I had something to offer to the world of musical theatre. Plus, I got to go to some fancy dinners and wear nice suits which was fun!

Favourite musicals and favourite writers of musical theatre? 

The impossible question! No one in musical theatre would be here without Stephen Sondheim. But I love so many writers; Jonathan Larson, Stephen Schwartz, Boublil and Schoenberg to name just a few. My top three shows, if I had to choose, would be Rent, Les Miserables and Company. They are all incredibly important to me.

Who or what has influenced your work in musical theatre?

I think my acting training and career has been an enormous influence. It gave me an understanding of what works on stage, and how to tell a story theatrically. It helps me write as I can put myself in the shoes of my characters, as though I were playing them myself. Then all of the writers that have gone before and help shaped the form. I’m a scholar of musical theatre (I’m a Doctor of it, actually – I got my PhD in 2020!) and so I’ve studied them and have learnt so much from understanding how other creatives made their shows.

What support is there for musical theatre writers? (Musical Theatre Network etc)

There’s a great deal of support for new musical theatre writers – Mercury Musicals in particular is a great organisation for connecting writers with other creatives and giving opportunities to people. There are a number of new producers (people like Andy and Wendy Barnes, and Katy Lipson) who focus on new musicals too, and are really championing the form.

Tell us about your Eurovision Song Contest experience?

It was bonkers and lots of fun! I was on the UK Jury in 2014. There were 5 of us and our votes counted for 50% of the UK total vote. We had to watch the semi-finals and the final with lawyers present, to ensure we didn’t confer. I’m incredibly proud of being a part of it. I love Eurovision, and watch every year, so to have been a little part of it is very special to me. I would love to write our entry song – maybe one day!

Would you ever cast yourself in your own musical?

Never say never! But I’m much happier writing for other people. I love them interpreting the material in their own unique way. There are few feelings in the world as wonderful as hearing other people sing my songs.

Any Yorkshire connections?

The biggest connection, and the reason I’m here, is my fiancée Max May. He’s from North Yorkshire originally and in 2019 he became chief executive of Rural Arts in Thirsk, so we moved up here. We’re now settled in York and staying! I love it here. The city is beautiful and so rich in history and culture, and then on the doorstep there’s a world of beautiful countryside.

What do you do as an artist in residence at York Theatre Royal – what does that mean!?

I’m part of the artistic planning team, which means I can bring my knowledge and experience to the table when discussing what the theatre programs. As a gay man, I also advocate for queer work wherever I can. So that’s a large part of it, working with the other resident artists, the creative director, Chief exec and other YTR team members to find the right shows for our audiences. I also work to support other artists, with a particular focus on musical theatre, which is incredibly rewarding.

Mayflies is at York Theatre Royal April 28th – May 13th 2023. You can find more information and tickets here.

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