This Is John is hitting the right notes
Robert SJ Lucas has released the soundtrack album for his musical, This Is John.
I caught up with Robert SJ Lucas for an update on where he’s at with the development of the musical.
You’ve completed an initial run in London and also taken the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. You’ve changed the name of the musical, has the production evolved in any other ways?
It was important for me that with the evolution of the show I also changed the title if it were necessary and it felt it was the right thing to do. The production has gone through several iterations, each one refining what it was to be a show about male mental health in a way that makes the subject matter increasingly accessible and entertaining in equal measure.
I always listen to what my audiences have to say about my work, and it’s of utmost importance that the people connect with my work on some level, so changes are something which are essential if a show isn’t going to become stale.
In the original production the show was just under an hour long and was essentially a song cycle in a one-man-show format. The West End production in London stepped up the story and the overall spectacle of the show with major changes to the design, brand, duration, and the addition of almost 20 songs to flesh out the story and make the characters more complete.
Generally, we’ve moved away from the show being explicitly about Suicide and more about how depression can lead to suicidal thoughts - especially in men.
With the album, I felt I didn’t want to just throw together a recording of the original cast production as the medium is so different and the way the audience would be consuming it would be altered significantly. So, to that end, we’re putting together an album which takes the loose thread of the story but showcases the songs as standalone tracks to really highlight the range of music we have in the show.
The album won’t be the complete show but rather highlights from it, which I hope puts the music in the spotlight - that isn’t always possible with a live production. Saying that, we do have a couple of live songs thrown in there from a few live performances we’ve done since the London production, so people can still get a sense of the stage version.
Mental Health and suicide aren’t the easiest subjects from which to create an upbeat and entertaining musical. How have audiences responded to This Is John?
People have said this to me a lot, and I have to say my experience has been the total opposite. People need to laugh at difficult issues otherwise they become worse. I’ve had people who’ve been affected by depression or even at the brink of suicide come see the show and tell me they’ve connected with the truthful nature of the story while still being able to laugh at some of the funnier moments. People who have lost loved ones to suicide have said they’ve connected to the poignant moments in-between the entertainment which capture the essence of their story. People who haven’t had any connection to suicide or depression have said it had given them an insight into that world when if it had been a more downbeat show they probably wouldn’t have stayed beyond the interval. It’s my opinion that righteousness doesn’t help increase awareness, in fact it stops it dead.
As it seems to be the eclectic nature of the show that people enjoy, I’ve reflected that in the album. There’s a range of genres of music, as well as still highlighting different topics surrounding the idea of depression and suicide.
Why was releasing the soundtrack album from the musical the next step in the journey of this production?
I’ve always loved listening to albums of shows which have gone through different iterations, so you can hear the little changes made over time. When I had the opportunity to create one for This Is John, I jumped on the chance - not only to be able to create something different from the original show, but also as a snapshot of what the show is. Time moves on, styles change, and the way audiences consume media seems to alter year by year - to preserve the essence of my work like this means a lot to me personally.
From a creative point of view, it was an amazing challenge to turn what is essentially 100 minutes of music into an album of what are the most accessible songs, without losing the integrity of the production they come from.
Could listening to the musical’s soundtrack potentially help men who are struggling with mental health issues and thoughts of self-harm?
The beauty of the album is that it’s essentially creating a show without relying on anything visual. I didn’t want to simply dump songs from the show into an album in a random order without retaining the essence of the show. Without giving too much away, I’ve laced the album with a kind of ‘self help’ sound-scape.
The idea that some people can capitalise on other people in need by selling albums of beach sounds and breathing exercises - which I think is a little patronising - was something I wanted to touch on in the album. It’s not explicit, but it’s definitely there if you’re listening out for it. I haven’t written a ‘self help’ show, but I have tried to reflect the issues that people face in an entertaining way, so there’s definitely stuff in the album that can lift the spirits but as with all music there might be that one song or that one lyric which resonates with that one person and might just change their direction for the better. It’s always been my hope that something I write could maybe do that.
Has your work on This Is John changed your perspective on the health issues that men are grappling with?
Definitely. This Is John is a reflection of my interest and research into mental health problems. It’s a show that has connected me to people from all walks of life with a variety of connections to depression and suicide - how could it not change my perspective?
One of the biggest things I’ve taken away is the lazy way people say ‘men don’t talk about their feelings’ which I think isn’t the whole story - it’s up to others to hear what the men are saying in whatever way they’re saying it. It’s not up to the victim of depression to change, it’s up to those around them to hear what they aren’t saying. There’s a lyric in the show which is:
‘Oh to get inside your head,
Just a day to fill your shoes,
Listen to what isn’t said,
See why you do the things you do…’
Which I think sums up the entire message of the show and the ultimate take away for the audience.
What’s next for This Is John?
We are in discussions about a Broadway version of the show, and a potential film. One thing I’ve learnt along this journey is that you can never predict the future - watch this space!