Curiouser and curiouser: Damon Albarn’s new musical takes Lewis Carroll’s heroine down a whole new rabbit hole
When Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland in 1865 he imagined her tumbling down a rabbit hole in order to reach an alternative universe.
If he’d been writing today, he’d have given her a smartphone or an iPad.
That’s the idea behind new musical wonder.land, which in the book’s 150th anniversary year reimagines the classic tale for the internet generation.
It’s the National Theatre’s big family offering this Christmas – and has a lot riding on its success.
The music is by Blur’s Damon Albarn, lyrics are from Moira Buffini (whose hit play Handbagged is currently on a UK tour) and it’s directed by the new National Theatre boss Rufus Norris.
The trio behind wonder.land all have successful track records for experimentation, but musicals are notoriously difficult to get right, and experiments can be messy.
They are also very expensive to produce – wonder.land has a huge cast, a live band and cutting-edge technology, with video projections evoking the online world.
But if the National gets this right, the rewards could be huge. Look at the success of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda, another adaptation of a classic children’s book.
There are some parallels between the two shows: both feature feisty young girls persecuted by an evil head teacher who they eventually outwit, although wonder.land is a teen drama aimed at a slightly older audience.
An earlier version of the show opened at the Manchester International Festival this summer to mixed reviews, but Buffini and Albarn are keen to point out that it was a work in progress, which has now been rewritten. There are new songs, new characters and new dance routines.
Crucially, they’ve made the central character older – she’s 14 instead of 12. ‘We decided to focus more on those difficult teenage years,’ says Buffini, ‘when kids are trying to navigate the adult world and decide who they are.’
Albarn was clearly stung by some of the negative reactions from critics at Manchester.
‘It was only 45 per cent finished,’ he insists. ‘I’d written some tunes that I passed on to the team, but they were fragments of songs.
‘Now it’s a proper musical with big set-piece numbers. Putting it on in Manchester was a useful process, to see what worked and what didn’t, but I’m annoyed that some people reviewed it as a finished musical and used me as a target for the criticism.
‘On the other hand, it forced me to spend the summer getting the songs right.’
Albarn’s original idea was to have two different sonic worlds, a mix of old and new, a style Buffini described as music hall meets techno. But after Manchester Albarn scrapped that concept.
‘I was trying to tap into the Victorian world of Alice by using popular music hall songs and a Salvation Army band and then have electronic music for the virtual world, but it didn’t work.
‘It wasn’t the kind of music a teenage girl would listen to and it lacked heart. He has now brought in a live band with two pianos, two guitars, a violin, a saxophone and a drummer. And there’s no more recorded techno.
Albarn’s inspirations for the music are surprisingly traditional. His favourite musical is Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, which he has loved ever since he played the lead role in a production at his East End primary school.
Before he was born his mother worked as a set designer for Joan Littlewood on the musical Oh, What A Lovely War! Albarn family mythology has the legendary theatre director talking to young Damon in the womb.
‘My mum spent her pregnancy halfway up ladders doing the sets and Joan Littlewood would point at her stomach and say, “This one will end up on the stage.”
‘I grew up in the East End within the sound of Bow Bells, in the old music-hall tradition, and I think that still feeds into the show.
‘But I also love traditional French chansons,’ he adds. ‘And I’ve channelled a bit of Edith Piaf into Ms Manxome.’