Michael Wild’s name may not be a household one. He’s been composing since the age of 12 and his show, Maggie, made it to the West End in 1977 for a run at the Shaftsbury Theatre and the lead, Anna Sharkey, won an Olivier award for her performance in the title role. Communications Officer Elizabeth went to speak to Michael about his career and to learn more about his music.
I’m sitting in a room full of music. Sitting at the piano, everywhere I turn there are CDs, records, musical programmes and even the room itself is alive with the music of half a dozen chiming clocks. Michael is 83 and as he goes off to make some coffee and prepare a selection of mince pies, his beloved cocker spaniel, Benji, bounds between Angela, our Visitor and Volunteer Coordinator, and myself. I’ve tagged along to one of her home visits because I love musical theatre. I want to hear first-hand about what it takes to make a living as a musical theatre composer and of course, to meet the man himself.
Did you always want to be a composer?
Yes I did really. I started composing when I was about 12 actually. I still have a piece called the Wilderness, I ought to play it to you! It’s a little descriptive piece and it’s quite short. I remember I wrote it during the war and I was staying with friends of my mother’s at Winchell Hill. I was sat at my piano and I said to my aunty (she wasn’t really my aunty, we just used to call them that) can you have a listen to this? She said “you never wrote that!” She couldn’t believe that I’d written it! Do you know my grandfather never believed that I’d written anything. He thought it was a family joke. My mother would say, “just play your grandfather your latest composition” and he would say “yes Michael, yes we all know you didn’t write that”. He never believed I wrote anything!
My father was very musical actually. He played Koko in the Mikado at the Palace Theatre in 1939 and it was a very, very good company. I can remember everything about those shows – I was only about 7. The Duchess of Kent came to see it and was in a box and he was wonderful, he was so light on his feet. He was a much better performer than I ever was. The review for him in that said “anyone who has seen Wilfrid Wild as Koko in the Mikado will never be able to dissociate themselves from his performance.” You can’t say much better than that, can you?
Tell me about Maggie.
Maggie was adapted from J M Barry’s ‘What Every Woman Knows’. I’d seen it with Dorothy Tutin and Peter Egan and do you know, it sounds conceited when I say this, I had actually written half the tunes when I’d seen the show, just in the stalls watching it. I knew at once I’d got to do it.
I didn’t think I would get it on.
I’ve written over 40 musicals. The Olivier award was for Anna Sharkey who played Maggie for me. And the loveliest thing about her, Alan Hobson said: “in my opinion, I went to see Maggie, a musical version of Barry’s 'What Every Woman Knows', with a heavy heart, but after the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, it was like gold after lead.”
‘What Every Woman Knows’ is that behind every successful man there’s always a woman and if she’s clever, she never lets him know that she’s helping him. And he doesn’t think he’s in love with her, he thinks it’s just an arrangement, and she absolutely adores him. There’s such lovely touches in it. He’s actually breaking into the house of a wealthy Scottish family but he didn’t want to steal anything, he just wants to use their library because he has a place at Edinburgh University and he can’t afford the books. The brothers of the family feel sorry for him and they hatch a plan, because Maggie is on the shelf. She’s older than him, she’s 28 and he’s about 22, and they’re very worried that she’s on the shelf. They hatch this little thing in the corner and they come back – they will put up £300 for his education, which was a lot of money in those days, and if, after five years, Maggie isn’t married, he will agree to marry her. He says “I’m not doing that” and she says “I’m not agreeing to it either, what makes you think you’re such a catch!”.
She absolutely adores him.
You can see Michael’s genuine affection for Maggie and he becomes emotional as he recalls the relationship between the two characters.
From the first moment she sees him, it’s so clever, the little touches. He lets the audience know because although she’s being quite nasty to him, when he goes (he has to agree to it, he does agree to it) he walks across the stage and she says “Aren’t you going to put that muffler twice around your neck, John?” It’s not actually cold out, you know, things like that.
There’s a lovely line when they all go off to their bed and she’s getting a book out of the book shelf and he says, “Are you taking that book to your bed Maggie?” “Yes, I’m not having you knowing things I don’t know myself!” She goes out and they start getting ready to go to bed and they sing “Scottish Lullaby”, which was very popular in the show.
It must have been lovely for you to create a part that allowed an actress to win an Olivier award?
That’s what I said. If it was that bad, how could you possibly win an Olivier award in a vacuum? Jack Tinker, the Daily Mail critic, was very vicious about it. I had put in the programme that my other great love apart from writing and music was my cocker spaniels so he said a line in the Daily Mail, wait for it, “If I were Michael Wild I’d stick to cocker spaniels”. So I wrote to him (you’re never supposed to answer your critics) and I said “Thank you so much Mr Tinker, I have to say if I had to choose between a cocker spaniel and a theatre critic I’d choose a cocker spaniel!” I didn’t get a reply.
What the music did was fit the story and I think that’s probably my greatest asset. That’s one of my arguments about Lloyd Webber. I’m not saying his musicals aren’t wonderful and successful, but a lot of the numbers are interchangeable between different shows. Some of the things in Phantom, you could put in anything else.
One of my favourite musicals was Applause with Lauren Bacall actually. It’s fantastic. It hasn’t got the most memorable tunes but it’s a terrific musical.
Another critic, Andy Starten, said “Maggie’s concern for her husband who she thinks doesn’t like her touches the heartstrings in a way that is so unfashionable today and the world is a much sadder place for it. In my opinion, she gives the best performance not only in a musical but in all spheres.” She had a wonderful voice and her acting was absolutely brilliant.
Anna Neagle was so sweet to me. Big stars very often are like that. The first night she was the only person who asked “Is Michael pleased with the show?” Nobody else bothered. They didn’t invite me to the party on the stage on the first night. They didn’t invite me to the awards either, I’d written the whole show. Well, you know why it was? I got very uptight because they changed things without my knowledge. I do think now, in retrospect, they were right. But Anna Neagle wouldn’t change a note without ringing me up. It was genuine, she didn’t put it on, she was very sweet.
This year, Michael took it upon himself to write and record his catalogue of songs and very kindly gives me one as a gift.
I did it, I know people will say it’s for vanity and it probably is, but I did it because I wanted to leave a really good record when I died of all the shows that had ever been done. After all I haven’t had that much success have I? A friend of mine said: “Michael you have written some wonderful stuff” and do you know it was such an uplift for me because I do get down. I have to say, when I do I look at that poster [points to the poster for Maggie] and people often say to me, “Look Michael, how many people do you know who’ve written a West End musical?” It’s incredible really when you think for 20 years, I spent most of it not getting anything done at all. Even Ken my school friend said, “I have to tell you, that for sticking at it, I have to take my hat off to you because most people would have given up.” And I said well why would you give up?
The beautiful thing about Michael is the way that he can recite every review and reviewer that has ever commented on his music. He is an artist who is genuinely interested in how people perceive his work, both good and bad. His career has had immense highs and the inevitable lows and whilst his name is not one you may recognise, he has spent his career doing something that he loves. His passion is infectious and shows that fame is not the mark of a successful career.
You believe in yourself, and that’s the important thing. My agent once said “The trouble with Michael is, he’s too modest”. I actually let rip then and said no, I’m not modest, I happen to think I’m good. I’m a pretty stupid person, but nobody would go on for 35 years not getting anything on if they didn’t really believe in themselves. I made up my mind when I started, I was going to be the best or nothing at all.
I may not be the best but I believe I’m as good as anybody. You’ve got to.