The Road to Mascherato
by James Willett
I am, for the most part, the sort of person who cannot remember where he was when such-and-such a thing happened. This can, for anecdotal reasons, be a bit of a pain in the backside. But the day Michael rang me up to discuss Mascherato’s future, that I do remember. Well, I remember all the important bits.
I was at Colchester train station – that I know for a fact. When, exactly, I can’t say. I know it was unseasonably warm, and that it was afternoon. I must have been working a godawful children’s show. I was standing on the platform (If you want the number, you can’t have it. That information is lost in the junk-box of my memories) and waiting for a train that was, probably, running late. That’s when I get the call.
Now, I am of the generation for whom, if it can’t be delivered in a text message, it must be bad news. As I raised the phone to my ear every conceivable, terrible thought avalanched through my head. The script wasn’t up to scratch and needed a rewrite. The script wasn’t up to scratch, but I wasn’t going to be the one to do the rewrite. Corto and Folletto were to be cut. I am the eternal pessimist.
“James!” Michael’s voices bursts from the other end. “How are you?”
“Fine,” I respond suspiciously. It’s always difficult to tell what mood Michael is in. He never loses that echo of positivity. The small talk continues on in a way only I can maintain: Briefly.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” Michael goes on, deciding to get down to business.
Here it comes, I think. I look around, trying to find somewhere to sit, and something to swear at. “If we just sit around waiting for producers to get back to us, then all we’re doing is wasting our own time.”
I give a non-committal murmur at this. “This is going to be a big thing to do, if you agree to it, but what do you think about . . . recording Mascherato?”
For a moment I’m bemused. I struggle to decide whether this is good news, or bad news. Or if it even is news yet. “Right,” I say, hoping for a little more time to search the undergrowth of my thoughts. (I hope you’re liking all this lyrical language, I don’t normally write about myself, and I need a way to make me sound interesting.) “What exactly do you mean?” I ask, not having a clue what he means.
“We’d get a full orchestra, and singers, and basically turn it into a concept album,” he continues, the excitement barely concealed in his voice. “Put it on Spotify, iTunes, and all sorts of streaming services. That way we could release it, get an audience following, and actually show producers concrete proof that people want to listen, and see, our show!”
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immediately intrigued by such an idea. Of course, for Michael, it was more than just an idea. As usual with things he brought to the table, he had done a mountain’s worth of research, all of which he promptly poured into my ears. Do I remember what it was? No. Would I have remembered five minutes after ending the conversation with Michael? No. It was all very technical, and extremely extensive and, as such, flew straight over my head. All I knew was that I was on board. And so, on a date I can’t quite recall, the journey to Mascherato’s recording began.
The first step we had to take was to undergo some serious editing. In its current, full-length format, it would have been impossible to record the show. Both the script and the score had to be reduced – mainly the script. That was a wearisome process, I can tell you. I would cut down the dialogue, mail it off to Michael, have it sent back with instructions to ‘cut it down some more’, and then sit in quiet indignation at having my glorious words being condemned to the rubbish bin, then repeat the cycle. The fact that the full, unabridged script was sitting safe and sound ready, for a live performance rarely occurred to me. As I’ve said: Eternal Pessimist. But eventually, an abridged version of the show was complete.
That’s when the difficult stage came along. The great gulf that stood between us and getting Mascherato recorded.
Despite what we may like, it takes more than goodwill and gumption to make a musical. It, unfortunately, also requires a modest amount of money. But, thanks to the generosity of our supporters (to whom we are very grateful) and the generosity of Michael’s family (to whom we are extremely grateful) we were able to acquire the funds necessary to move us onto the next step. Usually, if this were part of an actual show, or film, there would be an exciting montage showing us raising the funds. In reality, however, it was a lot of sitting in front of computers posting things on social media, and relentlessly refreshing the funding page in the hopes of seeing a large lump sum of cash suddenly land in our laps. Not quite activities worthy of having Eye of the Tiger playing in the background.
So, we had the script. We had the score. We had the money. And Michael had assembled the creatives. That meant we had just one more thing to do: Record the show.
Now, this is where the fun begins. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be recording anything at Abbey Road studios, but Michael made it happen. I’ve said it before, and I highly doubt I’ll stop saying it, but for the majority of this project I’d been clinging onto Michael’s coat tails. That we accomplished half of what we did continues to stagger me, and it’s down to Michael. So, be warned. If there’s something he wants to do, I recommend not getting in his way.
Anyway, back to the anecdote. (Aren’t you glad I didn’t go all the way back to the proper beginning of Mascherato? We’d have been here until Christmas.) The day was upon us! Our first day in the studio. My first being in the room of having something professionally recorded. To say I was excited would be a minor understatement. Of course, first I had to actually get there. Usually, I’m quite bad at directions. Even with the aid of Google Maps I make half a dozen wrong turnings. That day, however it was easy. Like a mariner following the northern star, I followed the mass of musicians marching out of the Tube. It was rather amusing, actually. As I walked along, and the ordinary folk began to shed away, it began to dawn on me just how grand an ordeal we were embarking upon. There was one with a violin case; there was one with an oboe case; there was one with a what’s-its-name case. I almost didn’t want to overtake them. I wanted to watch them clump together like a school of migrating fish. But I did overtake them. Because they were slow.
Abbey Road. It’s probably most famous for that iconic shot of the Beatles on the zebra crossing. A crossing which drivers have long since stopped treating with reverence. I found out the hard way. Don’t get me wrong, I did not suddenly pause halfway across like a gormless idiot who wants to feel a little like Paul McCartney. That would be the family of tourists ahead of me who, I thought, were genuinely crossing the road. When they paused for their inspired photo shoot, I almost tripped over them. Instead, the whole lot of us almost got ran over. Let me tell you, if you cross the Abbey Road, you’d better be quick, because the motorists of that area are merciless. And, you know what, I respect that. If you can’t take a gimmicky photo of famous landmark in under fifteen seconds, you deserve to play chicken with a Volvo.
Once I’d escaped the danger, and crashed a few photos, I was there. I was outside Abbey Road Studios. Now, for a musician, walking up those steps is one of the most rewarding moments in your career. You are about to enter a building that has heard some of the world’s greatest musicians play. The very history of music is ingrained in its walls. It is a pinnacle moment that you will treasure to the end of your days. For someone like me, who’s not too fussed about music, it was just walking up a few steps. I may have taken a moment to appreciate the potted plants either side of the door, but even that I can’t guarantee because, at the end of the day, I’m not too fussed about plants either.
Inside was another matter. That I did take a moment to appreciate. Because I had no idea where I was going. After signing in and walking through another set of double-doors, I was faced with a corridor lined with about a dozen doors. To add to the confusion, to my right was a flight of stairs leading up, and another flight leading down. I had made it to the Studios, now I had to find my way to the studio. I had no intention of traipsing down the corridor and peering through the window of every door hoping to see the face of someone I knew. What a fool that would have made me look. No. Instead, I did the sensible thing. I immediately rang Michael for directions.
“Great! I’m just setting up with the orchestra; the studio is upstairs.”
Brilliant, I thought. Nice and simple. Up the stairs I went. There was just one thing Michael had forgotten to mention: the orchestra was downstairs, and the upstairs to which he was referring was his upstairs, not my upstairs. My upstairs was another empty corridor of doors, this time barricaded by a sign that read: Private. Down the stairs I went. Again, the simple solution of just looking through the windows of these doors was something I did not want to do. No one wants to look like a lost moron ambling aimlessly up and down the corridor. I spotted a viola player hurrying down the stairs. Ah-ha, I thought. Where there is a musician, an orchestra cannot be far away. I quickly made my pursuit and found myself in the large studio, and instantly out of my depth. The room, which instantly gave me cathedral-esque vibes, was bustling with life. Musicians who’d just arrived were unpacking and tuning their instruments, whilst those that had been around for a while were readying their music sheets, and around them all were technicians fiddling with wires and moving equipment. I observed it all whilst appreciating only one thing: Michael was not with the orchestra.
I can’t have been lingering in the doorway for long, but when you’re clinically awkward and laughably lost, each second passed like an hour. Eventually a cheerful American voice called out to me, and looking to the subtly placed staircase to my left, I saw Michael staring down at me. He gave me a wave. “Come on up, we’re in here!” Now, I’m sure Michael meant for me to climb the stairs in the room, which, you know, would have made sense. But that would have meant weaving through the seats arranged for the musicians, dodging past a couple of soundproof screens, and then squeezing myself through the equipment currently being attended to by the technicians. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you do not cross a technician when they’re trying to set up their gear. (What they were setting up, I have no clue. When I walked into that building, I left the realms of my knowledge. It could have a toaster; it could have been a particle accelerator. Presumably someone knows the answer, but that person is not me.) Instead of taking the logical, but obstruction-filled path, I decided to retrace my steps. Because that had been working out wonderfully for me thus far.
So, I returned to that dreaded hallway with its myriad of doors. I was left with no choice. I had exhausted my options. I was reduced to peeking anxiously through the windows. Well, one window. Yes. The room in which we were stationed? The very first room, that’s right. But at least I’d had my own little tour. If you ever need to know the best place at Abbey Road to feel awkward, give me a shout.
Finally, I stepped into the room where it happened. My excitement levels were rapidly rising, as was my sense of displacement. Here I stood in a room where music was made. I know it sounds an innocuous statement, but just take a moment to think about it. How many songs, how many albums, had been created in this room? And our, at that point, humble little show was about to join the pantheon. It took me a moment to comprehend it all. Oh, and there was a fruit plate. That was nice.
For two days that room was my office. For two days I sat on the sofa whilst all around me magic was crafted. I wish I could give you all the juicy, insightful details as to exactly what went into recording each track but, to be honest, I haven’t a bloody clue. Michael and his intrepid team buzzed and beavered around the desks and monitors, consulting with one another in what may as well have been a different language. I sat in my seat like someone’s doddery uncle they’ve been lumbered with looking after for the day. Occasionally they’d throw a comment my way: “How did that sound, James?”, “What did you think of that segment, James?”, “Any bits you think need redoing?”. My response was, invariably: “I think it sounds great.” And I was being genuine. It really did sound great each time. We had a truly fantastic team in the orchestra, and they breathed a life into the music that far exceeded my imagination. Hearing the first swell of the opening track was exhilarating. In that moment I knew that I was finally doing something I felt true passion for. Returning to the world of Front of House afterwards left me with a cavity. Doing what you love can never compare with doing something that pays the bills.
Deciding to turn Mascherato into a concept album was a risk – a huge risk. One that both Michael and I had been wrestling with from the very beginning. I’m not reluctant to admit that I started thinking us both fools for embarking on the endeavour. But those two days in the studio blew those doubts away like a hurricane. I hadn’t felt such enthusiasm for the project since the day Michael first talked me through the story. I always knew Mascherato was gold (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted my time, or his.) but sitting on the plush sofa, munching on grapes, and drinking a cup of tea whilst listening to In a Single Moment being played live, I knew it was Gold with a capital G.
Our stint at Abbey Road Studios was done. The orchestration was recorded. The point of no return was passed. After a brief interval of a few months, a new day of recording was upon us. We were at a different studio this time, but one no less nice. Being the first day, I was determined not to endure the same humiliation as at Abbey Road. With the aid of Google Maps, and thanks to the good fortune that, for eighty percent of the journey, I simply had to walk in a straight line, I arrived without even the shadow of feeling of lost.
“You’re early,” the man who ran the studio declared, staring at me suspiciously. “There’s a café at the end of the road. Go and get a coffee.”
It wasn’t a suggestion. Feeling that the only thing that could ensure us a successful day of recording was a flat white, I turned on my heel and obediently went out to find this café. When I returned, twenty minutes later with a coffee I didn’t want in my hand, I arrived to find Michael already there and in the midst of setting up the studio. Foiled again.
Of course, what good I would have been had I arrived first is impossible to say for one simple reason: I wouldn’t have been. Once more I was stepping into what struck me as the bridge of some spaceship. Buttons and gizmos galore greeted me, cables snaked across the floor, and large television screens dominated the wall ahead of me. To my left was the recording booth and the window through which I would be able to see the magic being made. That is, I would have, had my seat not been at such an angle that caused me to only be able to peek at what was happening in the front left corner of the room. Let me tell you, not much happened in that corner. But I didn’t need to see what was happening, that’s kind of the point with a concept album.
The performers Michael assembled were, like the orchestra, exceptional. As we were tackling the script that day, I had more of a function than before. I was able to talk the actors through the scenes and their lines, offer my ‘expertise’. Did I need to? Certainly not. At best I just waffled and warbled on whilst they smiled and nodded politely. They knew exactly what the scenes needed because they had the ability to read. On the first day of that recording session things were going swimmingly. We were running exactly on time, scenes were being delivered impeccably, and I began to feel like we weren’t a pair of children who’d been let run amok. Then He arrived.
There was a palpably awkward air as soon as he arrived. His manner was brusque, eager to get the job done and then be off. Michael and I instantly shared an anxious glance. Had our luck run out already? “Right,” he said, pulling the script out of his satchel. “I’m reading the Narrator, correct?”
My captive readers, he was not reading the Narrator.
A cold sweat erupted on the back of my neck. The engineer turned in his chair, focusing his attention on the dials and buttons before him. “No, no,” Michael said, his voice dripping with anxiety. “You’re playing this character.” He pointed out the name in the script. The actor frowned, giving the pair of us a studious glare. “That’s not what it said in the email.” I looked to Michael, knowing my mouth was opening and closing like an astonished trout.
“It did,” he said, trying to keep the smile fixed in place whilst he furiously hunted for his phone in his pocket. Once it was found, he hastily scrambled to pull up the email he sent. “See,” Michael said, pointing with a relieved sigh. “It’s this part that has been highlighted for you.”
Once more the actor glowered at us both. It was exactly because of that commanding stare that he had been hired for the role in question. He reached into his jacket pocket and then drew out a pair of glasses. He put them on before glancing over the email in Michael’s hand. The room went still. I knew things had been going too well. Whoever heard of a successful production that wasn’t beset by disaster? A smooth operation meant you were doomed to failure. We both waited with bated breath for a tantrum to appear and for the actor to –
“Fair enough,” he said, whipping off his glasses. “Where am I? Through there?” He stepped into the booth and, when the soundproof door clicked shut behind him, the three of us visibly deflated. “Well, that was exciting,” the engineer declared, spinning back round to face us. “You think he’s going to be all right?”
I decided I would try and find that out. Taking a moment to quell my anxiety, I stepped into the recording booth. The actor was already shuffling the papers, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, and the headphones looped around his neck. His eyes flickered up to skewer me. Stammering slightly, I began to talk him through the character he would be playing.
“Yes, yes, I know,” he said brusquely “I’ve read the script.”
“Right,” I said, my voice strangled slightly. “That’s great. Well, I’ll see if we’re ready to get started.”
I quickly made my retreat. Michael and the engineer gave me a pitying glance as I sat back down. Once more we began to feel that we were skating on the edge of disaster.
“Are we ready?” the engineer asked.
Michael nodded, and we began.
Our earlier anxiety all but vanished as the actor delivered his lines. Each scene was performed masterfully. We could have gone with the first take of every line; in fact, I think in the end we did. His job was wrapped up within the hour and, afterwards, we all had a nice little chat about the show and how the process had been going thus far. Once he was gone, we all breathed a sigh of relief. We had dodged catastrophe and had, in fact, achieved an even better result than we had hoped for.
That was when, as in all thrilling stories, the plot twist occurred: We were ghosts all along. I kid, of course. It was Covid. Now, the pandemic had been in the background for some time, but it only really truly affected us when we began our second round of recording. By that point theatres across the country had closed, and we had lost a couple of actors from the project because of, quite understandable, anxiety. Michael and I were in constant conference, fearful that we’d be unable to go ahead with the recording. But, thanks to the incompetence of our government, we had one day more. Even then we knew postponing the lockdown was idiotic, but selfishness made us eager to stay open for as long as possible. We were a hair’s breadth away from finishing the recording when disaster struck: the government saw sense.
We were in lockdown. The recording was halted, and we had no idea when, or if, we would be able to finish. All we could do was wait. Oh, what adventures I had in that period of isolation. If I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs, I was staring at the wall. If I wasn’t journeying from my bedroom to my kitchen, I was going on pilgrimages from the hallway to the bathroom. Just as I was considering dipping my toes into the lagoon of madness, I received a call.
“James! You’re still alive? Great!” I never will understand the American level of optimism. It must be something they put in the water. But Michael had good reason for such excitement in his voice. Not only was the government beginning to ease some of the restrictions, but the owner of the studio was willing to allow us back to finish off the recording – albeit as long as we followed the strict Covid guidelines he had in place.
After an unwelcome interval, Mascherato was back in business! I will stress now that the owner of the recording studio went above and beyond to make sure that we felt safe. The space was ventilated to the point that we were shivering in our jumpers, we were all wearing masks for the duration, and he practically came in with a tape measure to make sure our seats stayed the proper distance apart. Not that we needed any policing. We were determined to beat the odds and complete the recording. And we did, remarkably!
Save for the looming threat of having the restrictions reimposed, there was very little drama over those two days. The last day was the tensest, of course. That was the day we recorded Luca’s part, and we did nearly overrun. But even that session passed with very little incident. Like that, we were done. Almost. Thanks to the industriousness of our technician, much of the rendering/editing/concocting (delete as applicable) had already been done over the lockdown. All that was left was for he and Michael to reconvene and finish assembling the tracks, and then Mascherato would be ready to be released into the wild.
What japes and mischief the pair got up to, I can’t say. My part was played. All I could do was wait. And wait. And, just for the fun of it, wait a little more. As it turns out, one of our biggest roadblocks was inches away from the finishing line. In order for the recording to be distributed across the streaming sites, it had to be fiddled around with (aren’t you lucky I paid attention to Michael when he went through the technical jargon?) by a third party. Now, given that we were in the middle of a pandemic, you’d have thought the queue would be quite short, correct? Wrong! The weeks dragged by, and still there was no word as to when Mascherato would ready. I was beginning to dread we would miss the deadline we had been plastering across social media. But, as I’ve said already, Michael has a very Ahab-esque personality. He plucked up his harpoons and went to battle. Two days later I had the call. “It’s been sent out,” Michael declared, somewhat breathlessly.
The rest is a story you all know. Make no mistake, however, Mascherato’s journey is far from complete. This is a mere pitstop on a long and winding highway. As we reach the anniversary of the album’s release, I thought it would be entertaining to look back on one of the most exciting experiences of my life. When I first got the call on that otherwise nondescript day, I never imagined we would actually do it. But we did. And there are a hundred dozen people to thank, of course. Members of the orchestra, the actors, the excellent technicians and engineers, the note takers, our patrons, our listeners, the publications who reviewed and shared the show, Michael, for coming up with Mascherato in the first place and, finally, someone who we must never forget: Me. Because I’ve been far too modest in this thing and it’s out of character; people might be thinking I’m ill.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this spelunk into the caverns of my nostalgia. And I hope you continue to enjoy Mascherato, and let’s speak again a little further down the road.