Jack’s Blog

Child’s Christmas in Wales

tide's out

tide’s out


Got back from Wales last night  – a 20 hour combination of cars, trains and planes by way of Toronto [for the cheap ticket] but Air Canada yay! Lots of space, no one in the middle seat, hot meals and free movies [Hotel Budapest 5 stars.] I was in Swansea for the first two weeks rehearsal of Child’s Christmas in Wales, adapted from the Dylan Thomas short story by Michael Bogdanov with music and lyrics by self. Michael’s the director of Lone Star Love, founder of the English Shakespeare Company and the Theater Company of Wales, author, pub crawler, and great friend of mine and John Haber’s.  He’s also a major authority on Dylan Thomas, and is producing Swansea’s Dylathon next weekend, a 36 hour marathon reading of the complete works at the Swansea Grand Theater complete with pop stars, symphony orchestras, choirs, homeless poets, and literary big-wigs. The audience is to be provided with food, pillows and mattresses, and all the Dylan Thomas they can ingest, a poetry Woodstock without the mud. So Michael, or Boggy as we know him is a little busy, to put it mildly. As a result Child’s Christmas rehearsals were focused on the music and choreography. This meant immense fun for music director Terry Mortimer, choreographer Anthony Williams, and me s the cast all play instruments, dance like maniacs, and sing like Nightingales in English and Welsh Gaelic. This quadruple-threat school of acting is apparently genetic in Wales, but astounding to the gringo. We spent the first week working out arrangements for the eight voices, and the orchestrations. Our cast of eight included four guitar players, four piano players, three drummers, two accordionists, two mandolin players, two bass players, one fiddler, one flute/whistle/saxophonist, one harpist, a bodhran player, a ukelele, and who knows what else I hadn’t time to discover. Each actor doubles as adult and child in the various combinations suggested by the short story: Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Townspeople, and young Dylan’s boyhood chums. One actor [Russell Gomer] narrates as the adult Thomas and steps into the action and songs; another [Dafydd Rhys Evans] plays the young Dylan. Everyone else plays a wide variety of rolls, changing costumes from on-stage coat-racks, and instruments from a large heap up-stage center which is topped by drum kit and harp. In traditional Welsh music and song the harp is a big deal – they use the smaller gaelic version as in Irish music, but also the full-sized concert harp complete with pedals and gigantic bass strings. That’s the one Boggy wanted: “If you’re going to hire a harpist you’d best get her a proper harp.” I hadn’t written

Cast minus Russell

Cast minus Russell

much for the harp in the show, [or ever for that matter]  a couple of puny parts for the ballads which Mali Llywely dutifully sight-read at first rehearsal. “Could You make anything of a chord chart?” I hopefully inquired . Could she ever! She tore into the rock pieces and novelty numbers like a starving woman eats fish and chips. Mali confessed to me that she’d never acted before, but turns out to be a natural,  sprinting  back and forth between her instrument and center stage, as do an assortment of drummers and pianists. All the other instruments are mobile, so it’s left to choreographer Anthony to sort it all out at the start of the second week. He cracks me up. “Bum-walk ladies, bum-walk, bum-walk! Now up, now down, always with the bum!” He demonstrates, the Aunts bum-walk. “Can you jump-turn as you play the fiddle?” Jak Poore can and does.  Looking a bit like a young Gene Wilder, Jak plays any instrument, composes, and hops about the stage like a Tasmanian Devil. His pals in the cast chide him unmercifully at the slightest mistake, and I ask why. “Because he fooking never does.” He arrives at a forgotten or unlearned lyric in a song for the drunken uncles and mumbles a barely comprehensible substitute, much funnier than my original. The other uncles nag without pity. They are hard rocking guitarist Stephen Hickman and big-hearted drummer Mark Rhys, both slouching over the dinner table with pillows stuffed in their guts in lieu of fat-suit. They reach a lyric “As we hoover up the juices from the pan” Anthony asks me “could they lap juices with tongue out as they

drawn by Heledd Gwynn

drawn by Heledd Gwynn

sing?” Of course. They do, and I’m laughing too hard to come up with the right answer: Change “pan” to “ham.” Uncles, if you read this, try hoovering ham juices. The women are amazing. In addition to Mali, there’s ringleader Lauren Roberts on accordion and piano. Her vocals range from beautiful alto to hilarious operatic soprano, as does her acting. Even higher – among her many rolls she plays Mrs. Prothero, who’s house catches fire on Christmas Day. At the final refrain she replaces her workaday chorus part with a vocal siren liable to bring the house down – structurally.  The whistle and flute player is Heledd Gwynn, the very generous and lovely sort of actress/musician whose first instinct is for making others sound good. She’s also an artist, and as we learned at the pub on the final night, a formula one racing fan. If there’s a cast favorite it’s Kath Dimery. She’s modest out of all good sense, but a superb actress and incredibly poignant singer. I admit it: I love to hear other people sing what I’ve written.  But these eight actors really give it a rip and I’m proud of what we’ve done together. I’ve heard said that casting is 60% of a show, and Boggy’s done it very well. When a show ends, it’s common to believe that a cast is the finest group of performers, and are the best friends you’ll ever know. The next month you’re on to something else, toting your fickle love along. Or, it’s a disaster and you wish you’d stuck to your career as a welder. With that first feeling still powerfully in mind, I want to express my joy and gratitude to the directors, stage managers, designers and actors of this production. I’m lucky to have known ya. Wales, on the other hand, and Swansea in particular, you’d never forget. Located west of Cardiff and southeast of the Gower peninsula, it was bombed heavily in WW2 for its shipping harbor and copper, and rebuilt even more “ugly but lovely” than Dylan Thomas remembered it in his childhood tale. What remained was mostly preserved – beautiful Georgian buildings, museums, hotels, parks castles and homes; the rest filled in with a random assortment of working class dwellings and shops, modern malls, and a couple of hideous skyscrapers, all this connected by a maze of old streets and squares. The modern roadways are in a constantly shifting schedule of detour and repair, and a system of one way streets was recently adapted much to the disgust of a cab driver who proudly informed me that Wales had Europe’s only left wing government, and they were going to vote the streets back to the old way. We got lost or delayed each and every time we drove, often home from the pub to Boggie’s borrowed apartment by the marina. He’s IMG_0425a Welshman, but lives now with his family in Germany where much of his work lies; One result being that his steering wheel is on the left. As they drive on the left, and we’d just left the bar, he had little sense of the terrors we survived on the right. Everyone wants to talk to you, it’s a society centered on conversation and they’re good at it. The chatter is often well lubricated and I was moved to consume more alcohol than I am accustomed to – my bev of choice was a brownish, flattish, warmish lager known as Brains, or “skull attack” as I later learned. I was further informed that it was the only beverage along with champagne offered at the wedding of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who also imported several truckloads of Swansea dirt to floor the affair. A disproportionally large number of Wales’ artists, authors, musicians and actors come from around Swansea, a source of great pride and a number of theories as to why that might be, but to which I’m unable to do justice due to the lingering effect of the skull attack. I spent the day off going out to The Mumbles which is at the southwest corner of Swansea Bay. It’s a village of tea shops, hotels and tourist stuff which gives way to three giant rock cliffs at the edge of the bay which opens to the Bristol Channel, across which you can see England. Great hiking up and around the cliffs, along the sea, and the six miles back to to town.

The MumblesGreat to be home to my girls! Oddly Lynn, leaves for London in a couple of days for a conference. She does art curation for a kid’s website and has just been promoted to manager! I’ll take up as chauffeur for Sky as she navigates school, dance classes, and Friday night football. Life is good – best to all, Jack

Here’s a couple of the cast recordings from the original company –  Russell Gomer sings Over the Way,  Llinos Daniel sings Secrets of Trees, Ieuan Rhys, Alex Parry and Nicholas Goode are the uncles on Jolly, Jolly, Jolly




Jack Herrick Meanders with the Big Apple Circus

A howdy to all friends in the form of a meander through recent activities:

Scoring a Circus!

Thanks to all the pals who checked in with birthday wishes! I’m back from my month with the Big Apple Circus http://bigapplecircus.org at their home base in upstate AbodeNew York. This year’s director, the amazing and multi-talented West Hyler gave me the opportunity to write and arrange music for the seven piece Big Apple Circus Band. This entailed a year of squinting at videos of the various acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, acts, tentaerialists, and clowns who would comprise this year’s show, and trying to concoct music that would hit the tricks, jazz the audience, please the acts, and match the theme and title “Metamorphosis.” With naïve enthusiasm I got at it, lucky to be dumb enough not to realize how much work it would be, and by summer I had a 400 page score with original tunes and arrangements of Beethoven, Zez Confrey, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Holtz, Rimsky-Korsakov, and traditional Irish and American fiddle tunes. These were sprinkled with quotes from Charlie Parker, The Bonanza Theme, The Nutcracker, and everything my daughter listened to on the car radio for those months.

The Fun Part

Jack and Clyde

Clyde and Jack

I arrive at Walden, where the circus has its HQ, in the Rambler van filled with recording gear and instruments, plus a lot of stuff I’d never have time to need like food, books, and nice clothes. It’s a sprawling gypsy camp of trailers, RVs, rehearsal and shop space set in the woods outside of town. Towering over all is the Big Apple Circus Tent. Kids and dogs are running around as the arriving performers move into their digs and set up their BBQs, clotheslines, and picnic tables. I find my beautiful vintage trailer and try to look like I know what I’m doing, but they know better and I’m soon offered much needed help unloading, hooking up, and finding such necessities as the food trailer and where “skunks must be living.”

The band is fantastic – The leader is Rob Slowik. He’s a “lead” trumpet which means he can play really high notes, all the while conducting with his left hand. They’re really solid sight reading the arrangements, and after about half an hour on each, they’re digging into the dynamics, ripping the solos, and fixing the numerous mistakes and weirdnesses in my score. The acts start to drift into the rehearsal room toJeff listen to their new music. This is a bit nerve wracking for me – I’ve watched them hundreds of time on video but they don’t know me from Adam. I shrink into my score pages, and let Rob handle. He’s done this for 12 years. The acts start to pipe up: “That’s good, but more power!” “We take the style here and then do the triple.” “Is that before the llamas?” Rob has seen some of the acts, and he’s heard my demos, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t figured out which notes go to which llamas. He manages to guide it all towards working. Outside of rehearsal hours, it’s a full schedule of trying to get the sheet music to match the numerous changes put in by the acts, musicians, director, choreographer.



Lynn and Skyler came up for a visit after I’d settled in, but before rehearsals became really desperate – the perfect time. We toured around the area, found swimming holes, and ate at old-time roadside restaurants and diners. Skyler [now 14] was given the job of helping out with the animals, leading camels around, feeding ferrets, rabbits, and a porcupine. She loved working for the wonderful animal trainer Jenny Vidbel, so much so that she didn’t mind getting up at 6:30 in the morning.

Last week we went up to DC to see the show before it moves to Lincoln Center in NYC. We loved the show, but were most thrilled to see our friends. We all feel like we became part of a circus family. We found out that Newman, the ten year old pot bellied pig, is going to retire due to porcine arthritis. His trick was to unroll a red carpet at the start of Jenny’s act, and he won’t mind having his secret revealed: There was a snickers bar rolled up inside the carpet. We’ve decided to adopt him, and bring him down to Chatham County to enjoy his golden years. Let me know if you’ve got a good pig pen design.

Now I’m in Swansea, Wales to rehearse our musical adaptation of A Child’s Christmas in Wales http://dylanthomas100.org. It’s a whole different kind of circus, so more later – peace and tunes, Jack