DO not confuse York Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland’s musical premiere, Mayflies, with Peter Mackie Burns’s 2022 television drama of the same name.
“That series was based on an Andrew O’Hagan’s novel that came out in 2017, but my title is taken from an insect that’s been around since before humanity!” says Gus, whose musical tracks the romantic relationship of May and Fly from first flourish to final goodbye.
“When I started this musical, I didn’t know that the TV series would be coming out when it did, but I did then read the synopsis – and it’s very different from mine! I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been asked to change the title as the whole point was matching the characteristics of the mayfly,” says Gus.
“It is true that predominantly mayflies live for only 24 hours but they have a gestation period that can last for two years, and that felt like a good metaphor for meeting online, then meeting in person for one night, and then the morning after.
“What happens in Mayflies is that after swiping right, left, up and down across the dating apps, May and Fly begin a tentative conversation. Over time, their romance grows into something real, something special. Then they meet!”
Watching a documentary on riverbanks triggered the musical. “I love rivers for some reason,” says composer, lyricist, songwriter and playwright Gus, who moved to York in 2019 after his partner was appointed chief executive officer of Rural Arts in Thirsk.
“Anyway, there was a section on mayflies and that’s what piqued my interest. That incubation period, which I didn’t know about before then, struck me as really interesting when we only know about the mayfly’s fleeting life, but nothing about that earlier period. I watched it last summer, so the musical has been incredibly quick in arriving.
“It would be nice if I could invest Mayflies with a longer life than a mayfly has, and it’s been brilliant for me that York Theatre Royal has had faith in me to stage this premiere as it’s so important to support new work.”
Running at the Theatre Royal from April 28 to May 13 under the direction of Tania Azevedo, the world premiere of Mayflies will feature alternating configurations of three actors performing the two roles in each performance: Nuno Queimado playing May, Emma Thornett, Fly, and Rumi Sutton either May or Fly.
Another production could have a different gender balance, but however it plays, each pairing is designed to give a different perspective on the relationships within this contemporary love story.
“I was really excited by the challenge of writing something that could be played by pretty much anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality,” says Gus.
“As an audience, we bring so much of ourselves and our understanding of the world to the things we see, so I wanted to explore what happens when we see the exact same love story told by different people – how would the dynamics change? Which moments would hit harder in each telling?
“I know how much an actor brings to a role too and so I wanted to create people that the actors cast would be able to really imbue with their own sense of identity. We’ve seen some rotating casts before, but I really wanted to write the flexibility of casting into the material, rather than just have it as a production idea layered on top.”
Gus continues: “It’s a real challenge to avoid signifiers of characteristics, like age and gender, but I’ve adored finding ways to create rounded specific characters without those to lean back on. One way I’ve done that is to write the parts in different time signatures, which makes them musically very distinct.
“I’m over the moon with the extraordinary cast of actors we have for this first ever production of Mayflies and am so excited to see what they each bring to the characters.”
Gus, who lectures on the post-graduate musical theatre course at Leeds Conservatoire, has a two-year residency at York Theatre Royal, where his songs have been heard already in showcases for professional York talent.
For 2021’s Love Bites, he wrote a song for diarist Anne Lister (alias Gentleman Jack), performed by Dora Rubinstein, and for 2022’s Green Shoots, he used James Herriot quotes for I’ll Go T’Other, a song about the vet and his relationship with North Yorkshire, performed by Joe Douglass.
Settled into the city – he and his partner have bought a house here – Gus is aware of York’s love of musicals, whether staged by York companies or brought to the city on tour. “Mayflies’ Theatre Royal run is sandwiched between Strictly Ballroom and Heathers at the Grand Opera House: there is so much musical theatre staged here, so for me to have the opportunity to start a new musical’s life here is wonderful.
“So many people want to make their life is musical theatre, and it’s good for them to see that they don’t always have to go to London to be involved. There are theatres making musical theatre elsewhere.”
Brought up on watching Disney hits and classical musicals such as Kiss Me Kate, Gus had a love of musical theatre from the age of five, becoming obsessed with it, he says, whether Les Miserables or hearing the voices of Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga and Michael Ball.
“I just think it’s the best way to tell a story, though I know it’s certainly more complicated to get musical shows on because there are definitely more moving parts. They take more time to put on, which is the main challenge,” he says.
As with Gus’s Pieces Of String, winner of the 2018 Stage Debut Award for Best Composer or Lyricist and the UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production for its Mercury Theatre, Colchester premiere, Mayflies has a book, lyrics and music by Gowland, a self-taught musician who composes on the piano.
“What’s rare is that both my main-house shows have been completely original, coming out of my brain and heart, rather than being an adaptation, where I’m more likely to be collaborative,” he says.
Gus had trained to be a classical actor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “I didn’t do many musicals there, but I did write two songs for a new show called Spoon River that we did as our third-year show based on a book of poems from the late 1800s, where every poem told a person’s life story,” he recalls.
“I did quite a lot of concert singing but I didn’t look after my voice, which I would have needed to do for musical theatre.”
Gus duly decided to focus on musical theatre writing after focusing initially on acting, going on to study for an MA in musical theatre writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and latterly a PhD in musical theatre, specifically looking at gay representation in the artform, using Pieces Of String as part of his studies.
As for his style of musicals, Gus says: “Being an actor, I’m familiar with text and though I love sung-through musicals, like Rent or Les Miserables, I consider myself more of a dramatist or storyteller. I like songs to be ‘real moments’ and I like them to be moments of transition in the story, with ten songs in all in Mayflies.”
He divides Mayflies into three stages, matching the life arc of the mayfly: Nymph online, Dun for the night together in a hotel room and Spinner for the morning after, but be warned, the story’s path is not chronological.
“We jump from one to another at a moment’s notice, with a lighting change or a sound effect. What’s interesting is people being different versions of themselves at different times, when the safety net of separate spaces is taken away in moving from online to in-person,” says Gus.
“We are contrary creatures, so we’ll say things that are the opposite of what we said before; sometimes that’s intentional, sometimes it’s because you’ve forgotten what you said, but for the other person it might have been memorable.
“In Pieces Of String I had two time frames, and now what I get to do in Mayflies is show whether someone said something or not and whether they meant it or not, and by being really free in the casting, over gender, age and race, I let audiences play with their own assumptions, because we assume things when we see people of a certain age or sexuality.
“The dynamics between each pairing can be totally different in its compact with a song taking on a different meaning, depending on who is singing it. Using different time registers for each character, which I’ve never done before, it’s interesting to see how different it makes them sound too. It’s all part of what I want to do, to really push myself as a writer.”
Gus is picking up Pieces Of String once more this year with a view to its further development. “I started writing it in 2011 as part of my MA and then developed it over many years before premiering it at Colchester in 2018 after the Mercury Theatre came to one of the workshops and decided to take it on.
“Now it’s being optioned by Global Music, who produced SIX The Musical, and by Alchemation in America, so I’ve done a new draft, making changes from the premiere. It could have happened sooner but for finishing my PhD and the pandemic, but we’ve now done a reading of it at the Vaudeville Theatre [in London] in January.”
How long is Pieces Of String’s future? Wait and see!
York Theatre Royal presents Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, April 28 to May 13, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.