Karl Lewkowicz's talk on 'Goodbye Barcelona'

Post date: 12/11/2019

This talk was originally given at the Marx Memorial Library on the 4 October 2019, as part of the IBMT's Annual General Meeting weekend. Composer Karl Lewkowicz spoke about the development, reception and future of the musical 'Goodbye Barcelona', the story of a fictional group of British volunteers who go to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The talk was accompanied by a video featuring highlights of the various productions and interviews about the development process. More information on the musical can be found here.

Hello, thank you very much for coming today and thank you to the IBMT for inviting me to talk about the musical ‘Goodbye Barcelona’. It’s a great pleasure and an honour to be here.

I’m going to talk a bit about the journey from the original idea through to the production of ‘Goodbye Barcelona’, which is based on the stories of the British International Brigades. I’ll also show some highlights from the London production.

Before ‘Goodbye Barcelona’, I had written a musical called ‘Release the Beat’ with the playwright Judith Johnson, which was produced at the Arcola Theatre in London in 2004. The show, which was a modern version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, was set in London’s nightclubs in the 1990s and it did really well.

After the success of that show we wanted to write something new and I had read an article in the Guardian in the year 2000, which had interviews with most of the surviving International Brigaders at that time.

I suggested that this would make a great story and Judith agreed. We were immediately fascinated with these men and women and what it was that motivated them to join the International Brigades. After some discussion with Mehmet Ergen, the artistic director of Arcola Theatre who encouraged us to continue with the idea, we decided to see if we could make a musical out of this largely unknown but amazing story.

I went to my first IBMT annual commemoration in 2005 and we found out more about the people from the UK and all over the world that had travelled to Spain to fight against fascism.

In 2006 Judith successfully applied for a writing grant from the Arts Council which enabled us to start doing some funded research.

With the help of Marlene Sidaway, who was then the IBMT secretary, we were able to set up interviews with some of the surviving Brigaders and we became even more enthralled by their incredible stories.

We went to Wales to interview Alan Menai Williams who had been a medic, we visited Penny Feiwel in Bournmouth who had been a nurse and was then a sprightly 99 years old. In London we interviewed Lou Kenton who was then 100 as well as Jack Jones and Sam Lesser who we first interviewed in his flat in Brixton in 2007. After that I used to call him on the phone to ask questions and visit him sometimes, which is a memory I cherish.

Like the other interviewees, Sam was fascinating and he became passionate about the musical, a kind of guardian angel, so we ended up naming our main character, Sammy, after him.

One of the things which appealed to us most about the story of the International Brigades, is the universality of the theme and the resonances it has today.

We continued the research for the show by reading lots of books and watching films about the subject.

I listened to a variety of Spanish music as well as songs that were connected with the International Brigades. Songs like ‘Jarama Valley’ and the ‘Internationale’ which were integrated into the musical.

We had the first reading at the Arcola theatre in 2008 where we read and sang through the first draft of the show in front of an audience. This was attended by Sam Lesser as well as Paul Preston, who I’m sure everyone knows is the world’s leading Spanish Civil War historian and founding chair of the IBMT.

This was very nerve-wracking for us, as we had no idea how they would react to what we had written. Luckily they loved it and Paul has been hugely supportive throughout the whole process.

We had two more readings, each of which gave us further insights as to which aspects of the musical worked and which parts needed rewriting. I actually wrote many more songs for each reading than were actually used and we ended up with at least 13 drafts  of the script.

We had a fundraising launch at European House in 2011 supported by the Catalan Delegation and the Spanish Embassy in 2011 who both attended.

After the launch we received a production grant from the Arts Council and the first production happened at the Arcola theatre in November 2011.

The opening night was attended by the Spanish Ambassador, Brigader David Loman, Paul Preston and Richard Baxell.

As a result of the launch, we got national coverage in all the mainstream Spanish media, because the Spanish Civil War is still such a very emotive subject in Spain, and we got even more coverage in Barcelona. So I went to Barcelona in 2012 and had meetings with various theatres, producers and directors and also managed to get further media attention and interviews. I tried to meet with every possible theatre, producer and director and luckily there was interest from quite a few of the theatres. We decided to go with a small theatre called Teatre del Raval, who had just had a big success with a new musical and were looking for something to follow it up with. They loved ‘Goodbye Barcelona’ and produced it in 2013 translating the dialogue and lyrics to the Catalan language.

That production in Barcelona, which was done on a tiny budget but with a great cast and a great deal of love from the actors and the creative team, won the Best Spanish Musical award in 2014, which is the highest achievement that a Spanish musical can receive, something like the Tonys or the Olivier awards. It is very unusual for a musical in Catalan to win this Spanish award, also winning the award for best director and best new actor.

After that I met with producers and theatres in New York, where there was a reading on Broadway in 2014 at the York theatre. They say that a musical is never finished but just abandoned and Hans Friedrichs the New York director, encouraged us to rewrite some of the script and use elements from an early draft which we found worked really well. So those revisions were permanently included after that.

In 2015 I met with theatres and producers in Madrid where there was a production in 2016. We’ve also had readings and presentations of the film in Hamburg, Berlin and Mexico.

In Berlin we had a reading in 2017 as well as another screening earlier this year.

There are new productions planned for Germany in 2021 and Mexico where a hip hop version of the title song has been released.


Posted on 12 November 2019

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