An interview with composer Ethan Maltby

Ethan Lewis Maltby is a British composer based in Canterbury and is also a senior lecturer in Music and Performing Arts at Canterbury Christchurch University. His music has been performed all over the world in cinemas, stadiums and theatres and he’s scored various films, including the multi award-winning feature film Son Of Cain.

From 19 – 21 October, Ethan will be presenting the world-premiere of his new musical adventure, The Masters of Mystery written by himself and Jenna Donnelly. Commissioned by Canterbury Festival, the musical will be on at The Marlowe Studio. We spoke to Ethan to find out more about the show:

How long did it take to do the show?

About a year, most likely. We started talking about what the show could be in the middle of last year and we had lots of ideas about what we wanted to present at the Festival.

I probably started writing music for the show last November, and then finished in July this year – but we’re still tweaking and changing bits now – extending certain sections now that we’re in the space of rehearsing. It’s a very fast paced show – it moves at quite a lick.

It’s always fun – for me, even though I’m a composer, the most exciting part is the story and coming up with the narrative. I think that’s what makes us unique is that because the story is original and because the two of us write it together we can alter it continually and say, ‘wouldn’t it be really interesting if at this point this happens?’, or if I think of a musical idea, we can adapt the narrative to go with the music or the music to go with the narrative. Whereas if we were working from a well-known source or a book, we wouldn’t have the freedom to do that.

We originally liked the idea of these two brilliant kids – who everyone assumed didn’t know anything because they were too young – set against these scary criminals. But the teenagers are running circles around everyone else because they’re much smarter than them.  We wanted to think of a way of empowering young people; older generations write you off as being useless, but actually you’re perfectly smart, functioning people with great ideas and minds of your own.

I wanted to write something that was empowering to young people as well, as much as anything.

Where did the idea and the concept for The Masters of Mystery come from?

We tend to have these brainstorming sessions where we go backwards and forwards on different things. Having finished our previous show, The Battle of Boat which was very much an old-fashioned adventure about children during wartime, we felt like it would be nice to do something that was different in tone, but not a million miles away from that stylistically. So we started thinking about writing a mystery but also doing something that reflected how the world is now, but looking at it in terms of 1926.

What was it that made you choose 1926?

It’s paralleling a lot of the contemporary issues but through an adolescent’s worldview. Essentially, we wanted to write a mystery, which is something that we’ve never done before. There aren’t a lot of musicals that are ‘proper’ mysteries and it was tough because the stories are always working on three levels – what do our heroes know, what do the baddies know and what do the audience know. Because the goodies have got to discover what the baddies are doing, but you don’t want the audience to know what the baddies are doing too early. So we found it really challenging, as well as doing it in music.

We wanted to reflect the contemporary issues of today, and I think 1926 was a good mirror of where we are today…

Do you begin with music and then build the narrative?

We always work story first – we predominantly consider ourselves storytellers first and foremost, and then writers and lyricists and composers afterwards. We come up with the concept, then we fleshed out the story. Then once we have the story, we turn to writing the music and the lyrics. In this case we didn’t have that long since finishing The Battle of Boat and my head was still very much in that musical space. So I spent a good couple of weeks trying out a few different instruments and really trying to find the ‘sound’ of this show – because that’s the first thing I always try and do for the show or the film or whatever I’m writing – ask, ‘what is the sound of it’?.

I spent a long time with different instrumentations before I settled on one and I think I wrote 10 minutes or 15 minutes worth of ideas, textures and colours – not necessarily to go in the show. Once we settled on that, we don’t necessarily start at the beginning, but instead pick a song which might then provide the thematic material that we would use throughout the show.

Jenna and I do this thing that we have subtitled the ‘cinematic musical’. Both of our influences musically and narratively are predominantly from film rather than perhaps theatre – we both love theatre – but film is perhaps where we’re more inspired. What we write sounds more filmic than theatre-like.

The way we structure it and the way the songs are crafted – this one is perhaps much more sung dialogue than song.

In this case, it’s very filmic; I feel as if you could take all of the singing out and just run the music and speak the dialogue as if it was a film, and that it would still work to some extent. Perhaps not as successfully, as that’s the great thing about musicals – the mixture of the singing with the drama.

Not all the dialogue is sung. We’re always asking each other ‘why are they singing now?’ or ‘why are they speaking now?’. In many ways, it’s a device like anything – like a camera move or a lighting state – it’s the same thing. Some lines we think are better spoken, and other lines we think ‘Oh, they should be singing this to add extra intensity’.

It’s probably 80% sung, 20% dialogue but there’s a few key lines where they’re spoken, not sung, and that was a deliberate choice on our part – so that those lines would have more weight, more dramatic heft. But other bits that are perhaps the more emotional bits are sung.


We’re thrilled to be doing it in Canterbury, and that the festival and The Marlowe and Arts Council have supported us. It’s expensive to put on theatre, especially stuff that people have never heard of before. We feel really lucky that someone has said ‘we’ll take a chance on you and support what you’re going to create. It’s great to be able to write something that you know is going to go in front of an audience, so we feel really privileged that we’ve had this opportunity. To have Christchurch supporting it and the Marlowe – we feel very lucky I suppose’.



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