Bookworm Liam O’Rafferty writes his own bestseller, the musical rom-com, Paper Hearts

Nearly four years in the making, Paper Hearts has been on an extraordinary journey since its conception in 2014.

Stage Review caught up with first time playwright & self-taught composer Liam O’Rafferty and award-winning director Tania Azevedo to discuss the transfer of their Edinburgh Fringe hit musical to London fringe favourite, Upstairs at The Gatehouse, this May.

Set in an independent high-street bookshop, this up-lifting new British musical is about passion and finding your place in the world – a world among books (to read more about the production click here).

Liam, when did you write your first draft of Paper Hearts and how long had the idea been in your head?

I wrote the first draft around three years ago, and, after meeting Tania Azevedo, my director, I completely re-wrote it last year. It’s been knocking around in my mind for at least five years.

What was it about the writing, Tania, that drew you to direct the production?

I first heard about it in 2015 through an actor friend who was working with Liam. I had a listen to a couple of the songs and was hooked!

This is Liam’s first musical and initially I joined him as a dramaturg, helping him shape the show and restructuring it. After about six months we were both extremely passionate about the show’s potential.

I’m a real fan of romantic comedies and the prospect of shaping a new British rom-com musical was really alluring.

Liam, was Paper Hearts always going to be a musical?

Yes. A musical in a bookshop, as far as I know, has never been done before so I wanted something new and fresh. Though music is my first love, I had to teach myself script writing – that was a real challenge.

What productions or who did you draw your inspiration from?

Jason Robert Brown springs to mind, I like the way he has reshaped the modern musical with catchy emotion numbers. I love the old musicals. My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music – great stories with fabulous songs!

You’re a self taught composer. How does one begin to teach themselves the complexities of learning to compose?

My dad bought me a guitar when I was 10. I got bored of it and my brother picked it up and started getting good, that spurred me on to be better!

I listened to a lot of music, took apart what the Beatles did, looked at the structure and the lyrics. You know when you have a good song – when you feel that you are somewhere else.

There’s quite a sizeable team behind the production, Tania. How did everyone come together?

One of my favourite features of this show is that it’s been written for a cast of actor musicians – it’s very much part of the language of the piece.

We had a very clear image of the kind of collaborative actors we needed to make the show happen and our musical director, Dan Jarvis, and I went to several drama school showcases, spoke to other creatives and actively looked for the right cast before we even went into auditions.

I assembled the whole creative team from people who I’d either worked with before or whose work I admired in the past.

For example, I’d seen Anna Driftmier’s work, our set designer, in the Vault festival and was blown away by her spacial concept for one of the curated spaces.

Denise Koch, our producer for the transfer, saw one of the previews before we went to Edinburgh and immediately ‘got’ the show. We’d wanted to work together for a while and her passion for the show made her the perfect fit. ​

The musical is transferring to London following sell out success at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. Liam, what do you think sets this musical apart from others?

It’s honesty I think. It’s hard to write something original, and I know I haven’t altogether. But when people leave the theatre there’s one thing I want them to feel and that’s good about themselves.

How is the show different, Tania, from the the version you took to Edinburgh Fringe festival last year?

I think this show will answer questions audiences might have been left with in Edinburgh. We’ve really fleshed out the characters and their journeys. We’ve got more space to insert new songs, and work with the feedback we got from the Edinburgh run and apply that to the numbers audiences reacted to best.

Tania, can you tell us a something we might not already know about the show?

Paper Hearts takes place in contemporary London and and 1942 Russia simultaneously (this bit I think most people who have looked into the show know).

What most people won’t know is that originally it was going to be two separate musicals and we did write the plot to both as separate entities before realizing it probably would work better as one piece.

It’s described as an uplifting musical comedy but its also complex with emotional depth. Liam, How do you achieve both?

There are two different worlds in Paper Hearts, one set in 1940’s Russia and the other in modern day. Two relationships play out in both, the real world that Atticus the protagonist lives in and the other that he has created. There’s a lot of fun and heartache in these entwined stories.

Its transferring to Hamburg in Germany in the summer. How did that come about Tania and how do you feel about it?

The truth is that while we were in Edinburgh, we got really positive feedback from international audiences and noticed the story wasn’t lost even with audiences whose first language wasn’t English.

This convinced us that Paper Hearts had the potential to be enjoyed by a wider audience than we anticipated. When Denise, who is German, joined us, it just seemed like the obvious next step.

She’s worked and has a keen interest in working in Germany and creating shows that can be presented both in the UK and in German.

What is the future for Paper Hearts? What would be the ultimate goal for the show, for you, Tania? A transfer to the West End?

I’m immensely proud of the journey this musical has gone through and, honestly, I would just love for it to reach as many people as possible.

Of course the West End would be a dream but I can see it working really well in regional venues, aimed at anyone who has ever been moved by a book or changed by the arrival of someone new in their life.

Paper Hearts (a high-street musical) runs ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’ Highgate, from May 2-20.

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