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I spent a little over a decade writing and rewriting the “book” of my musical ALEXANDER, first from the POV of the soldier/conqueror/King of Macedonia and then from the POV of a tortured visionary whose lust for both power and enlightenment finally drove him to the excesses characteristic of dictators of every stripe and creed.
ALEXANDER‘S physical quest is well-known. In 334 BC, following in the footsteps and mindset of his warrior father, King Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander embarked on a series of battles which ultimately broke the power of Persia. A decade later, when Alexander overthrew the sybaritic Persian King Darius III he had conquered the Achaemenid Empire in its entirety. At that point, Alexander’s empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Beas River, one of the largest empires in the ancient world but, this did not satisfy Alexander. Addicted to conquest, he endeavoured to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea” and in 326 BC he invaded India, winning an important but incomplete victory over the sub-continent.
Alexander and his mother, Queen Olympias circa 326 BC.
Alexander the Great was born in Pella in 356 BC and succeeded his father Philip II to the throne of Macedonia at the age of 20. He spent most of his ruling years on a military campaign through western Asia and northeast Africa, and by the age of thirty, he had created an empire stretching from Greece to north-western India. Undefeated in battle he came to believe in his mother, Olympias’, claim, that he was fathered by the God, Zeus, rather than the merely mortal, Philip. The world came to believe this fantasy, too, as Alexander, the master manipulator, gave credence to it by building oversized campsites enroute throughout his quest, leaving enormous chairs and tables made from boulders as if an army of giants had camped there. Discovering such things on a morning’s sheepherding must have been very disconcerting for the locals. Playing mind games with the soon-to-be-conquered became an established part of Alexander’s military repertoire. In a midnight climb he instructed his men to plant dozens of Macedonian flags outside the city gates of the unreachable mountaintop eerie called the Sogdian Rock. When the township woke to the sight of dozens of Macedonian flags outside their city gates the next morning they surrendered to the man who was either winged or had demons in his service.
In his determination to succeed, Alexander used every arrow in his quiver. A brilliant military strategist who thought outside the square, he also won the love and trust of his comrades by sleeping in the same rough soldier’s tents as his men and fronting every battle. He also knew the names of all his soldiers and in some cases, their wives and parents, too. It was a masterstroke in winning and maintaining loyalty.
That his success was due to his talent, personability and the discipline of his army is beyond dispute. It was also timely. Slaves the world over were tired of their lot in life and the extravagance of Darius III, the flagrant despot who built Persepolis, the largest and most extravagantly appointed Palace on earth, the antecedent of Versailles which sparked the revolution of 1789, drove many Persian subjects to the point of rebellion. In fact Darius III was murdered by two of his own generals, helping facilitate Alexander’s triumph over Persia.
Ruins of the Palace of Persepolis.
So, by the time Alexander arrived, ready to liberate slaves and implement democracy, the rule of the people, it was a perfect storm of social unrest coupled with a brilliantly prepared and highly disciplined army bannering equality, albeit under Macedonian rule.
During his youth, Alexander the gifted student, was tutored by Aristotle and it was his political manifesto of Democracy that Alexander the genius conqueror, implemented throughout his empire. An open-minded man, he encouraged religious and cultural diversity and syncretism of existing beliefs. Always fascinated by spirituality, Alexander even embraced many of the religious practises he encountered on his quest.
King Darius III with his concubine eunuch, Bagoas.
The quest part of Alexander’s story has been well documented. What is less well-known is the man behind the soldier, a man who did as much harm as good. A man who came to believe himself a god. A man who had no idea what to do with himself in peacetime. A man who came to expect conquest because he had never known defeat. A man who conjured a legend that grew around him like a glamour. But ultimately, a man whose time ran out.
After returning to Babylon, recrossing the Himalayas in winter and leaving India half-conquered, Alexander’s loyal army was homesick and longing to be reunited with their families after a little over a decade of campaigning. Completing Alexander’s waning sandglass was the loss of his great love, Hephastion, who died in 324 BC. It was all too much for the world-weary conqueror, who died six months after Hephastion, perhaps from grief, perhaps from poison or perhaps because his battered body and soul gave up. This close departure from the world is always a mark of soulmates I believe.
Hephastion 356 BC – 324 BC
After the loss of Hephastion, success must have felt hollow indeed. From boyhood on Alexander and Hephastion had shared everything including Aristotle’s tutelage, the almost dual command of the army and for many years, a bed. Every dream and plan of Alexander’s had been co-conspired with Hephastion whose own talent for soldiering was considerable. Certainly of all the loves of Alexander’s life, Hephastion was the only one who shared the ‘trenches’ with him, often fighting side-by-side like guardian angels for each other.
Had Alexander lived he would have stumbled on alone, establishing Babylon as his capital and executing a series of campaigns that would have begun with an invasion of Arabia. In the years following his death in 323 BC, a series of civil wars tore his empire apart, resulting in the establishment of several states ruled by the Diadochi, Alexander’s surviving generals and heirs.
In my research I read The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, a book about Bagoas, the exquisite eunuch Alexander inherited from the court of King Darius III after the conquest of Persia. Brilliantly written, Renault shows Alexander through the eyes of the people closest to him. Unlike the ugly jostling for power in a harem, Alexander gives each of his loves their own place and the dignity befitting their role, avoiding the deadly competition writhing in the courts and harems of contemporaneous Kings and Sultans.
Mary Renault looks at Alexander through the eyes of Bagoas, a one-time prince of Persia who was ‘cut’ to preserve his beauty and interned in the harem of King Darius III as a sexual slave. Alexander, enthralled by the young man’s beauty and intelligence, makes him his houseboy and sometime lover.
Bagoas Prince of Persia who became a eunuch prized for his beauty.
I became fascinated by the other satellite characters in Alexander’s world – his mother Olympias, beautiful, ambitious and driven, Roxanne, the Sogdian princess he marries after conquering her province, Hephastion, his 2IC and arguably love of his life and, of course, his beautiful black stallion, Bucephalus, who remained with him throughout his decade long campaign and whose death in 326 BC caused Alexander enormous grief.
All of them exhibited an unusual degree of loyalty to Alexander and a passion bordering on worship.
The love and loyalty of those closest to Alexander are great indicators of the character of a man whom many regarded as a monster warped by boundless ambition. But they only knew him from a distance and in the wake of conquests which arguably left them better off. But conquest is conquest no matter how benevolent the dictator.
So, I adjusted my “book” to focus on the ancillary characters in Alexander’s life and through them map the inner terrain that inversely echoed his expanding empire. As Alexander’s empire expanded, his psyche shrunk under the weight of success and delusion and the legend he and his mother created to inspire worship and obedience became his cage. The fantasy of his progenation by Zeus ultimately enslaved his mind and loosened his grip on terra firma, toppling him, Empire, ego, life and all.
But for a musical theatre writer what an extraordinary narrative of lust, loss and tragedy, perfectly arced and embodied in an exquisite young cast, each one alluring in their own right and powerfully placed to influence the most famous man of his time.
I set about reconfiguring the book away from a chronological paralleling of his campaign and into the tragic arc of an idealistic young visionary/conqueror who morphs into a self-destructive, power-crazed addict, messily transformational and ultimately immortalised through the alchemy of success. Musical theatre gold-dust.
Alexander and Bucephalus.
When I completed the revised book I began writing the lyrics and to help me with the music I invited talented composer and pianist, Ian Camilleri on board and together we wrote all the music for Alexander in a succession of Sundays over the course of a year. Ian and I then took the show into a studio and with the help of friends we recorded a demo of five songs. In a series of truly serendipitous interventions we managed to acquire direct contacts with Cameron Macintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber and closer to home, producers Harry M. Miller and Michael Edgely – all of whom turned the show down flat.
Such is my manic perseverance I then decided to hire an arranger to orchestrate the show and lift it to another level. The result was a fuller sound closer to what may be expected in a West End or Broadway production. Over the course of five years the show was staged in concert version by Southbank Institute and later introduced to London audiences in selected songs in a showcase my own work, Wendy Waters Rites Words at The Pheasantry 3rd September 2019 with talented cast Frank Loman, Lauren Lovejoy, Louise Burke accompanied by pianist Ricardo Nunes Fernandes.
Louise Burke, Lauren Lovejoy and Frank Loman – Cast of Wendy Waters Rites Words.
Ricardo Nunes Fernandes rehearsing with Louise Burke for Wendy Waters Rites Words, The Pheasantry 3rd September 2019.
2020 brings its special challenges with COVID-19 and lockdown and bringing new work to the public is difficult but fortunately there is a visionary in Canada, Jean-Paul Yovanoff, who plays musical theatre songs all year around and especially encourages new works.
Here is a Podcast of my #musical ALEXANDER played on Canadian radio. 1drv.ms/u/s!AtFMpokjm_
Thank you Jean-Paul Yovanoff @MTR_Tweets