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Scottish folk songs meet 17th century feminism in new musical

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IT has been five years in the making, covers 400 years of history and travels from 17th century Stirling to 21st century New York, via Ulster and the Appalachian Mountains. And now it is about to have its moment. 

The world premiere of a new Scottish musical will take place at the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling next February.

Fusing traditional Scottish folk tunes with contemporary songs, and featuring a West End cast and an all-female band on stage, A Mother’s Song will tell the story of four women across four centuries. 

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Created by Scottish composer Finn Anderson and award-winning director Tania Azevedo, best known for her work on the West End musical & Juliet, the new musical will explore female agency, or the lack of it, pregnancy, motherhood and sexuality through the ages. 

“We see so many stories about families and what’s been passed down generations,” Azevedo told The Herald. “And I think we don’t always account for the sacrifices and how much choice, or little choice, the people who came before us had in creating these families.” 

A Mother’s Song, she said, explores the desire to leave a legacy behind and what that might look like. “At its heart the message of the piece is about honouring your ancestors’ work and lives, whilst being brave enough and empowered to forge your own path.”  

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Anderson, whose last musical Islander transferred to London and played off Broadway in New York, started working on A Mother’s Song back in 2017.  

It tells the story of Sarah who is in a same sex relationship in New York and has distanced herself from the folk traditions she grew up with. But when she rediscovers the traditional songs of her childhood, she finds herself learning more about her ancestors in Ulster and Scotland and begins to re-evaluate her past and present. 

Anderson said one of the reasons he wanted to use traditional songs and tunes such as The Four Marys in the musical was to ask the question, who gets to sing these songs? 

“It’s very hard to look back at the traditional canon and find any songs about same sex relationships or find any songs about people who weren’t in those dominant cultures of the time. 

“And so giving permission for a contemporary gay character to sing those traditional songs feels important to me.” 

A Mother’s Song arrives in the wake of the National Theatre of Scotland’s musical version of the Peter Mullan film Orphans earlier this year and the Proclaimers’ jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith. But Anderson believes there is plenty of room for more. 

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“Scotland is still really in its infancy in developing new musicals and still figuring out what Scottish musical theatre looks like. 

“There is still a strange snobbery around musicals sometimes. We have this rich tradition around very dramatic theatrical ballad singing which tells very dramatic stories through song. And we also have this incredible theatre history.  

“There have been other companies who have brought these together. But A Mother’s Song is probably about 80 per cent song, so we really are embracing characters expressing themselves through music.” 

The songs from the musical were performed at the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling for the first time last week.  

A Mother’s Song also represents a significant moment for the theatre. The much lauded Macbob pantomimes apart, it is best known for hosting touring shows, so A Mother’s Song is a sign of the venue’s ambition to host new work. 

“It’s so important that Macrobert is making a development contribution to the creative output of Scotland,” said Julie Ellen, the Macbob’s artistic director and CEO, who took up her position in 2017.  

“Since I came here, there’s been a push towards more support for artists. We can’t just sit and wait for the golden egg to be laid. You need to get in early and rear them and feed them and help those projects come to realisation.” 

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A Mother’s Song will have its world premiere at the Macrobert on February 21 next year and the creators hope it will then go on tour. Anderson, for one, believes it couldn’t be more timely. 

“I think looking at the music of the world and the traditions and how they’ve travelled, shows us that the flow of people from one place to another place is a positive thing. It has always happened. It has always led to a fusion of cultures.  

“This is another part of the journey of the music. It’s not what our story hinges on, but it’s in there when you listen to the music and how it’s changed.” 

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