Jacob William says “Don’t Let Go” as he explores the future of online musicals

Still from film showing (l) Jacob William and (r) Annie Kirkman.

Still from film showing (l) Jacob William and (r) Annie Kirkman.

Jacob William dreams big with Don’t Let Go, an intimate online filmed musical
by Larry Murray

Over the past few weeks we have watched the continuing series of ten minute episodes of the innovative online musical, Don’t Let Go by composer/writer/actor Jacob William, whose mind is obviously exploding with creative ideas about how to portray the verities of life in musical form.

Produced by Seth Chan and directed by Bella Barlow. Don’t Let Go tells the story of Tom (played by Jacob William) who after a car accident leaves him in a wheelchair, fights to save the girl he loves (Annie Kirkman) from an abusive relationship (Roy Ryan). With the help of some wonderfully complex characters, including a reggae-singing Grandma (played by Juliette Kaplan of BBC’s Last Of The Summer Wine) and 10 original songs (written by Jacob William) and performed live: Don’t Let Go is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story about embracing life and love in the face of sheer adversity.

Getting Started

I asked Jacob William how this project came about. “At the end of 2012 I was doing my MA at Goldsmiths University in London,” he said, “and the film-maker Seth Chan was doing the same course.

Jacob William

Jacob William

“We discussed working together instead of the planned single end of year theatrical performance. With Seth’s background in film and mine in music we had an opportunity to create something that we could take far beyond our course.” The musical form was inspired by the film version of Les Miserables which created a cinematic first with live and up-close shots of the singers actually performing, rather than lip-syncing the songs on the set.

Since £250 of their course fees had been set aside for this project, Goldsmith’s agreed to let them pool their combined £500 and using that as their budget, they began.

While not a musical in the Broadway or West End sense – no tap dancing chorus lines – it is instead a much more personal creative journey. As the series unfolds, it tells of the struggle involved in trying to be your own person, the importance of the connections that reinforce identity, and the ultimate fragility of young love.

Brimming with ideas, the young musician had long sought to capture the attention of producers, agents and managers with little success. It is an obstacle that young artists constantly face, and not a few middle-aged ones as well.

The young artist has written many songs, worked as a singer, a session pianist, and had also studied as an actor. Show business and performing was clearly in his blood.

He desperately sought a project that could incorporate all these elements, but “with the tumultuous state of the music, film and theatre industries no one was willing to take any chances. With the freedom of studying at University and few restrictions Don’t Let Go was able to be born,” recalls the artist.

Because Jacob opted to incorporate what might be called a “reality” musical style, the “book” of this musical comes off as far more convincing than contrived. Some might dismiss it as an extended music video, but it is so much more complex. It tells its story both thru song and dialog. Every detail may not jibe with reality – the wheelchair is a prop, for example, not a reality – but such creative license is no different than the so-called reality shows on television. The goal of all theatre and film is ultimately storytelling, and who can blame a storyteller for tweaking a tale to make it better.

In the Berkshires of Massachusetts we see a lot of new musicals, including two recent premieres at the Williamstown Theatre Festival that have probed the romance genre with intimacy and reality. Both Far From Heaven and Bridges of Madison County retold classic film tales with glorious music and a sense of spectacle, and then went on to Broadway. While both had limited runs, they did find an audience that was ready for them.

You can see the series on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLowphA1wBhr8-Mr-107Qo-PDLSML5tEnk

Making the film

According to Jacob, those course fees were spent on “an actor’s travel expenses, props (the wheelchair cost £79 on Amazon for example) and equipment rental. The rest we did ourselves – pulling in favours whenever we could. Seth handled all the filming and film editing, and I handled all sound and music related elements. I recorded piano backing tracks that we would sing to in filming (in a similar way to how Les Mis had done it) and later built up the full tracks in post production in my home studio set-up. As we knew our project was never going to look like Glee, I made the decision very early on that we would perform the songs live as much as we could – even incorporating in a capella singing if it worked.

Bella Baarlow

Bella Baarlow

As the project moved forward serendipitously, Bella Barlow was another friend who signed on. Turns out she has an MA in music. “Discussing the project with her she had so many innovative and brilliant ideas and was so enthusiastic we had to bring her on board as Director. Similarly through working on cruise ships I met the wonderful comedic actress, Juliette Kaplan, from BBCs Last Of The Summer Wine. I decided to write that part of Grandma for her.

“Since our MA finished last September the film has grown into a full 45 minutes. We have spent more time on production. The songs from the film have all been re-recorded and are now on iTunes. We also have a website. The film has been entered into film festivals and it has recently made ‘Official Selection’ at the American Online Music Awards.”

The uphill climb begins

If people are as drawn to Don’t Let Go as I was, the film will slowly win a following over time. There is little question that lots of producers and distributors will have the opportunity to see the work, and see the potential of those involved with it. As this article is published, the film was split into 4 episodes and released on YouTube a week apart. The first became available on May 23, and the others on May 30, June 6 and 13. Each episode is just over 10 minutes and features 2 or 3 songs from the album, which is on iTunes now in its entirety.

As I commented to Jacob William when we began our discussion, “There are a few web musicals that have come before you, but none as intense, personal and authentic. It is a new way of approaching the musical, and proves that someone does not have to wait for a musical theatre lab or workshop to get their music out there, it can go online and be heard immediately.”

William is already a hard working performer on stage, and in demand as a studio musician. He is “paying his dues,” honing his craft which is so much a part of both the music and theatre business. Listen to him sing and you will see he is gifted with one of the most addictive and authentic voices I have heard in a long time. It combines both the slightly sandpapery quality that gives it life, and the most unusual and hypnotic vibrato I have heard in ages. I found myself immersing myself in its luster.

The first day of filming.

The first day of filming.

From a critical perspective, the film itself could use some tightening up, the pacing is a bit slow for today’s audiences, as well as the dialogue which needs more gravitas, but the photography and lighting is especially well done for a debut film, and the characters are very well drawn, though in a very handcrafted sort of way. Sometimes acting is what gives a film authenticity but can also signal inexperience, and the balance between the two is almost right here. Time will solve this minor problem. For a film shot on such a small budget, and under the pressure of a required college project, it is a minor miracle they got so much right.

I expect this is not the last we will hear of Jacob William, Bella Barlow or Seth Chan.

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