Although it seems unlikely that the father of the American navy was the son of a Scottish gardener, the story of how Nithsdale born John Paul Jones achieved such revered status is so incredible that it has to be true. What is surprising, however, is that until an Englishman suggested it to Edinburgh-based composer Julian Wagstaff, John Paul Jones and his freedom-fighting adventures were new to the stage.
Not only is the telling of his life story in this way a first, but the concept of a Scottish musical also breaks new ground. ‘What we’re trying to do is, as far as I know,’ says Wagstaff, ‘something that hasn’t been done before. After the two performances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, special guest soloists and the Consort of Voices, we are aiming to be the first Scottish musical to tour the UK and internationally.’ Wagstaff’s original telling of John Paul Jones’ story was in 2001, although the score has been significantly reworked since then. ‘At that time,’ he says, ‘the interest in Scottish independence and devolution made it a real hot topic.’ The idea of political history being told on the stage was already in place with Braveheart and shows such as Evita. ‘I read everything I could find about John Paul Jones,’ says Wagstaff, ‘including his most famous line in battle against the British in 1778, which Alex Salmond later used – ‘I have not yet begun to fight!’’
The rags-to-riches story includes a French knighthood, love gained and lost, and, most thought-provokingly, the downfall of one of America’s great heroes of the Revolution. ‘John Paul Jones has lots of opportunities, but doesn’t take them,’ says Wagstaff, whose tuneful music draws from a broad mix of styles, ‘and his life is essentially a tragedy of ambition.’
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Fri 24 & Sat 25 Sep.