When a Broadway musical used to run into trouble out-of-town, they cry would go up for a “show doctor” – an outside eye to come in and make adjustments, sometimes small, sometimes wholesale, to rescue it. Nowadays, it sometimes seems that the genre itself is in need not so much in need of a doctor as of the Surgeon General (in the US) or the Chief Medical Officer over here.
But it may not be necessary to call for the priest to administer the last rites to the patient just yet. Like other art forms, the musical is a resilient and constantly evolving thing. On the one hand, it is reassuringly as popular as ever – theatres are full of them, even if many of them are jukebox pop shows and/or endlessly created out of hit film titles (next up in London, Desperately Seeking Susan combines both). On the other, it’s hard to make a mark with something genuinely new.
Yet the opening last night of the Donmar’s British premiere for Parade, a short-lived 1998 Broadway musical with a score by Jason Robert Brown and book by Alfred Uhry (which ran for just two months in its original Lincoln Center Theatre season), proves that there are still people trying to do serious and original things with the genre in the US (as does the current Broadway hit Spring Awakening, the 2005 show The Light in the Piazza and Caroline, or Change, of which only the last has been seen here yet). Though these kinds of musical drama have been eclipsed all over again by the resurgence of musical comedy or more particularly, musical comedy parody or tribute (as witness the success of self-referential shows from The Producers and Monty Python’s Spamalot to The Drowsy Chaperone), Parade is a show that dares to be dark yet thrillingly powerful.
The opening of two other new musicals this month — Bad Girls – the Musical at the West End’s Garrick Theatre and When Midnight Strikes at the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court – may be very different in terms of scale, but they are both part of the same rare, apparently endangered species: they are original new musicals by British composers who aren’t Andrew Lloyd Webber or Elton John.
But Kath Gotts, who wrote the music and lyrics to Bad Girls, has had to turn into her own co-producer (with the show’s director Maggie Norris, plus Eileen Gallagher, the chief executive of Shed Productions who produced the original TV series) to actually get it on in the West End. And When Midnight Strikes is one of ten full-scale musicals that British composer Charles Miller has written with American lyricist and book writer Kevin Hammonds, but none of them have yet reached the West End.
It clearly takes a lot of determination not just to write a show but also to actually get one on. I’ve written before here how it’s a recurring theme when it comes to the future of the indigenous British stage musical to wonder where the talent is. As I pointed out then, “Howard Goodall – who in my opinion wrote one of the most beautiful scores of any British musical of the last twenty five years in The Hired Man – is yet to produce a genuinely popular hit; and while Willy Russell, of course, wrote the ever-running Blood Brothers, he has not written a second hit musical to join it (his other musical hit, John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, premiered in 1974, ironically pre-empted the current fad for jukebox musicals, folding Beatles songs into a new play). Otherwise, there’s Stiles and Drewe, whose Honk! is a popular success but has never had a proper West End run, and who also contributed additional songs and revisions to Mary Poppins; Steve Brown, who is yet to follow his 1999 Olivier winner Spend, Spend, Spend; and Richard Thomas, ditto on his 2003 Olivier winner Jerry Springer – the Opera (though he’s written Kombat Opera, a series of TV musicals).”
I went on to note that, “By comparison, Broadway keeps giving new musical theatre talent the opportunity to ply their goods; of the 21 musicals currently running on Broadway, eight of them are by writers who each made their Broadway debuts with those shows: Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, The Drowsy Chaperone’s Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, Spamalot’s John Du Prez and Eric Idle; Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Legally Blonde’s Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, Brenda Russell, Alice Willis and Stephen Bray’s The Color Purple, and of course the bittersweet triumph of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, since Larson never lived to see his own success.”
So, although Broadway still operates as a creative furnace to offer opportunities for new writers to come through in a way that the West End simply does not, there’s another significant difference thee: there’s a life beyond Broadway for them to learn and hone their craft, too, whether in regional theatre or the off (and off-off) Broadway scene where new musicals are regularly tried out. We, on the other hand, do not have a single theatre anywhere that is committed to doing new musicals as part of its regular programme. While Britain has a thriving culture of new writing in plays – with theatres like the Royal Court, Bush, Soho and Hampstead in London all specifically dedicated to its promotion – new musicals just don’t figure.
When musicals are done by regional producing theatres, they invariably occupy the “panto” slot – there as a crowd pleaser to generate funds for the theatre. They cannot afford to risk something new. It means that the closest British composers come to working on new material is invariably only if they are commissioned to write a panto score. But the only way that musical theatre writers can grow is by practicising their craft, and having shows actually put on — not just written and maybe read in a workshop.
Because the costs of putting on musicals are so high, no one can afford the risk of failure with something that’s not tried and already tested. So the only new shows we in turn get are the ones that have been tried and tested on Broadway — where there’s still a lot of encouragement of new writers. Even subsidised theatres like the National and Donmar only lend their name and resources to work that arrives ready-made from there, as with Caroline, or Change at the former or Parade, now at the latter.
The British theatre scene currently has neither the infrastructure nor, more importantly, the will to support the difficult process of developing new musicals. Because they’re perceived of as commercial animals that can (but usually, in fact, don’t) generate lots of money, they’re left to supposedly stand on their own two feet — but it’s left the British musical hobbled, in fact, by not being able to grow, innovate and evolve. The public, in turn, have been taught to want only what they already know, thus creating a vicious circle in which the only shows being put on are either revivals of old ones (The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Grease, where the innovation has been confined to the casting of them by reality TV) or jukebox ones where they know the songs already.
My own profession, the critics, have their own part to play in this: of course we can only review what is actually put on in front of us, but when we allow lazy, hazy work like Dirty Dancing or Dancing in the Streets to go unchallenged, we encourage producers to think they can get away with it, and they do. More adventurous writers, meanwhile, will be chased away from writing musicals by the cult of mediocrity that prevails.
The Arts Council’s new initiative to explore ways in which they can support the growth of the sector is a belated but welcome acknowledgement of how far British musical theatre – once a major theatrical export of ours – is being left behind by the lack of development being given to it. ACE wants to become a broker to help support its clients take on some of this responsibility. However, it ominously adds the caveat that “the resources at the Arts Council’s disposal is unlikely to include large-scale funding”. But musical theatre can’t live in the keyboards (of computer or piano) of writers alone, but needs to reach our stages where the work can be seen and heard. And that costs money – which may, in the end, make it, too.