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The state of British musicals… and beacons of hope….

This year an original British musical received its world premiere in the West End - an all-too-rare feat. And it was, of course, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, still the only British composer of musicals who seems to be able to regularly command the field in arriving straight into the West End.

But if Love Never Dies, that show never flies, either; so are British musicals finally reaching a stale mate? That long-aborning (and now possibly abortive) attempt to capitalise on the success of The Phantom of the Opera is otherwise marooned in a sea of revivals, jukebox shows or transfers from Broadway. We have to trawl back to Too Close to the Sun, last year’s fiasco by John Robinson that followed his equally disastrous previous effort, Behind the Iron Mask, to find a new British musical receiving its premiere direct in the West End.

Both Love Never Dies and Too Close to the Sun could be said to share something else in common, though: they are both self-produced shows. So maybe the only way to get an original musical on is to do it yourself. That’s fine if you’re Lloyd Webber with his huge wealth garnered from writing earlier successes; not so easy if you’re Joe Bloggs (or John Robinson).

No wonder British writers of musicals have had to think creatively elsewhere, and there’s now a ready network of workshop and development organisations, from Perfect Pitch Musicals to Musical Theatre Matters and Mercury Musical Developments seeking to help writers to help themselves. (To declare an interest, I am on the board of the latter; but more importantly, it is something I am passionately interested in, too).

Between them, they are sprouting little offshoots all over the place: Who Ate All the Pies?, which is billed as a modern musical football fable and has been supported within the Perfect Pitch Development Network, begins performances tomorrow at the Tristan Bates Theatre, usefully timed to coincide with World Cup Fever.

And next week, I am attending a conference at Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, entitled “Creative Collaboration: How we are shaping the future of Musical Theatre,” which is going to look at what effect changing approaches to educating its practitioners can have on the way it evolves. In the words of the conference website, “Instead of just preparing students to meet commercial demands, there is the potential for us to nurture creative collaborators who can make their own demands on the industry, to accommodate their creative needs and abilities. We want to empower them and enable change.”

Though we lag generations behind the Americans - where places like New York’s Tisch School have post-graduate degree courses devoted to musical theatre writing - there’s clearly a huge hunger and appetite here for people to work in musical theatre. Of course, the desire to perform in them never seems to go away, and TV initiatives like Over the Rainbow — which are in effect giant public auditions - are encouraging yet more, but there’s also still a desire to create them. Perhaps the two can work hand-in-hand.

But it’s all very well to be a starving artist, but actors and writers alike need sustenance occasionally, both literal and spiritual. It’s been a crying shame that Howard Goodall - who wrote hands-down the best score for any British musical in the 80s, and I include The Phantom of the Opera, in The Hired Man — never managed to follow up on that early success; after his next show, Girlfriends, quickly ran aground at the Playhouse Theatre in 1987, he has never been seen in the West End again. That’s 23 years ago now. I’m glad to say that he’s never given up musicals, though: instead he worked away, producing a round of shows for the National Youth Music Theatre, including The Kissing Dance and The Dreaming. (When the latter was given Christmas run at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, I went to see it four times during its two week run).

He’s diversified, too - as well as his famous TV themes for shows like Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley, he’s had a late blossoming career as the composer-in-residence for Classic FM (where he is also an extremely erudite presenter); and presenter of a number of TV series that popularise classical music. He’s a real communicator, both in affable person and in his profoundly melodic and moving music.

And last night he came home to the professional theatre, at last, with the Chichester premiere of his musicalisation of the Erich Segal novella Love Story, best known for the weepie movie of the same name. In September, the Donmar Warehouse are of course reviving Passion, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical about another terminally ill woman and her discovery of an obsessive love to give context and meaning to her life; and it occurred to me watching this haunting, evocative take on a far more reciprocal relationship that this is the best romantic musical I’ve seen in all the years in between.

And just as Passion created a blazing platform for Maria Friedman to make her mark opposite Michael Ball in that show’s British premiere in 1996, Love Story is no less important in signalling the arrival of Emma Williams as a thrilling new force in musical theatre, too. I’ve watched her with admiration in shows from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Desperately Seeking Susan to a regional production of Promises Promises that proved she has the charm and sass to make a mark; but last night, she brought such emotional clarity and intelligence to her role as a dying 25-year-old that I realised how lucky we are to have so many talented younger people working in musical theatre.

While the Maria Friedmans and Ruthie Henshalls are still happily with us (as are the divine likes of Anna Jane Casey, Jenna Russell, Denise van Outen and Frances Ruffelle), there’s now a whole new generation snapping at their heels, from Julie Atherton (who I saw launch her second solo album with a dazzling concert performance at the Delfont Room at the Prince of Wales Theatre on Sunday) and Caroline Sheen to Kerry Ellis, Hannah Waddingham, Louise Dearman, Scarlett Strallen, Kelly Price, Jessie Buckley and Leanne Jones.

The future of performance is assured; we now need only to make sure they have the vehicles to showcase their talents in.

13 Comments

You can defintely add Lorna Want to that list of exciting young talent, although I only managed to see half of her current West End performance in the Fantastics. I hated the show so much that I was considering smashing my testicals with my fist or using a fork on my face should I have to return for act Two.

It's all well and good ( and ceertainly better than nothing) that new organizations are popping up over here for the nurturing of new musicals from a "next generation" . But who are the people mentoring this next generation? What were they raised on? What are their standards? If the people that teach and guide in these organizations are not smart and knowedgeable enough themselves - how much hope can we have that they will challenge and inspire a new generation to keep the British musical theatre alive?
Howard Goodall's return after 23 years is great but Mark, it's 23 years!!! Frankly, the Tisch School, and the BMI Workshops and The ASCAP Workshop in New York are run and taught and mentored by (arguably) the best musical theatre writers in the musical theatre - whether its the occasional appearence of Mr Sondheim, to frequent visits and guidance from Stephen Schwartz, Maury Yeston, Charles Strouse, Sheldon harnick as well as the younger generation of Tesoris, Browns, LaChuisas, Lippas etc. There is no equivalent list here of successful musical theatre writers who have been through the process for a living. Until that high level of guidance and involvement is a standard part of these organizations then my hope for them is , sadly , pessimistic.

Lee, for a moment I was worried about you but as you can't spell your TESTICLES you probably wouldn't have found them.

It's a new idea to consider self harm as a result of hating a show. I don't think it will catch on.

Mark, you know how I've been banging the drum for the musicals of Jimmy Chi and his musical associates living and working (and reflecting) Broome, a small frontier town in North West Australia and gateway to the wild and incredible Kimberly. I loved both of Jimmy's musicals and I feel in my bones that these works would take the West End and Broadway by storm. Both BRAN NUE DAY and CORRUGATION ROAD were 'developed' in the back yards of the participants over months and years. It was the lucky intervention of Andrew Ross and Black Swan Theatre Company that took them into production. Brilliant productions too. It is very hard to imagine revivals of these works which were not developed in Broome because of the indigenous element. So perhaps it is not just the development process but also the production process which needs to be more site-specific. This may only be true of the work of a remarkable stand-out talent like Jimmy Chi, mind you.

Unfortunately, where would these new musicals go? West End theatre owners (who are also mostly producers) seem to go out of their way to fill their theatres with the old, tired, or wont go aways. Thriller Live, Dirty Dancing, 92 Choclate Factory transfers that flop in the WE, FlashDance, and soon to come Rock of Ages and Robert Lindsay in a play that has already been panned extensively by the critics. Transfers, shows from Broadway - anything but an original musical can find its way into the West End. Chicago can run forever with no audiences for no sound business reason, as theatre owners would rather give away free rent than - gasp - let something new replace Chicago or Grease or Blood Brothers or Les Miz or - yes - Phantom. Oh, yes. If you're ALW you can produce an original musical in the West End (even if its awful) because you own the theatre, you manage it yourself, and you're richer than Croesus so it never has to close no matter what the business is (e.g. Woman in White and Whistle Down the Wind and Beautiful Game).

Here's the game... Find a great property, get a fabulous new musical written, have everyone in the industry come to know it and love it. Then try to get a theatre from them. Offer 100,000s of pounds to secure a deal to be the next show in after the current show at a theatre closes.

The answer will be, "Gee. We just don't have anything/ And even if your show is the greatest musical ever written, we won't commit because an even better show may come along next Tuesday. Or Bill Kenwright will have some trashy new show we can't say no to. So many of our friends have mediocre shows, but we can't say no to them because they're our mates. So your great show may have to wait 5 years for a theatre until there is a terrorist attack or Tsunami and no tourists and then you can have a theatre for 6 weeks while we wait for something to transfer in from Broadway produced by the Weisslers".

With all of London's theatres owned by producers, the odds of a new musical not by ALW or discovered on day one by Mr Mackintosh are slim and none. With Flashdance and Rock of Ages soon to join Dirty Dancing, Thriller Live, and We Will Rock You - and maybe American Idiot as well - that's 6 musical size theatres occupied by what one may call modern dross - and Chicago, Phantom, Les Miz, Blood Brothers, Billy Elliott, Lion King, Oliver, Grease and soon Wizard of Oz occupying 15 West End theatres in total - the very theatres in which musicals can thrive.

Where would the great new musical go? Why would you write one or invest time and money in trying to produce one?

Wow margarita, tell your therapist about this incident will you.

The day you had to tell someone off for misspelling a word on the internet.

You put me right eh? Wow I bet you felt special for a few moments afterwards.

Then doubts started to creep in and you were back to locking yourself into a cupboard breathing deeply into a paper bag.

I'm still holding out for Stiles and Drewe to make it in the West End. Besides writing additional material for Mary Poppins, they've got some good shows (I'm thinking Honk! and Just So) which have been recorded by some big name performers, and also some new material on the way. I'm hoping that they're the new generation of British writers.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA needs NO sequel, least of all one as absurd and excruciating as LOVE NEVER DIES.

http://www.loveshoulddie.com

I completely agree with Laurence Kupp - where is the standard in the mentoring and development process?

Whilst the efforts of the organizations championing new musical writing are to be admired, the prizes they give out seem to come thick and fast to shows that aren't really worthy of any such accolade, and the writing would benefit from nurturing and development far more than a shiny, but fundamentally worthless, commendation.

As a graduate of the Tisch musical theatre writing program I have to agree with Laurence's comments and attest that the quality of education delivered in the program is fantastic. I have been fortunate enough over the past two years to meet and learn from a list of names so long that if I dropped them I'd not get the deposit back on my apartment.

However, the situation in New York is not a lot better than in the West End - Broadway producers are tentative about taking risks on new shows, and with the cost of productions spiraling ever-upwards that isn't going to change soon. What is different - and I don't know this for sure as I never lived in London, relocating from Yorkshire to New York - is the number of opportunities to get your work showcased in varying forms. The week after my thesis musical was read I had a one-woman song-cycle in a new works festival. My collaborator and I have since been asked by a theatre company to develop the piece with them in the autumn. And there's a whole bunch of these types of windows opening all the time.

But to address Marks point, in order to change the landscape of British musical theatre the writing community needs to work together in order to effect that change themselves. There's no point waiting for West End theatre owners to change their minds, and there's even less point grumbling about it. The conference at LIPA is a good place to start, and I'm excited to see what grows out of the debate.

All change is good, it just takes a little time.

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I wanted to respond to some of these comments at length, so I've done that on my blog in order to avoid taking up loads of space here!

http://thelibretto.blogspot.com/

Thanks Jenifer for your thoughtful reply. Part of my point though about the mentoring process and the level of visiting folks at the Tisch School is that even if you didn't learn anything specific from them, you did learn perhaps subliminally that these people have made a living and a career from the musical theatre. There is no similar sort of "alumni" available to burgeoning writers in the UK. For me the real problem with developing a new British Musical Theatre tradition is that there is a confusion in our UK culture that musicals however serious are the outgrowth of Panto , rather than drama. It's a problem that plagues not only our UK writers but our UK drama critics as well who quite often give a shitty musical "a pass" because it's only a musical. There needs to be a fundamental attitude adjustment here on everyone's part so as to allow a new type of British musical to emerge. (and let's face it with Paradise Found currently on view , it's clear the Yanks can screw up as much as anyone else).

Until a few days ago, I worked for MMD, programming development sessions for musical theatre writers, and Jenifer is right. The most popular sessions were with the writers most people have heard of. The best, most personalised and effective sessions were with writers far fewer people had heard of.

Why is this? Writers who have been successful from a reasonably early stage have had fewer chances to think about what they're doing wrong (since things went right), and therefore are more likely to operate on instinct. This means that their advice to new writers tends to be based only on what worked for them, and those things were highly context-specific. Other writers have had to step back, look at the totality of ways to move forward artistically and professionally, and can give advice based on a much larger sample.

It *is* encouraging to see that other people have made it, and there is a palpable thrill when people are in a room with someone who has, and it can be a big motivation to try harder, but we have to draw a distinction between that and the high-quality, lengthy engagements with well-known mentors that were so important to writers like Sondheim - the kind of thing Tom Attwood is talking about.

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