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.