Perfect PitchDate: 28 August 2006
Are there too many new musicals in the West End? Maybe, but more importantly, who’s writing them? Andy Barnes, who’s producing a new showcase for UK musical theatre practitioners, argues that we’re not doing enough to encourage home-grown talent.
There seems to be lots of heated discussions about musicals at the moment. Are there too many? Is there enough of an audience for all of them? Should we take off long-running tourist attractions like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera?
I’ve never before heard quite so much mainstream concern about musical theatre matters. What’s the cause of it? Has the country suddenly taken notice of the West End listings and taken it upon itself to pass judgment? Or has a mass mail-out to all UK residents informing them of the latest offerings in Theatreland caused a groundswell of opinion?
West End overload
Sadly, no. The reason for the sudden increase in lively debate is largely due to the sudden increase in the number of new musicals opening in the West End in this year, as regularly reported on Whatsonstage.com, including in the recent Big Debate poll.
I use the word “new” carefully, as the majority of these shows are hardly new. Many have been running on Broadway for several years to healthy box office receipts and standing ovations (Spamalot, Wicked, Avenue Q) while others are revivals of pedigree masterpieces from days gone by (Evita, Cabaret, The Sound of Music). So while the productions may be new to London, the musicals aren’t exactly in their infancy.
As a producer myself, I know only too well the risks associated in presenting a musical of any kind to suggest that these imports and revivals are by any means “dead certs”. But the relative security offered by an established piece or the commercial advantage offered by solid association with a film or book (Dirty Dancing, Footloose) does help one minimise potentially disastrous risk.
In my mind, rather than “are there too many musicals?”, the current West End state of affairs raises two rather more serious questions. First: where are the new works of quality musical theatre that hope to replace these imports and revivals in the future? And, a closely connected second given that Sir Cameron and co seem to be venturing across the Atlantic to find the best new stuff: where are all the UK musical theatre writers hiding?
Showcasing bright young things
Two of the UK’s bright young things, Grant Olding and Conor Mitchell, have both resorted to showing their (excellent) work in the New York Musical Festival in September. Wouldn’t it be great if these guys and the others busily writing away with the support of Mercury Music Development (MMD) and other organisations, were to have the opportunity to show more of their work this side of the pond, just north of the Thames perhaps?
Well, Highgate might be a bit further north of the Thames than I would have liked, but it is nevertheless the location for the first-ever Perfect Pitch, for which I’ve teamed up with the new organisation Musical Theatre Matters (MTM:UK) and Upstairs at the Gatehouse, the wonderful 128-seat fringe venue.
The idea is to provide a programme of promising “works in progress” and an environment where producers, investors, theatre creatives and, of course, the general public can help them become the musicals we’ll be heading to the West End for in years to come. One showcased musical, deemed by our panel to have the most potential and public appeal, will then be selected to have a three-week workshop at the Hackney Empire. The Empire is keen to develop its musical theatre audience and, thus, sees the benefit of investing in discovering new work and talent.
Subsidy & other support
Perhaps we can persuade Arts Council England and the government to recognise the full value of the genre, too? For example, can anyone offer an insurmountable reason why a place like the (now sadly defunct as the new musical laboratory it once was) Bridewell Theatre could not have become the musical theatre equivalent of the Royal Court, Soho or Hampstead theatres? I have no doubt that, if new British musicals were subsidised to the same extent as new British plays, which have numerous well-equipped venues now dedicated to the development of both them and their authors, we’d have countless potential successors to Andrew Lloyd Webber already.
While I have absolute belief in the event I’m producing and a sense of pride at offering an opportunity to 12 different creative teams to show their work, I can’t help feel that this is merely dipping a toe in the water. Frustratingly, the main funding bodies seem reluctant to support UK talent in an art form for which this country clamours. Indeed, ACE has no officer solely dedicated to the development of new musical theatre. Dance, yes. Opera, of course. But musical theatre – that’s commercial, isn’t it?
There have been many discussions and meetings about this problem. I should stress that the problem is not that there are no worthy and passionate officers within ACE or other funding bodies, but nevertheless, there’s a lot of “toe dipping” and little “plunging” into a committed plan of action for making musical theatre a supportable art form.
Initiatives like Perfect Pitch should be encouraged by arts funding bodies to help UK-based writers, creators, directors and producers to learn their skills and not be afraid of taking risks. At the moment, we rely on private trusts and foundations for support: the Mackintosh Foundation, the Performing Rights Society and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts are primary examples.
Having said all of that, subsidy can never be the sole solution; the support of the industry is also paramount. We need the current wave of West End producers to be shrewd and realise the potential under their very noses. Perfect Pitch, Greenwich Musical Futures, Cardiff International Festival of Musicals… these events help create a buzz surrounding new musicals as occurs Off-Broadway. With producers’ involvement, the attention raised through these efforts could finally lead to some of these new UK writers themselves transferring to the West End.
So, back to my opening question: are there too many musicals in the West End? Maybe yes, maybe no. Are there too many truly new home-grown musicals in the West End? No, not yet! But give us a bit more time.
Perfect Pitch runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse from 12 to 24 September 2006. Visit www.musicaltheatrematters.org.uk for more information. MTM:UK is a membership organisation welcoming the involvement of creative and administrative professionals working in musical theatre in the UK.
Perfect Pitch runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse from 12 to 24 September 2006.