Last week I found myself heading to Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest venue for an invite only event. The newly re-branded theatre - once called the St James and now dubbed The Other Palace - has been given a smart, stripped-back refurbish, transforming it into a hub for musicals. I was there to watch a semi-staged version of a brand new show, Wicker Husband, as part of the excellent MTI Stiles and Drewe Mentorship Award.
Essentially a scratch performance - a phrase most people who have spent any time on London's fringe theatre scene will be familiar with - the show was sung out front to an audience, with the cast - who had been working on it for three days - with books in hand. It had the story and the songs, but the show was still finding its feet.
It is a perfect chance to experience the process of making shows for people who might not know how to make a musical
It's a perfect opportunity for the composer and writer - in this case Darren Clark and Rhys Jennings - to get feedback, to hear their writing performed by a top-notch cast (we were lucky enough to watch performers that included Tyrone Huntley, Clive Rowe, Rebecca Trehearn and Anne-Marie Piazza) but also to tempt producers. It certainly achieved top marks on those fronts, but, I found myself asking, what about inspiring those other wannabe-musical theatre writers? Here was my only disappointment: members of the public couldn't get to see it.
It's clear that a musical at this tender stage in its life needs a lot of TLC and should be presented very carefully. And I am by no means suggesting the entire auditorium should have been opened up to the public. But just a row, or two, might have had a transformative effect on a handful of people.
Wicker Husband is an unusual and promising piece - the songs blend musical theatre with a nu-folk sound and it is inspired by an original, haunting fairytale-like story by Ursula Wills-Jones. I loved one or two of the numbers while several others sounded a little repetitious. But the fact that there is more work to be done is the whole point of a showcase like this.
A row of seats reserved for the public might have had a transformative effect on some people
In fringe theatre, scratch performances are available to everyone and are a much, much cheaper ticket than a full-blown performance. It is a chance to experience the process of making shows for those people who might like the idea of creating theatre, but may not see a way in. While all of us who spend our lives talking, writing and doing show business know most of the secrets, I'd wager the general public won't have the first idea about how to get a new musical up and running.
So far, under Paul Taylor Mills' assured leadership, The Other Palace has staged a rambunctious revival of The Wild Party and just opened a brand new piece from Duncan Sheik (American Psycho and Spring Awakening), called Whisper House. Part of his and Lloyd Webber's intention with the theatre is to support and encourage new musical theatre writers.
His programme features a whole host of initiatives to support new writers which will run alongside the core programme at The Other Palace - including open mic nights and short snappy showcases. And all of these should be heartily applauded. But to see a full length, near-to-complete work is a very special thing and allowing the public to see it might just inspire the next generation. Which is exactly what is needed.
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