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We said we wouldn’t look back… but on the 20th anniversary surely I can?

By • West End
This week will go unmarked in most theatrical calendars, but it’s the 20th anniversary of the very first world festival of musicals.

We opened with the European premiere of Malty/Shire's Closer Than Ever in Buxton Opera House, celebrated the works of Julian Slade with Julian at the piano, held an international conference on musical theatre with Rocco Landesman and other worthy speakers, premiered five new musical revues including one authorised by and about the works of Disney, and culminated with nine new musicals chosen from 491 submissions from 16 countries.

Our judges had helped to find Jonathan Larsen's two new works (pre Rent), the wonderful Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom, to cheer the work of Paul James, Caroline O'Connor, Richard Taylor and others who have gone on to make a bit of a stir in the biz.

It was one of the most extraordinary times of my life - it nearly finished me - not helped by members of the press deciding either Buxton was too far to travel, or that they couldn't review out of Manchester because it was the weekend… despite having the Manchester Evening News as sponsors. Hey ho. No Whatsonstage.com in those days.

Sadly Buxton did not want to continue with another festival and I packed my bags with Judi Dench as artistic director and we took the Quest circus to Oxford, with support from Cameron and Apollo Leisure.

That work led a few years later to me producing the Vivian Ellis Prize, and to an invitation from the BBC to start preparing festival plans for Cardiff, and onward to creating Musical Theatre at George Square in Edinburgh and now 20 years on I read of plans for a London Festival of Musicals – which is wonderful news.

If anyone ever wants my desert island discs then "Another Door" from Closer Than Ever which we produced with Michael Rose and the Library Theatre has to be on the list. I will never forget standing at the back of the stalls on opening night – after nearly 5 years of working towards the first festival, and hearing those words.

They are as true today as then…and still make me weep when I hear them.

In front of me now,
is an open door.
I'm moving ahead.
Not sure of the way.
And yet there's a light that I'm heading for.

It's closer than ever
Closer than ever.

Fresh out of bed your life is out racing you.
There dead ahead another one's facing you.
Seems like at times they're practically chasing you.
Everywhere another door.

One day the doors are locked and you're sick of them.
Next day they're yours and you have your pick of them.
Finding the proper key that's the trick of them.
Every where another door.

So Mr Slade – you told us never to look back, but today I think its right to look back to a time when musical theatre was about as dirty a word as you could get. In a week when the Arts Council celebrates Musical Theatre by awarding three year funding to the Musical Theatre Network, Mercury Musical Development and Perfect Pitch Musicals – wow, what a difference 20 years makes.

What we did in Buxton was way ahead of its time. A £300,000 festival with £500 of public funding – 19 new musicals in six weeks quite apart from launching late night musical cabaret onto an unsuspecting world.

It was an amazing experience. My thanks to Roger Haines for always being there, to Caroline Parry for her phenomenal collaboration, to Anthony Drewe, Richard Stilgoe, Cameron Mackintosh and the late Martin Tickner and Richard Toeman for being inspiring judges and challengers to make a musical theatre world in Buxton and beyond. We did it.


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