The West End's old musical hits are dying at an alarming rate. This year alone we've lost Buddy, Starlight Express and the grand-daddy (or maybe that should be grand-moggie) of them all, Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the master of the modern British musical, only has one show, The Phantom of the Opera, left in a town where he once had five playing simultaneously.

Recognising the need to reinvigorate the form, Lloyd Webber bravely put his company's money where his mouth is last year and produced the Pet Shop Boys musical, Closer to Heaven. It wasn't a hit, but at least it was different, and suggested that maybe pop writers could bring something new - and new audiences with them - to the theatre. That was soon borne out by the more successful cross-over attempt by Boy George, the still-running Taboo, proving that pop stars could write new musicals that went beyond being compilations of their former hits, like Abba's Mamma Mia!, Queen's We Will Rock You or the upcoming Madness musical, Our House.

Breaking the mould

Undeterred by the commercial failure of Closer to Heaven, meanwhile, Lloyd Webber is now lending his name and his company's money to endorsing another attempt to break the mould - Bombay Dreams, which has again looked not only to a new place but a different culture entirely to find not only its theme but also its key talent, composer A R Rahman. While largely unknown over here, Rahman's music has, in his native India, sold over 100 million CDS - roughly the same as Madonna and Britney Spears combined.

Lloyd Webber lamented in a recent interview that in the more than 30 years since he and Tim Rice started writing hit British musicals, no new contenders have joined them in the field to any degree of commercial success. While it may be true that none (apart from the creators of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, Boublil and Schonberg, who are in fact older than Lloyd Webber) have rivalled him in box office terms, it isn't true that the terrain has been entirely barren of new writers.

In New York, writers like Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once on this Island), Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic), Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party, Marie Christine), Andrew Lippa (another version of The Wild Party), Jason Robert Brown (Parade) and Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll and Hyde) have variously made an impression, while over here Cameron Mackintosh's championing of another American team, Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey, led to The Fix and The Witches of Eastwick.

Protective embrace

What is definitely missing are young British composers coming through the ranks that once produced Lionel Bart, David Heneker and Sandy Wilson. Howard Goodall, in my view the most consistently promising of all of our writers to have emerged in the past 20 years, delivered The Hired Man (originally produced, as it happens, by Lloyd Webber again) but has lately nurtured his new work through the protective embrace of the National Youth Music Theatre, including last year's stunning musicalisation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, entitled The Dreaming (to be revived at this year's Edinburgh Fringe).

Otherwise, only George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (originally also championed by Mackintosh) have seen Honk! progress via earlier incarnations at Newbury's Watermill and Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre to an award-winning National Theatre run.

Musicals, unlike plays that can spring fully-formed from the chrysalis of the author's imagination, are far more collaborative creations, and therefore need a process of nurturing to bring them to life. But while America's network of institutional theatres have entire departments devoted to musical theatre development, nothing comparable exists here at all, not even at the National Theatre. If the best-funded theatre in the land can't offer musical writers an opportunity to grow their work, what hope is there?

Instead, it's left to the resilience of the tiny and largely self-funding Bridewell Theatre to act as the capital's main laboratory for exposing audiences to new musical theatre developments: a heavy weight to carry, and one it executes mainly by importing American-made pieces to showcase here. That's an important function, no question; but the Bridewell also desperately needs the financing and resources to do more for the costly process of developing homegrown product.

Tried & tested

Our beleaguered regional theatres can no longer afford to take those chances either. A musical now has to be tried and already tested before most of them can consider chancing their budgets on it. Hence the laziness of such choices as Singin' in the Rainor High Society - shows that arrive with not only title recognition but also title songs that the audiences know going into the theatre, never mind when they leave it.

While Leicester Haymarket might occasionally take a chance with a Sondheim or a rare regional revival for Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes (recently spectacularly re-animated there with new choreography by former Royal Ballet star Adam Cooper, who also appeared in it), it has to counterbalance that with yet another Christmas revival of West Side Story.

Outside London, musicals are therefore often seen as a Christmas alternative to pantomime rather than a lively art form in their own right. Yes, safe ones can make money; but new ones cost money. And, sadly, usually lose money. In town, the West End landscape (and certainly the Shaftesbury Theatre) has been littered with the corpses of expensive failed new musicals over the past few years, from Lautrecand Napoleon to Peggy Sue Got Married. Producers, trying to make a Mackintosh or Lloyd Webber killing on mounting musicals, are finding it instead difficult to even make a living.

Even Mackintosh has lately declared that he's not going to do new musicals anymore, but concentrate on his existing repertoire and revivals of shows he has previously already revived, like My Fair Lady. Where will the revivals of the future be, if everyone else follows suit?

New musicals, Stephen Sondheim once said, aren't so much written as re-written; but if the future of musical theatre is to be written at all, the rules that govern their staging need to be rewritten right now.

Bombay Dreams opens on 19 June 2002 (previews from 31 May) at the West End's Apollo Victoria theatre.