Attacking the growth of “pretty ghastly” West End musical revivals last year, lyricist Tim Rice asked: “Where is a single young team or young writer writing fresh new musicals that are successful? I can’t think of one.” Similar worries were expressed by Rice’s former collaborator, the maestro of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Things weren’t the same, he said, as when he and Rice became famous new kids on the West End and Broadway blocks: “There haven’t really been the new young writers one would have hoped to come through.”
Is there a Noughties generation of musical theatre writers? There may not be too many listed with Lloyd Webber and Rice global branding, or iconic partnerships from Broadways’ heyday like Rodgers and Hammerstein, but there’s plenty of talent out there warming up their fingers at the keyboards, even if their names are not yet in lights.
Heading any list anywhere, American composer and singer-songwriter Jason Robert Brown is often hailed as the musical successor to Stephen Sondheim. At 37, Brown may still not be a household name, but he’s developed his own distinctive voice, and become an adored icon among musical theatre aficionados. “There are a lot of young writers in the States, but maybe we’re more open to the idea that young people are going to write weird little musicals,” observes the typically outspoken composer. “I don’t entirely understand what’s happening in the UK, though it’s clear that new talent is not being nurtured here in a helpful way.”
As for Lloyd Webber having no heir? “Well yes, but Andrew was always an anomaly – the crazy mega-superstar composer! Before him you had Sandy Wilson and Lionel Bart, and who next? I don’t know that musical theatre was ever a British art form. But if it’s not going to be at the Donmar or the Menier Chocolate Factory, then where are the new voices going to be developed? If you’re waiting for them to be developed in the commercial arena, it’ll come to nothing.”
You can read our full interview with Jason Robert Brown in the September issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And here’s our accompanying online feature drawing up our picks of the other musical theatre writers who ought to be more famous…
The grandson of Richard Rodgers (the composing half of the Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership) was born with a Broadway song in his heart – his mother, Mary Rodgers, also wrote musicals – yet Stephen Sondheim is somewhere near the top of his musical lineage. Guettel’s work, wrote critic John Lahr, “marks an important departure from the boulevard nihilism that has dominated the musical form for the last couple of decades”.
Top notes: Best known for Floyd Collins, set in the 1920s and telling the tale of a young Kentucky man trapped in a cave. With a score mixing bluegrass and Broadway, the award-winning show was also performed at the Bridewell Theatre in London. The Light in the Piazza, featuring semi-operatic sounds, won six Tony Awards. The New York Times praised “the most intensely romantic score of any Broadway musical since West Side Story”.
ALEXANDER S BERMANGE
This prolific young British composer and lyricist’s comic songs have been heard on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House and performed by the likes of Four Poofs and a Piano and Kit and the Widow. Has also worked extensively as a musical director and accompanist, including for the London premiere of Charles Hart’s Love Songs at the Bridewell Theatre.
Top Notes: UK productions include Walking on the Sun, Shadowless, Close Encounters and Nessie and, in Germany, the music for The Seven Ravens, The Golden Goose, The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast – the Singing Springing Lark. The world premiere of Odette (book by Murray Woodfield) opens at the Bridewell Theatre on 2 October.
This London composer, arranger and musical director wrote all the ballads on A Girl of Few Words, the new album by Julie Atherton, currently appearing as Kate Monster in Avenue Q at the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre. He’s also one of the new young Brits pushing the musical theatre envelope to faraway places beyond the Sondheim sound, often in collaboration with New York lyricist Kevin Hammonds.
Top Notes: The 1950s spoof whodunnit Brenda Bly Teen Detective was first produced in London at the Cochrane Theatre and subsequently at the Bridewell (“A giggle from the first melodic note to the very last” wrote Lyn Gardner in the Guardian). Build Me a Bridge, a revue based on Miller and Hammonds’ songbook, has been performed in London and in New York. When Midnight Strikes, set in a Manhattan loft apartment where a New Year’s Eve party goes awry, received its world premiere at the Finborough Theatre in September 2007.
GEORGE STILES & ANTHONY DREWE
This multi award-winning duo met over a photocopier as students at Exeter University where they wrote their first show together, Tutunkhamun. They’ve continued to write ever since, either together or on individual projects. Hailed by the Daily Telegraph as “the brightest hopes for the future of the British musical”.
Top Notes: Best known for Honk! (winner of three Best Musical prizes, including the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award) and for composing perky new songs and additional lyrics for the stage version of Mary Poppins. Three Stiles and Drewe shows will soon be opening within a week of each other: Honk! returns to the Watermill Theatre where it premiered in 1993 (from 28 November). On the same day Peter Pan – a Musical Adventure opens at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and the duo have written all the songs for Jack and the Beanstalk at the Barbican Theatre, opening on 1 December.
This former actor began writing musicals when he was appearing in the London production of Miss Saigon. Soon snapped up by the Bridewell Theatre as its first composer in residence, he wrote three new shows there and has since turned into one of the most melodious of young UK composers.
Top Notes: After his Bridewell stint, Olding’s Yeti – An Abominamusical opened to critical acclaim in Edinburgh, Tracy Beaker Gets Real has toured nationally, and Three Sides was performed both in London and as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it won the Excellence in Musical Theatre Writing award. For the National Theatre, Olding has penned music for Southwark Fair, The Alchemist and The Man of Mode.
A well-established composer, arranger, Broadway musical director and pianist, Tesori has written film scores and music for theatre productions and is the only female composer to have had two musicals running on Broadway concurrently, Caroline, or Change and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Top Notes: Tesori composed 11 new songs for the stage adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie. When Caroline, or Change (with lyrics by Tony Kushner) transferred from Broadway to the National Theatre in 2006, it received the Olivier for Best New Musical. Having composed songs for the movie Shrek The Third, Tesori is now working on Shrek The Musical, reportedly opening on Broadway in 2008.
Was a co-founding member of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop comedy group, but his first stage musical In the Heights (with book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) has already won several off-Broadway awards and is now Broadway bound.
Top Notes: In the Heights began as a student project and was given its first staged reading in 2006 as part of the NYC Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, then fully produced at Off-Broadway’s 37 Arts earlier this year (with Miranda in the role of the narrator/romantic hero); it’s now scheduled for a full-scale Broadway production. Set in Washington Heights on the two hottest nights of the summer, the score employs hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul sounds pulsing with the hopes and dreams of three generations struggling to forge an identity in a neighbourhood undergoing change. “Characters dance, prance or merely walk in time to the ecstatic bursts of brass and the insistent beats of Mr Miranda’s rap,” according to the New York Times.
MICHAEL JOHN LaCHIUSA
Prolific New York composer, lyricist and librettist known for introducing a more seriously minded, operatic edginess into his scores. Often compared to Sondheim, he’s written chamber musicals and large-scale shows. Says he’s against “faux musicals” like Hairspray. “These days, daring theatre is work that brings in a young audience.”
Top Notes: Hello Again received nine 1994 Drama Desk nominations and was given its European premiere at the Bridewell Theatre in 2001 with a cast led by Jenna Russell. Marie Christine, inspired by the Greek tragedy Medea, was followed by The Wild Party, with a stellar cast including Eartha Kitt and Tonya Pinkins. More recently, Idina Menzel starred in his Japanese folk tale-inspired See What I Wanna See. Last year the critics also praised his flamenco-influenced Bernarda Alba.
Frankel famously played piano for Shirley Maclaine and Meryl Streep in the party scene of the film Postcards from the Edge. An acclaimed Broadway musical director, his collaborations with lyricist and librettist Michael Korie have upped his composing cred.
Top Notes: Frankel and Korie were behind two original musicals: Doll, set in pre-war Vienna and starring Patti LuPone; and Meet Mister Future, about the 1939 New York World’s Fair. However Grey Gardens, based on the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin, is their biggest hit, recently ending a seven-month Broadway run.
STEVEN SATER & DUNCAN SHEIK
Singer-songwriter and recording star Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater must be the only musical theatre writing partnership to have met at a Buddhist centre, but their musical output is more rock than Zen.
Top Notes: When their current hit Spring Awakening (based on Frank Wedekind’s groundbreaking 1891 drama about teens experiencing the turmoil of adolescence) opened on Broadway last autumn, Variety called it “the most startling and exciting rock tuner to hit the boards since Rent”. The show won eight of this year’s Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book. In the pipeline: Nero, and a musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale.
THEATRE ROYAL STRATFORD EAST
Through its ongoing programme of musical theatre writing workshops, this is probably the only venue in the UK to consistently develop musical theatre with contemporary themes using pop and street music.
Top Notes: In 2005, the ska musical The Big Life transferred from Stratford to become the first British black musical ever to be staged in the West End.
Now in his mid-fifties, this composer and lyricist (he’s also a musical theatre professor at New York University) has gathered a veritable army of loyal Finn fans attracted to his quirky, humorous (often highly personalised) lyrics and catchy melodies.
Top Notes: A new audience has discovered the fun of Finn through his current Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (nominated for six 2005 Tony Awards and winner of two). Previous shows include the semi-autobiographical Falsetto trilogy of musicals exploring his gay/Jewish background and A New Brain, inspired by his own life-threatening brain tumour.
Perfect for discovering exciting musical theatre talent, Perfect Pitch is a festival for new musicals held this year from 15 to 28 October 2007 at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre in Highgate. Now in its second year, the event - supported by Whatsonstage.com and sponsored by Dress Circle, the showbiz shop - is designed exclusively for British writers to showcase their work. This year, the winner of the Dress Circle Award for Best New Musical – one of the Musical Theatre Matters:UK Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – will take part. Full details at www.perfectpitchmusicals.com.
Parade opens on 24 September 2007 (previews from 14 September) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 24 October. The related interview with Jason Robert Brown appears in the September issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!