The world's first-ever major international festival to celebrate one of the most popular live art forms kicks off this week in Cardiff, showcasing an infinite variety of productions old and new, large and small, traditional and experimental, professional and amateur, American and European. Utilising many venues in Europe's youngest capital - from its three full-time theatres (the New, the Sherman and Chapter), to a cathedral, a school and St David's concert hall - International Festival of Musical Theatre embraces over 100 events across a three-week season, running now to 3 November 2002.

Joanne Benjamin, a veteran of West End production management who was appointed as the festival's Chief Executive two years ago, is proud of the eclectic mix of the debut programme, though she admits, "About a year ago I was tearing my hair out, trying to please everybody. But a very well respected producer sat me down and said, 'you can't please everybody, the most important thing is that you have to justify this programme to the world, so do what you believe in.' It was very difficult to choose what to do: there is so much product out there, and there is so much I had to turn down, but I didn't have the finance to do it all".

Cheap at the price

As it is, the festival is budgeted at £1.8 million, which is cheap at the price considering the vast costs of putting on one musical in the West End, let alone a programme of 100 separate events including such high-profile things as the festival's own new production of Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, with a cast that includes two of the West End's most famous understudies, Kevin Colson who took over from Roger Moore in Aspects of Love before it even opened and Alexandra Jay who took over from Martine McCutcheon for many performances of My Fair Lady.

Cardiff Council and BBC Wales (whose music department were the instigators of the festival) between them provided the initial funding of £600,000 plus an additional £400,000 underwriting. While the box office will provide some returns, Benjamin has also had to raise additional sponsorship. But she hasn't gone cap-in-hand to the theatre industry itself: "I got our funding this time from more corporate bodies, rather than asking West End producers. I want them to see what it's like, and hopefully see how good it is, and then use the festival to launch their own shows next time. I want them to see the benefits of using the festival for themselves."

One, of course, might be seeing what they've got, before they commit to higher expenditure of a full West End show: "If you try a musical out in Sheffield or Leicester, even if it's intended for the West End and it turns out to be a disaster, then maybe you've spent £25,000 on it which is thrown down the pan, but that's better than spending £10 million and having a disaster when it gets there. Or you spend £25,000 and see what's wrong, so you can rewrite it."

Future of musical theatre

It's this crucial developmental stage that is now largely missing from producing new musicals in Britain, and Benjamin goes on that for writers of new musicals, "there is nothing between them sitting and writing a musical and doing a showcase and the £10 million West End production. What there needs to be is some funding to help those writers to try their stuff out, such as at regional theatres."

The future of musical theatre starts here, and even as the festival celebrates the rich heritage of the form with other productions including a National Youth Music Theatre production of Oklahoma!, concert stagings of Carousel and Sondheim's rarely seen Anyone Can Whistle? and the UK concert premiere of the Broadway musical Ragtime, a cornerstone of the festival is the Global Search for New Musicals Sony Showcase, in which nine new musicals have been selected from some 165 entries that were submitted from around the world for consideration. At this point, it is no longer a competition - there are no prizes. "Actually, having your show showcased is the prize - one where you get your show seen by the right people."

London's Greenwich Theatre has a similar annual initiative of showcases, Musical Futures, and one of the shows from this year's season is taking its next step at Cardiff: Clive Rowe stars in a full production of Paul Ryan and Peter Readman's Sadly Solo Joe, which goes to Cardiff direct from a return run at Greenwich.

Funding the Treasury

"Musical theatre provides the Treasury with a huge amount of money - we conservatively estimate that they get £50 million a year just in VAT on theatre tickets and through the National Insurance contributions of the people who work in it, and we need to continue to provide that product," Benjamin says. "The only way to do so is to support and develop the new writers, otherwise we'll end up with just revivals. There's nothing wrong with good revivals - I love them, and I thought Kiss Me Kate was one of the greatest things I've seen. But we need, also, to be helping new writers."

It's important, too, to promote other new work, both from Britain and abroad, so that the form doesn't stagnate and keeps stretching its geographical reach. The Cardiff programme duly includes full productions of new musicals from the Orpheus Centre, a performing arts complex for young disabled people whose founder Richard Stilgoe has written a show called Exit Allan for them, and Joan of Arc, an original Czech musical starring Lucie Bila whom Benjamin refers to as "the Madonna of Eastern Europe".

"I wanted to have some representation from Europe", Benjamin adds and of course, since the festival takes place in Wales, there is some Welsh product, too, like a Welsh language musical entitled Bang, and Music Theatre Wales' revival of Nigel Osborne and Craig Raine's 1987 Glyndebourne opera, The Electrification of the Soviet Union. "But I was very insistent that we have to show the outside world that this is an international festival and not to be seen as Welsh and parochial."

It's certainly not that, with other highlights including the European premiere of a schools edition of Les Miserables, to be performed by students from Penarth's Stanwell School, as well as a full programme of cabaret and even an appearance by the legendary Broadway composer Cy Coleman in a concert of his own work.

Nor will it hopefully stop here. "Both Cardiff Council and the BBC have committed themselves to taking this forward. It's also part of the package for Cardiff's bid to be City of Culture in 2008, the next time it comes around to the UK."

The inaugural International Festival of Musical Theatre runs from 13 October to 3 November 2002. For further information, including full programme schedule, visit the festival website.