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Think you know what a musical is? Think again.

Adam Lenson reflects on how writers and musicians are pushing boundaries at this year's BEAM festival

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Christine Allado in BEAM 2016
© David Ovenden

Adam Lenson is a director and dramaturg with a particular focus on new British musical theatre. He is the producer and host of Dischord – a podcast to figure out musical theatre. Here he gives the low-down on this year's BEAM festival, which champions new musicals.


Everyone thinks they know what a musical is. It is a medium that has seemingly become crystallised in people's minds around a small set of examples. And from those examples, conclusions seem readily drawn; all musicals have to be commercial, all musicals have to be for families, all musicals have to make you feel good, all musicals are large scale, all musicals have songs you can hum.

It has been a project of mine over the past few years to show people that musical theatre can defy these preconceptions. I have developed and directed a series of new pieces, of vastly different tones and styles, but with a unifying goal, of showing people that a musical doesn't have to be what they think it is.

A newfound rebelliousness has taken over the artists making musical theatre

Music is a part of everyone's lives. It accompanies our first dates and our breakups, birthdays and funerals. It can take us across the world or fix us in one place. It can transport us back in time or show us glimpses of the future. I have a profound belief in what musical theatre is capable of. But first we have to give it the chance to express itself, to give it the ability to rise above the stigmas and preconceptions that so often hold it back.

And I think the way we do that, is by giving more opportunities to artists to have their work seen and developed and understood by the wider world. Only then will we change people's idea of what a musical can be. The mantra I have begun to intone is from the film Field of Dreams; "If you build it, they will come". If you make the work you want to make, and if it's good and if you put it into the world, then audiences and money will come. And more importantly, perceptions will change.

The first BEAM felt like a line in the sand, a group of talented, passionate artists in the same room

And this is finally starting to happen, a new-found rebelliousness has taken over the artists making musical theatre. More and more, people are making work and showing it off. What felt like a few disparate voices talking about the possibilities for new musicals now feels like a congregation. What felt like separate data points is beginning to feel like consensus. The time for the new British musical has arrived.

In 2016, I attended the inaugural BEAM festival at the Park Theatre – a two-day showcase of 24 new British musicals. I was there directing Wasted a rock musical about the Brontë siblings by Christopher Ash and Carl Miller. That first BEAM felt like a line in the sand, it was the moment that a group of talented, passionate artists all found themselves in the same room. The range of pieces showcased illustrated the range and versatility of the form.

Two years later, BEAM is back. And I'm certain a new line will be drawn in the sand. It is fascinating to watch how the new British musical has grown in stature and confidence in that time. As has the confidence of those making them. The festival itself, now relocated to the Theatre Royal Stratford East has doubled in size. In just two days, 58 musicals will be showcased. I am proud to be directing three showcases, and typically, they range wildly in tone and style. Bollywood Rose by Sumerah and Ajay Srivastav is the story of a single mother working in a shoe shop who finds herself trapped in a Bollywood film. Remember Remember by Chris Czornyj is a dystopian electronic musical written to be staged as an immersive promenade production. On This Day by Rebecca Applin and Pete Ashmore is a piece about the relentless attack of the 24-hour news cycle and is written to examine innovative ways of utilising actor-musicians. I'm so excited to be part of the festival, and I can't wait to see the other 55 shows.

The change is everywhere, but here's my advice for anyone who's looking for it: stop asking whether there's an audience for your work, stop asking what other shows it's similar to, stop asking if it's innovative enough, stop asking if it's commercial, stop asking if it sounds right. Just build it and they will come.

BEAM:2018 runs from 1 to 2 March.

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