How to make a musical: tiptoeing towards the stage

The third instalment in our series of blogs by writer and WhatsOnStage critic Michael Davies about getting his musical adaptation of ”Tess of the d’Urbervilles” in front of producers and into a theatre

In the studio for Tess
In the studio for Tess

It's been both instructive and mildly alarming to read the autobiography of one Andrew Lloyd Webber, Unmasked. What that man doesn't know about bringing new musicals to the stage probably isn't worth knowing but there's one annoying thing about his vast, entertaining tome: it stops with The Phantom of the Opera.

Producing has moved on in the past thirty years. The sheer number and range of musicals trying to find a home has exploded – due probably, in no small part, to the great lord himself. What I really want to know is what drives a producer in 2018 to take the bold, brave step of putting on a new, original British musical with the added risk that it's created by industry unknowns?

So I took the radical step of starting to ask them. And the answers have led us to not one, but two parallel conversations which both look promisingly likely to bring Tess – The Musical to a stage (or three or four) within the next few months.

We are currently teased by the prospect of an initial studio staging

Of course, there are as many different answers to the question as there are producers, but some themes do seem to emerge. The producer in question has to love the material. That's a given. But they also have to see its commercial potential, unless they want to dedicate big chunks of their lives and bank accounts to a lost cause. So the M-word that strikes fear into the heart of many creatives needs to be aired openly and honestly early in the discussions. I'm talking about money.

Producers need to know where it's coming from (the potential audience), how much your little show is likely to generate (ticket prices) and whether it can cover the costs of production (budgeting) with a bit left over by way of reward (profit). Some may be willing to compromise on the last bit because they feel strongly enough about the piece's intrinsic worth or artistic value but essentially it's going to have to pay for itself or the producer becomes a patron.

If that all sounds a bit Mr Micawber ("Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result happiness – annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery") then you haven't met many producers. To be fair, neither had I until we started this journey.

After five years of work to get to this point, the external validation feels important

Now we're talking to two of them. Both, in that excruciating Americanism, have "done the math" and both believe the numbers stack up. What is particularly brilliant from our point of view is that both also believe the involvement of the other is important to the show's development. So we are currently teased by the prospect of an initial studio staging of a few performances as a kind of workshop exercise, to see how Tess stands up structurally, followed by a more substantial tryout in 2019 that builds on the first outing and really knocks our baby into proper shape for the wider world.

There's a long way to go and plenty more discussions to be had before things are finalised, but the very fact that two independent producers are so enthusiastic about putting this musical on a theatre stage is, naturally, extremely exciting. After five years of work to get to this point, the external validation feels important. Someone else loves our baby too.

Michael Davies is an award-winning playwright and WhatsOnStage theatre critic. Visit or follow @MusicalTess on Twitter and other social media.