Adam Lenson On … New Musical Theatre & Finborough’s Little Fish

Adam Lenson is the 24-year-old director of Little
, a new American musical by Tony Award-nominee Michael John
that opens next week at the Finborough. Although other shows of
LaChiusa’s have been produced on this side of the pond – most recently Take Note Theatre’s production of
First Lady Suite at the Union – Lenson’s production will be
the European premiere of Little Fish.

Lenson made his professional directing debut this time a
year ago at the Finborough with the sell-out show, Ordinary
. He returns to the theatre with the same creative team, as well
as a hugely experienced West End cast, featuring Julia Worsley, Michael
and Laura Pitt-Pullford.

Lenson has
assisted Terry Johnson on La Cage Aux Folles (Menier Chocolate Factory and Playhouse Theatre), Rachel Kavanaugh on The Music Man (Chichester Festival Theatre), Stephen Daldry on An Inspector Calls (2009
National Tour and Novello Theatre) and Victoria Wood on Talent (Menier Chocolate Factory) as well as taking part in this
year’s 24 Hour Plays at the Old Vic.

Here he tells WOS about his hopes for new musical theatre in
this country and the part that shows like Little Fish can
play in changing people’s thinking about the genre.

People aren’t willing to say yet that musical theatre can be
anything. If someone says, ‘I’m going to see a musical’, they feel they know
what it will be like. They think it’ll be a certain sort of story: triumph over
adversity, or a love story. It’ll probably have dancing, the songs won’t move
the plot, it’ll be something spectacular. No one goes, ‘oh, I’m going to see a
play today, it can only be a certain type of thing’. Audiences need to broaden
their minds to what musical theatre is. To do that we need to put it out

I think there’s a nervousness about musical theatre in
England; we don’t know what it is yet. The first part of the solution would be
for people to stop thinking about it as fundamentally different from straight
theatre. I could draw you a direct line from Harold Pinter to The
Sound of Music
via steps that you could feel comfortable with –
there’s a continuum. It’s only people’s minds that are creating these

One of my reasons for wanting to do this show specifically
was that I saw it as a manifesto for exactly what musical theatre should be.
But there are times at which, when describing Little Fish,
I’ve said, ‘it’s like a play, but everyone sings all the time’. I don’t think
you’d ever call it a musical in the traditional sense, but there are
people singing. The word ‘musical’ can sometimes be a bit difficult because it
has become such a loaded word.

Little Fish is based on two short stories
by the American writer Deborah Eisenberg. The reason they work as a piece of
musical theatre is that they are fragmented, jarring and dissonant. They feel
like pieces of life from very different time periods and emotional moments.
There’s so much sensory and emotional information communicated in a short space
in a short story and you just think, ‘how can I stage this and communicate that
much information? Well, how about if there’s singing and underscoring?’ A lot
of the musicalised moments in the show are to underscore moments of high
intensity or deep emotional monologue. If someone is stood on their own, I
would say that three minutes of them speaking to the audience is quite a
difficult thing to do, whereas three minutes of a song – one correct chord, one
correct note – and you can tap into that part of a person’s psyche and make
their experience resonate.

New musical theatre is so much stronger in the United States
than it is here because Americans have confidence. New musicals get
commissioned by major theatres and read because it’s part of the American
cultural DNA. Writers feel supported and go through the same processes we would
go through with a play without even thinking about it. We’re getting some really
exciting seeds of it but we don’t have enough infrastructure yet and we need to
grow it into something stronger.

I think that part of the problem is the shortage of suitable
venues. England really has 50 to 100-seat theatres and 450 to 1500-seat
theatres. We don’t have that crucial 200 to 400-seat option that they have in
America. We have a lot of them regionally, interestingly, but in London the
Menier Chocolate Factory is one of very few available spaces that really suit
this type of work. We need more of them. My mega plan, my dream for 20 years’
time is that I’d love a subsidised building for new writing and musical theatre.

For the moment though I feel privileged to be working at the
Finborough. We’ve got a ridiculously amazing cast: all West End, all
super-experienced, all astounding. They’re doing a show at this fringe venue –
which has such a strong reputation – and the hope is that because the team are
good and because the cast are good, this has the possibility to knock the socks
off people.

Little Fish is at the Finborough from 27 October to 21 November.

Adam Lenson was talking to Jo Caird