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

Adam Lenson is the 24-year-old director of Little Fish, a new American musical by Tony Award-nominee Michael John LaChiusa 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 Days. He returns to the theatre with the same creative team, as well as a hugely experienced West End cast, featuring Julia Worsley, Michael Cantwell 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 there.

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 delineations.

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


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