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Jo Caird: Hands Up Who Likes Musical Theatre?

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On Sunday night, Legally Blonde picked up three awards, including Best New Musical, at the Oliviers. The producers can add these statuettes to the shelf on which already stand the four awards the show received at Whatstonstage.com’s very own ceremony last month. The production is now booking until March next year, 180,000 new tickets having just been released for sale. In a West End forever dominated by long-runners and jukebox musicals, Legally Blonde is a success story: new musicals are going strong.

But are they? What of the new musicals taking place at the other end of the razzle-dazzle scale, the likes of Drive, Ride, Walk, a virtuosic new show I saw the other weekend at East London venue, Stratford Circus? Are the audiences stumping up £86 for tickets to Legally Blonde willing to take a chance on what Drive, Ride, Walk’s marketing material justly calls ‘unique new piece of music theatre’? I’m not so sure.

Just as audience transferability from West End musicals to straight theatre tends to be low, so is transferability from those big budget, starry shows to smaller-scale, more experimental work. And that’s a big shame because Osnat Schmool’s thrilling a cappella score, combined with Sabina Netherclift’s dynamic direction, makes for one of the most exciting and funny evenings of musical theatre I’ve had the pleasure to witness. The critics have praised many aspects of Legally Blonde; its score is not one of them.

But it’s not just a problem of persuading musical theatre fans to see more cutting edge work; when it comes to finding audiences for new music theatre, there’s another hurdle to overcome: the widespread antipathy towards musical theatre in general among the theatre-going public. Now, my evidence is anecdotal, and of course there are plenty of fans of straight drama who also enjoy musical theatre, but this is a genuine issue. I’m talking about the people who write off the whole genre, despite having never seen a piece of live musical theatre; the people who object to it out of snobbery; and the people who’ve had one bad experience at a naff West End show (of which there are plenty) and extrapolate from that that all musical theatre is naff. Not everyone necessarily has to like musical theatre, but it irritates me that so many won’t even give it a chance when there’s some really wonderful, quirky work out there.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter: there are people who like musicals and people who don’t and the world of theatre is none the worse for this friendly difference of opinion. But a quick look at the nominees and winners in the music theatre categories at the Oliviers, the Whatsonstage.com awards and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards – all of them dominated by American shows, either revivals or transfers, including of course, Legally Blonde – reveals that there are negative consequences to the British public’s unwillingness to experiment with new musical theatre.

Experimental and fringe work (whether musical theatre, live art, interactive theatre, or whatever else) is obviously always going to attract smaller audiences than its mainstream equivalents, but it’s disappointing that while the jukebox musicals and film adaptations are grossing huge sums in the West End, Drive, Ride, Walk is playing tiny crowds in out of the way London venues. The future of new British musical theatre writing depends on work like this, so if you think you don’t like musicals, perhaps it’s time to give one a try.


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