Regular readers of this column will know that I unashamedly love musicals. I saw the recent West End return of A Chorus Line six times during its six months in London; I saw Titanic at Southwark Playhouse three times in a month. I’ve seen the musical Once on Broadway five times so far – no wonder that I’m all over the posters here saying, “Seeing it once is definitely not enough…I will be seeing it again and again. Unmissable.”
I’m not alone – one of the reasons musicals do so well commercially is that they encourage repeat attendance. More than any other kind of theatre, musicals inspire passion and loyalty. But they also inspire a lot of hatred, too. Musicals are notoriously difficult to get right, and there are a lot of bad ones out there.
Just recently Tori Amos was interviewed in The Observer about her new musical The Light Princess that finally opens tomorrow at the National Theatre after originally being scheduled for last year. And Tori quotes Nick Hytner telling her:
The hardest form to achieve on stage is a good musical. There are more failed musicals than any type of art.
Hytner can speak from experience; on one hand, he directed the original production of Miss Saigon that ran for almost a decade at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and returns to the West End in a new production next year; on the other, he directed a short-lived Broadway version of the film Sweet Smell of Success.
The Light Princess is one of a slew of new musicals that are opening this autumn in London. The West End will soon have two new British scored musicals, From Here to Eternity (now previewing at the Shaftesbury) and Stephen Ward (set to open at the Aldwych in December) – the first with lyrics by Tim Rice, the second with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. No wonder that Tim Rice, speaking to the Daily Telegraph last year, commented:
The crisis is not with performers, it’s with new writers. All the British guys who have written successful, good new musicals in the last 20 years have been getting on a bit. There’s Elton [John] and Andrew and I, but where are all the young guys?
Where indeed? It is quite rare to find an original new musical created in the UK by a British composer who isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber or Elton John. (Matilda was created here, but has an Australian composer Tim Minchin). No wonder that more British musicals arriving in the West End rely on recycling old pop songs, the latest of which The Commitments opens tonight at the Palace.
Yet it’s not for lack of people writing them. Just last weekend Howard Goodall – who for my money is the best we’ve got in the UK, but is yet to have a hit musical to his name – workshopped his new show Bend It Like Beckham, and I can’t wait to see it. Steve Brown, who wrote the 1999 Olivier award winning Spend, Spend, Spend, has his first show since then opening in the West End next year, when I Can’t Sing! – the X Factor Musical comes to the London Palladium. And Stiles and Drewe, of course, always have several projects up their sleeves.
There are, however, plenty emerging writers like Dougal Irvine, Grant Olding, Stuart Matthew Price, Craig Adams, Pippa Cleary and Charles Miller, amongst others, but they’re each yet to have a West End showing (though Olding contributed songs to One Man, Two Guvnors that saw him Tony nominated when it transferred to Broadway). Part of the problem for them all working and living in Britain is that we do not have a single theatre anywhere that is committed to doing new musicals as part of its regular programme. While Britain has a thriving culture of new writing in plays – with theatres like The Royal Court, Bush, Soho and Hampstead in London all specifically dedicated to its promotion – new musicals just don’t figure.
There’s a creative opportunity that’s missing, and its where and why Broadway has had the creative edge over us for so long, since it has a huge development resource to draw off. There are dedicated festivals like the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which was the incubator such shows as Next to Normal, Title of Show and Altar Boyz before they went onto a further life. And there are prominent off-Broadway companies like Second Stage, Playwrights Horizons and Manhattan Theatre Club who annually stage new musicals amongst their new writing programmes, not to mention a whole network of regional producing theatres around the US that also routinely programme new musicals.
But here in Britain, we too often take the safe bet of endless revivals of shows like My Fair Lady or Oliver! instead. (Having said that, I’ve seen some terrifically promising new British musicals regionally in the last six months, including Tim Firth’s This is My Family at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio, and The Prodigals at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre).
But as a young British musical theatre actor who was in the shortlived Loserville recently posted on Facebook,
It’s shameful how little new British Musical Theatre makes it to the West End and this is why. Loserville was the first original British musical to make it to the West End in 10 years and we moved on asap by the critics. As an actor I would rather create something new than relive tired pieces.
So new musicals are craved not just by new writers and some critics (i.e. me), but also actors. Producers should start taking note.