The changing face of the British musical, and another new cabaret space

Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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These are exciting times for the British musical: there's suddenly a lot happening, on and especially offstage. Just tonight a brand-new British-written musical Loserville, with music by James Bourne, a young rock composer who is not yet 30 but once played the title role of Oliver! in the West End as a nipper, opens in the West End after a prior run over the summer at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

And on Sunday, Mercury Musical Developments – an organisation devoted to the support, development and promotion of creators of new musicals, and whose management board I sit on – held a spectacular 20th Anniversary Gala at the West End's Novello Theatre that showcased its members' work, from shows that have reached the theatrical stage, whether such international hits as The Boy Friend by veteran MMD member Sandy Wilson or the Tony winning A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine by the late Dick Vosburgh (a long-standing MMD member) or are still in development to do so.

While the British musical has long been dominated by the shadow cast by the mighty oak of Andrew Lloyd Webber over the last forty-plus years, which has both been an inspiration to several generations of theatre writers as well as a hindrance as producers have sought more of the money-making same, is it possible that the tiny acorns that have been planted over the years are finally bearing fruit?

Suddenly it seems that there aren't just a lot of people writing musicals – there always were! – but an active support network around them and real opportunities to help them go further. Just yesterday MMD and Musical Theatre Network – both of them now Arts Council England portfolio clients, along with Perfect Pitch – held a conference at Soho Theatre to debate the future both of the British musical and how these organisations can actively take that forward, with initiatives like the country's first National Festival of Musical Theatre that is currently being planned.

And on Sunday, we heard a body of work that proves that there's real talent out there itching for the chance to reach a bigger audience, including such composers as Dougal Irvine, Michael Bruce, Craig Adams, Stuart Matthew Price and Tim Sutton, whose work I've previously championed myself in various arenas but have yet to have a West End hearing of a complete score, as well as Tim Minchin, Grant Olding and Richard Thomas, who have each already gone on to award-winning success with shows like Matilda, One Man Two Guvnors and Jerry Springer – the Opera. But the important thing, for those who are already on the map as well as those looking to put a marker on it, is that the momentum isn't lost.

So it was good on Sunday to also hear new work by such longer-established members as Charles Hart, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe alongside a younger team like Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary. The Vivian Ellis Prize, which found both Hart and Stiles & Drewe, may have long gone, but now there's the Sidney Brown Memorial Award in its place, and on Sunday Michael Ball was on hand to award this year's prize to Denise Wright and Chris Burgess for their show Emerald, with a special commendation to Gwyneth Herbert and Christine Denniston's Before the Law. It's yet another way that those writers and their shows are being put into the spotlight, and it can't be a bad thing.

Of course, there's no substitute for seeing a show go into production, on whatever scale. I constantly urge young writers to collaborate with drama schools to put their work on: not only will they be given a pool of young, eager talent to work with, but also they will also see it on its feet. Meanwhile, it is good to get the music into the public consciousness, too; and lots of young writers produce their own CD compilations of their work, supported by the generosity of West End performers, like those that also gave their time to the gala on Sunday, who are only too happy to appear on them.

And if you can't get a theatrical stage, there's also always the cabaret one. I've already heavily championed the wonderful arrival of the Hippodrome's Matcham Room; and now, in the usual way of such things where you wait ages for one to come along and then two arrive at once, on Monday I went to the official opening of yet another cabaret room, the Crazy Coqs, within the new Jeremy King/Chris Corben restaurant complex Brasserie Zedel in the basement of what used to be the Regent Palace Hotel off Piccadilly Circus.

The room – an elegant, art deco inspired circular chamber in red, black and white – is more intimate than the Matcham Room; it officially has seating for 66, against the Matcham's 140. As yet it still has to work out some elementary omissions like the absence of proper stage lighting, but it is good to see that it has employed Justin, formerly of Jermyn Street Theatre, as a full-time sound technician. It also needs to work on less intrusive bar service during the show itself.

But as opened by the warm, generous personality Clive Rowe lighting up the room instead, who needs stage lighting anyway? I'm looking forward to becoming a regular at the Crazy Coqs, just as I am already a regular at the Matcham.


  1. As the Principal of The MTA, who provided the ensemble for the Gala we are the only drama school in the UK to have supporting new writing as one of its core priniples. As such we were thrilled to be involved on Sunday given that we have associations with the majority of the new writers that Mark speaks about – hell we even put them into full production where appropriate (we did the world premiere of Dougal Irvine’s In Touch back in June) So Mark maybe your words are not falling on deaf ears as we’re regularly used as a workshop resource for new writers/composers. Maybe a nice footnote to this blog is the fact that it was announced yesterday that yet another new British musical is going to be premiered next year – Lift by Craig Adams will be playing at the Soho theatre next February. Our students can be heard on the original concept album

  2. Oh, Mark. It is not The Boyfriend. It is The Boy Friend. I thought you, over everyone, would know this.

  3. The problem for me with the above article is that none of the above named can actually compose. Oh sure they can do so in the technical “Sondheim” sense, but like vitually all of these people who describe themselves as “musical composers” they lack the ability to write what ALW can do so effortlessly .ie what Richard Rodgers called “take-home songs” Ask yourself how long is it since you saw a new a musical and left the theatre humming one of the numbers (“juke box” musicals not included) It simply does not happen anymore alas; they don’t even ‘grow on you” like they used to.
    We do live in mediocre times and this is the case with new musicals as with so much else. I try not to be negative and make a point of listening to the new scores that are around hoping to discover a new ALW. So far it has not happened (Although I was modertly impressed by the music of “Love Story” (quiet and chamber-like) on one hand and “Rebecca” (loud and bombastic) on the other. A pity that the first had only a limited run here at Chichester and in London and the other has never been staged here at all (After the Broadway fiasco perhaps that is not a bad thing)
    Still I am reminded of Jules Styne’s remark that when it comes to composing musicals “you can either do it or not” Well…he certainly could! Meanwhile, I am still waiting to hear from any others who can follow him.

  4. Richard Purcell. Contrary to your statement that there are no new writers of musicals that can actually compose and that there are no songs that can be memorised and ‘hummed’ on leaving a theatre I would strongly disagree,you may think that I am prejudice being the Father of Denise Wright, one half of the writing duo that won the Sydney Brown award. Two numbers from ‘Emerald’ were featured on the Gala night,chosen from twenty that are featured in the full musical,and I can assure you that amongst them there are many that will stay in your head should you have the chance to listen to them all. Denise has been writing songs and music for over 30 years and has written with various writers no fewer than 10 full musicals. She has had considerable success in America, but ‘Emerald’ written with Chris Burgess is the first big success here in England and thanks to the Sydney Brown award it has the chance to be aired in a theatre and be listened to.Making a judgment on a musical on just 2 numbers on a first hearing is no way to voice an opinion as to the ability to be a composer of song. Being able to showcase any new work to a wide audience in the world of musical theatre if you are a new and unknown writer is a near impossible task and I am sure that there are many talented composers that write ‘hummable’ songs (including the names that you dismiss) who never have the chance to have their music and song aired. There is a large element of luck in the success of any composer whoever they may be and there are any number of them that we take for granted as composers who would have remained unknown if your criteria of their talent was adhered to. Visit Denise’s web site, sample some of her songs, if you can’t find one you like she has a catalogue of close to a thousand written over the past 30 years. Regards Dennis Wright

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