Back on song – The New Musical Theatre Festival

Jenny Smith

The New Musical Theatre Festival was called off until backers including Cameron Mackintosh came to its rescue. But despite these troubles, the event attracted unprecedented numbers to its series of workshops and shows, reports Jenny Smith

The fortunes of the New Musical Theatre Festival are arguably linked to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the genre itself. As previously reported in The Stage, the festival lost its financial backing and had to cancel but was saved at the 11th hour by contributions from Cameron Mackintosh and the Musicians Benevolent Fund.

A series of workshops led by experts in their fields kicked off the festival, which had a healthy turnout that was unanticipated to the point that more chairs had to be brought into the Shaw Theatre foyer, where the event was held.

Theatre director Jeremy Sams instructed Royal Academy of Music (RAM) graduates in Singing Sondheim, deconstructing the composer’s style and intentions. Robert Walton, director of the Goldsmiths College MA Musical Theatre course for writers, directors and producers gave a talk on the history and possible future of musical theatre.

Because of the number of participants, the head of RAM’s musical theatre programme Mary Hammond held an extended session giving insight into what makes a successful audition piece. Those not performing were given the benefit of her knowledge and industry anecdotes.

A fully staged production of Grant Olding’s new musical Three Sides, directed by Sarah Beaumont, was performed in the Shaw Theatre as the final offering of the first day. This new work was performed by Nicholas Ingram, Gabriel Vick and Judith Williams.

The Academy itself was the setting for the second day of the festival, consisting of four workshop performances, which were kicked off by RAM graduate Samantha Brown. Chris Orton’s moving work This Time Next Week was presented by WithoutAPaddle Theatre Company, directed by Joanna Morton and performed by Mark Christopher, Claire Falconer and Gabriel Vick, who showed his diversity and charming acting style throughout the weekend.

Elliot Davis and Sam Brookes’ new work Best Friends and Butterflies attracted a large turnout of friends, family and industry professionals including actor Clive Rowe and composer/lyricist Anthony Drewe. The piece was witty and warm, executed by a delightful cast including Lucy Briers and director Stephen Dexter, who also narrated the scenes.

A single grand piano was used for most of the festival, leaving the musical potential of each work to the imagination. Chris Orton went more than one step further in his second offering of the day with My Land’s Shore, which included a full orchestra and ensemble. This concert performance and final show of the festival was also presented by WithoutAPaddle, producing a colourful arrangement with inspiring libretto Chris Orton, whose musical future is just beginning.

With the closure of the Bridewell Theatre, platform space and funding for new musicals is ever decreasing. The dedication from the participants of the festival was non profit making and commendable. Whether it will happen again next year will depend on the support and awareness raised for new musical writing.

* The New Musical Theatre Festival took place on the August 6 and 7 at The Shaw Theatre and The Royal Academy of Music.

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