Talent lines up to revitalise West End

Mark Shenton investigates the welcome proliferation of new writing initiatives, and composer placements that could be set to reinvigorate musical theatre

British musicals took giant steps in the 1980s to claim global supremacy in the genre, but it was largely down to two men: composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh, who – working together and separately – put shows like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon on an international trajectory.

That heyday lingers on with shows such as Les Mis and Phantom still running, and new UK tours of both Phantom and Starlight Express. But the moment largely passed and Broadway re-asserted itself with The Producers, The Lion King, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Spamalot, Wicked and The Book of Mormon, that each became blockbusters in their own way.

Lloyd Webber’s own post-Phantom track record turned out to be patchy, with abbreviated Broadway runs for Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and The Woman in White, while others didn’t get there at all, like Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game and most recently Love Never Dies.

Instead, Elton John came up on the inside track, with The Lion King and Billy Elliot playing on both sides of the Atlantic, and Aida and the short-lived Lestat on Broadway only. Mackintosh, too, hasn’t managed to recreate his earlier successes with original musicals such as Martin Guerre, Moby Dick, The Witches of Eastwick and Betty Blue Eyes all failing in the West End and not going on to a global future.

The UK’s main contribution to the global musical export industry has otherwise been Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, both based on past pop repertoires of Abba and Queen respectively. So has the pipeline of hit musicals with original scores coming from London dried up? Actually, it feels as though there’s a sudden resurgence on the way, with the West End-originated stage version of Ghost now on Broadway (with a new score by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard), and, of course, the Olivier-winning Matilda heading there next year.

It’s revealing, however, that Matilda was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. And it’s no accident, either, that London Road, which won this year’s Critics’ Circle Award for best musical, was similarly originated at the National Theatre (where it returns in July), the same place that Jerry Springer – the Opera had also come to fully fledged life (after being developed at Battersea Arts Centre). Musicals take time, encouragement and a rigorous development process – and while Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh are still able to do that, commercial producers are often forced into rushing shows into production too soon, so that they can start seeing a return on the investment they have already made in them.

No wonder that Howard Goodall – who in my opinion wrote one of the most beautiful scores of any British musical of the past 25 years in The Hired Man – is yet to produce a genuinely popular hit; and while Willy Russell, of course, wrote the ever-popular Blood Brothers, he has not had a second hit musical produced in the West End to join it (his other musical, John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, premiered in 1974, pre-empted the current fad for jukebox musicals, folding Beatles songs into a new play).

Otherwise, there’s Stiles and Drewe, whose Honk! is a popular success but has never had a proper West End run, and who also contributed additional songs and revisions to Mary Poppins. There’s also Steve Brown, who is yet to follow his 1999 Olivier winner Spend, Spend, Spend in the West End; and Richard Thomas who followed 2003 Olivier winner Jerry Springer – the Opera with Kombat Opera (a series of TV musicals), with the score for Shoes (a dance revue at Sadler’s Wells) and the lyrics for the opera Anna Nicole (at the Royal Opera House).

By comparison, Broadway keeps giving new musical theatre talent the opportunity to ply their goods, operating as a creative furnace for new writers to come through in a way that the West End simply does not.

There’s also a life beyond Broadway for US writers to learn and hone their craft, too, whether in regional theatre or the Off (and off-off) Broadway scene where new musicals are regularly tried out. But in the UK, we do not have a single producing theatre that is committed to doing new musicals as part of its regular programme, with the exception of Stratford East’s Theatre Royal (where The Big Life originated and subsequently transferred to the West End).

While the UK has a thriving culture of new writing in plays – with theatres such as the Royal Court, Bush, Soho and Hampstead in London all specifically dedicated to its promotion – new musicals just don’t figure to the same extent.

But there are welcome signs that this culture is changing. Arts Council England has finally acknowledged the importance of offering revenue funding support to a series of seedbed organisations that are each planting acorns from which mighty oaks could one day grow. These include Perfect Pitch, a producing organisation that nurtures new musicals through readings, workshops and showcases; Mercury Musical Developments, a support and development organisation for writers (and of which I am on the board); and Musical Theatre Matters, looking after the producers and creatives who seek to put on new musicals.

Among the bold initiatives already underway between these vibrant organisations are a series of resident composer placements inside producing theatres, generously funded by Cameron Mackintosh, that has seen Dougal Irvine already working at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre, where he is scoring the new productions of The Bacchae and Blood Wedding that open officially next week, and will see Craig Adams start at the Finborough in September. Irvine, who is also a performer, has had a brilliant showcase of his original songs produced by Simon Greiff’s SimG Records that acts as a calling card for his work, and he is also working with the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA), whose students will be performing his new show In Touch at the Bridewell in June.

Meanwhile, Perfect Pitch, which has been developing Craig Adams’ LIFT with him since 2008 including showcase and workshop stagings, are later this month releasing a concept album of the score with a cast that includes Louise Dearman, Michael Xavier and Julie Atherton, that offers another channel to introduce the show to a wider public, just as Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice originally pioneered over 40 years ago with Jesus Christ Superstar.

But ultimately writers learn most by seeing their shows reach production; and to this end, Soho Theatre’s Steve Marmion recently told me of his plans to provide such opportunities. It was at Soho that a couple of weeks ago RADA-trained actor Michael Peavoy started the Opening Doors festival, showcasing extracts from new work by Irvine, Adams and Conor Mitchell, as well as the inaugural Craig Barbour Award, named in honour of the late RADA voice teacher, whose judging panel I chaired. Of the ten composers or teams represented, I’d heard of seven; but the winner, Harry Blake, was unknown to me. The wonderful thing about such competitions is that I am now going to be on the look-out for Blake’s work.

Several years ago I helped judge another, run by The Stage, to find an original song for the Notes from New York series. It was won by Michael Bruce, who has since gone on to become resident composer at first the Bush and now the Donmar Warehouse. Those small musical seeds, planted well, can and do grow.

* This feature is included in this week’s (May 24) musical theatre themed print edition of The Stage, available from newsagents around the UK.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster