Perfect Pitch – the engine room of new British musicals
A little over a decade ago, Andy Barnes was a police offer looking for a new challenge. Today he’s running a production company with his wife Wendy called Perfect Pitch, which sits at the heart of original British musical development and which this year marks its 10th anniversary. Its apt, then, that in this landmark year, the company will see musical The Go-Between, a show it discovered in 2009, open in the West End with Michael Crawford as its star.
The show is the first West End transfer for Perfect Pitch, whose roots can be traced to 2000 when Andy, then a bored police officer, suffered a wrist injury that put him out of action.
The injury coincided with a friend asking him if he was interesting in helping to stage a production of The Wiz at Hackney Empire. At that time, Andy had little theatrical experience, but he accepted his friend’s challenge, which in turn prompted him to consider his future outside the police.“It sounds ridiculous,” he laughs, recalling his foray into producing. “You would never normally do that but it just sort of happened. We were ambitions and bored and wanted to do something exciting.”
Having tasted producing and grown increasingly bored with his job, he resigned from the police in 2004 and took up a place studying advance theatre practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. There he produced the student showcase, which is how he met Wendy, who had been hired as a musician to perform as part it.
They realised they had a shared interest in musical theatre and its production in the UK, and when Andy was asked to be part of a steering group for a new organisation, now known as Musical Theatre Network, an opportunity arose that saw Perfect Pitch brought to life. “The guys at Upstairs at the Gatehouse were offering two weeks in the venue to the steering group,” he recalls. “But no one had any ideas what to use it for. But eventually I said I would do something, thinking I could maybe produce a musical there.”
However, when he and Wendy began to look at how to fill the two-week slot, they could find nothing suitable, so they put a shout-out for composers with shows they wanted to be seen.
“Within a month we had a ridiculous number of shows – 150 to 200 – and everyone’s back catalogue,” Andy recalls.
The result was a two-week showcase of new musicals, some extracts of 20 minutes, others full presentations, which Wendy and Andy called Perfect Pitch.
The company continued to showcase the work of new writers over the next couple of years, but soon became aware that some of the shows it was working on could do with development time.
“We had realised from the first two showcases that the quality was not quite getting there,” Wendy explains. “We needed to find some way to help with the writing of these shows to make them better before showcasing them. So we applied for a bit of funding from Arts Council England and trialled our first bit of development. By offering a couple of workshops to shows and a bit of development, the showcase was much stronger.”
That later evolved more, so that the development of shows became the core focus, with the company abandoning its showcase model completely after 2009 to develop and showcase individual musicals when they were ready to be seen.
Today, the company is part of ACE’s national portfolio, and works in collaboration with venues, writers, producers and creatives all over the UK and beyond to create, develop, produce and license high-quality new British musicals.
5 things you need to know about Perfect Pitch
1. Michael Ball and Stephen Fry are its patrons.
2. It runs a biannual award, worth £12,000 for new writing.
3. It licenses shows all over the world and had productions this year in Mexico and
4. Executive producer Andy Barnes used to work in the police. His mother sang opera and his father produced amateur shows.
5. The company doesn’t, as a matter of course, produce its own work. Instead it works in partnership with other producers and theatres to bring shows it has developed to the stage.
“We originally set it up with the selfish intent of finding good products to produce,” Andy says. “It sort of happened by accident. We did not set out to be a developer of new musicals.”
To date, the company has worked with an array of writers including Craig Adams and Ian Watson, who penned Lift, which premiered in 2013 at the Soho Theatre.
Since 2014, it has also run a £12,000 award to help new writers. The Perfect Pitch Award sees a composer and lyricist paired together to come up with an idea for a show.
Wendy explains: “We found that writers can’t write for nothing in the hope their work will get produced. We thought that, if we could raise the money – which Andy did from philanthropists – it meant we could entice more writers in.”
This year’s winners are Adams and writer Daniel York, with a show about the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers disaster. It’s Perfect Pitch’s hope that this show, and others it develops, will go on to have long lives.
The Go-Between is a fine example of the kind of work that Perfect Pitch has helped to develop. Discovered as part of its showcase in 2009, the show attracted initial interest from regional theatre, and this year comes to London’s West End.
“The budget for The Go-Between is maybe a fifth of a standard low-budget musical,” says Andy. “I look at all the money spent on other elements of commercial theatre, like press night parties, and think we could put on a couple of musicals for that.”
Andy says that the investors on The Go-Between know they are supporting new work. “They know if it makes money, Perfect Pitch will benefit, meaning other writers will too,” he says.
And he’s hopeful that the next 10 years will see Perfect Pitch continue to grow so that it becomes self-funding. “We are hugely grateful to the Arts Council and we would not exist without them,” Andy says. “But I would like, at some point, for us to be self-sufficient so they can give that support to someone else.”
Profile: Perfect Pitch
Executive producer: Andy Barnes
Number of employees: three, including Wendy Barnes, producer, and Josh Bird, production assistant
Turnover in 2015/16: £230,000
Funding levels: annual Arts Council grant £107,000