A glance at the West End’s musical theatre landscape tends to throw up the same few names in terms of writers and composers. There are productions from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Boublil and Schonberg, and popstars turned musical theatre writers such as Elton John.
Some may accuse producers of playing it safe. But when productions with increasingly sizeable budgets are at stake, and with audiences keen to know what they’re going to get for their money, you can understand – perhaps – the reluctance to put less established writers on the London stage.
So who do aspiring writers looking to make a mark in the industry and develop their skills turn to?
Nikolai Foster, new artistic director at Curve, has already pledged to make the Leicester theatre the new home of British musical theatre, and the venue started the ball rolling this year by investing £500,000 in a new stage version of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole novels, by emerging writing team Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary. Curve will also develop the winning entry of last year’s S and S award, Tim Gilvin’s Stay Awake, Jake.
The annual S and S award is an example of an initiative aimed at nurturing new writing talent. Named after Sidney Brown and his wife, Sylvia, it is given to the best new unproduced musical of the year. The prize is a week’s development retreat to work on the material with a professional cast, musical director and director, followed by a showcase in London.
Independent director and producer Simon Greiff, through his company SimG, produced the 2014 award, in association with Mercury Musical Developments, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2012 and nurtures new musical writers through seminars and workshops, masterclasses and industry placements.
Greiff is a passionate supporter of new writing, and showcases the work of emerging writers through workshops, concerts, cabarets and CDs. Shows he has been behind include Stand Tall, by Lee Wyatt-Buchan, Aldie Chalmers and Sandy Chalmers. More recently, he produced a workshop of Van Winkle, by Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green, and directed Before After, by Stuart Matthew Price and Timothy Knapman.
Greiff believes there should be a UK theatre dedicated to British writing. But he cites initiatives such as production companies including Theatre Bench, which was behind a recent production of Therese Raquin, producing new work on the fringe.
However, he is convinced that more needs to be done. “Leading commercial producers need to get behind these emerging producers so this work can be seen on a wider scale – beginning with co-productions with regional theatres to encourage, and most importantly, educate the audience about new writing. There are wonderful new musicals being written, but wider audiences need to know that, and the writers need much more help to bring those audiences to their shows,” he says.
Greiff also highlights companies such as Aria Entertainment and Perfect Pitch as ones that support new writing. Katy Lipson has run Aria Entertainment since founding it in 2011. The company is making plans for its third season of From Page to Stage, a festival of work in development, which will take place at the Tristan Bates Theatre in the autumn. Last year, 120 musicals were submitted.
“Over the years, I have dedicated a lot of time and effort to new musical theatre. Primarily, this is because I love the genre – but also because in the material I see everything that has always made musical theatre so thrilling. The pieces sometimes push the boundaries of theatrical possibility in exciting ways. They find new angles to approach classic stories, and are a bastion of original scriptwriting. They can connect material, the performers and the audience in ways which no other medium can. I am a big fan of the chamber musical; musicals which suit smaller spaces and forces,” Lipson explains.
Over the past three years, Aria has produced six new musicals and is currently producing another three, including The House of Mirrors and Hearts at the Arcola Theatre in July, in collaboration with Perfect Pitch.
Perfect Pitch describes itself as a not-for-profit theatre company, supported by Arts Council England, that is “dedicated to creating new British musicals”. It works in collaboration with venues and partners all over the UK and beyond to create, develop, produce and license high-quality new British musicals.
The company works with the writers and composers of shows from an initial idea to full production, offering creative and dramaturgical support, workshops and readings along the way.
Once the shows are fully developed, Perfect Pitch licenses them both professionally and to amateur companies in the UK and around the world. They currently have shows in Tokyo and Seoul.
Since its early days as a fringe showcase in 2006, Perfect Pitch has developed shows including The Go-Between, with West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Royal and Derngate and Derby Live, and Lift, at the Soho Theatre in London.
Alongside its development work, Perfect Pitch runs the Perfect Pitch award every two years, which brings writers and composers of all backgrounds together, and creates new writing teams who then pitch an idea for a new musical to win a £12,000 commission.
Andy Barnes, from Perfect Pitch, says: “Perfect Pitch has evolved over the last 10 years, primarily in response to a changing landscape for musicals. As an independent producer back then, I was searching the catalogues of the larger licensing houses looking for contemporary work to produce, and found all the interesting works were primarily American imports.
“British musicals needed a push, and new writers and composers needed to break through, and at Perfect Pitch we try and provide several varied platforms to allow them to find their feet and then gradually grow in stature and recognition in the industry, whilst exposing their work to audiences. As an acknowledged entry point for young people into the arts, it is imperative that we as an industry offer shows that are relevant to them and the world they are growing up in.”
Next month they will also launch the Perfect Pitch 250 Club, aimed at allowing supporters and fans of musical theatre to get close to the action, from rubbing shoulders with West End stars to owning a ‘stake’ in a brand new musical.
Another body that works to support new musicals is Musical Theatre Network, a membership organisation set up in 2005, which describes itself as a body that works to “create the environment that encourages new musical theatre to flourish in the UK”.
The organisation runs a year-round programme of events that deals with issues such as staging musicals, touring work and securing rights. Each year, it runs an award scheme at the Edinburgh Fringe, which rewards innovation in musical theatre. For the first time this year, the prize will come with a cash bursary and a week of development support, in partnership with Curve.
MTN is working on a project that aims to bring musical theatre creators together with makers of experimental theatre, to develop new ideas for musicals. It is also launching a development scheme in the north of England to encourage the creation of new small-scale work.
In partnership with Mercury Musical Developments, MTN is part of Arts Council England’s national portfolio. Together, the two organisations run the Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composer scheme, funded by the Mackintosh Foundation, which offers an emerging composer a six-month residency at a producing theatre.
Next year, Mercury Musical Developments, and Musical Theatre Network will partner on BEAM, a two-day event combining panel discussions, networking and masterclasses, together with a showcase of new work. The event takes place at the Park Theatre in north London on March 8 and 9.
Mercury Musical Developments also runs the Stiles and Drewe best new song prize each year in partnership with the Stephen Sondheim Society. MMD members’ songs are performed by students at the annual competition, which this year saw Richy Hughes and Joseph Finlay win for Don’t Look Down from The Superhero.