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Could musical theatre showcase at Joe Allen provide food for thought for producers?

Performing in Joe Allen: Musical Starters curator AJ O’Neill

Recognising that talented writers of new musicals were struggling to find spaces to present their work, composer AJ O’Neill formed Musical Starters to help get work recognised. And in host Joe Allen, he’s found the perfect partner


Musical theatre and brunch. Could there be a better combination? Well, iconic restaurant Joe Allen doesn’t think so, which is why it has teamed up with WhatsOnStage and the Really Useful Group to present Musical Starters, a series of musical brunches showcasing the very best in new musical theatre writing.

Musical Starters is curated by AJ O’Neill, a first-time musical writer, who explains that “writing a show can feel like sitting in a dark room alone wondering if anyone will ever get to hear it.”

He adds: “I wanted to provide a space for new musical theatre writers like myself to present their work to the theatregoing public in a supportive environment. It’s an incredible chance to showcase the work, get feedback and maybe even raise awareness to help the shows along in their development.”

AJ O’Neill
AJ O’Neill

Although O’Neill has a long established reputation as a singer, having originated the role of Jamie in the Irish premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, he has recently moved into composing too. It all started at a workshop with Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. “I improvised a Sondheim song about working in a train station ticket office, and at the end of it I was like: ‘What just happened?’. It went down well and I thought: ‘If I can write something that sounds like a song on the spot, I might be able to write more songs.’ ”

O’Neill got to work. His partner, Simon Lock, with whom he is writing a new musical called Unicorn – came across the story of Nicole, a transgender child from the States, which set O’Neill’s imagination going. The story really spoke to him, Nicole became Ellie as the show progressed, and has now become a “universal queer story” with a trans character in the central role. When he had written several of the songs, O’Neill posted them online and “the response was incredible”. People were offering to produce it, direct it, perform in it. “It gave me the confidence to keep writing,” he says.

He performed some of the songs at a scratch night at the Other Palace, one of five shows selected from 70 submissions. Aside from that, O’Neill explains that it is difficult to find spaces for new musical theatre to be shown to the public. “I’d written these songs and wanted places to perform them, but there were so few opportunities.”

Through Mercury Musical Developments, O’Neill came across so many other people who are creating great work: “Interesting, funny, complex, heartbreaking new work. These people deserve the chance to be heard by audiences, and not just their peers.” Lots of workshops, he explains, involve 25 industry people sitting in a room, but no family and friends or the general public.

The next stage in creating Musical Starters happened by pure chance. O’Neill used to go to a cafe every Thursday morning after his dance class. Eventually he got chatting to the owner about musicals, and the lack of spaces for showcasing them. “You should come and do something at my partner’s restaurant,” she said. He asked what the restaurant was, and she replied: “Joe Allen.”

The legendary restaurant, just off the Strand in London, is already famous for its connection to the West End and to theatre, and after discussions with the Joe Allen team – “They’ve been so supportive and so helpful” – O’Neill came up with the idea for Musical Starters.

“We decided to give each show its own showcase, followed by a Q&A with the creators about the show,” he explains. Rather than just performing one song from a new show, the format allows an in-depth look at each piece of work, with several songs performed as well as the interview.

Soon sponsorship followed from the Really Useful Group and from WhatsOnStage. When O’Neill asked for submissions of musicals that could form the programme for Musical Starters, he received more than 20 shows covering a huge range of styles and subject matters – but all, he stresses, exceptionally high quality.

“I didn’t get a single bad musical sent to me. I have enough good shows to do another 10 helpings of Musical Starters – if we get the funding. We are all hopeful that this becomes a regular thing because there is so much good work out there that deserves to be heard.”

For the moment, though, O’Neill is gearing up for the first two servings on April 28. His own show, Unicorn, kicks things off at 12pm, followed by a Q&A with O’Neill. Then at 2pm there will be selections from a new musical called Backstroke, about an all-male synchronised swimming team with lyrics and book by Poppy Burton-Morgan and music and lyrics by Ben Glasstone. “It’s so self-assured and polished, but also really funny and warm,” says O’Neill. “Think Full Monty meets Cool Runnings,” he adds enticingly.

In selecting the two musicals that would launch Musical Starters, O’Neill was careful to strike a balance. “We wanted to have two very different shows. Mine’s quite American, theirs is British. Mine is very piano, theirs is very guitar.”

Each of the songs is being performed by professional singers. For the first outing, the line-up consists of Jodie Jacobs, Chloe Hart and Nigel Richards.

In terms of audiences, O’Neill is hoping that the brunch and musical theatre combination will appeal not only to people who already know the show’s creators – for example, family and friends – but also to industry professionals who might have the means to take shows to the next stage in development.

On top of that, it’s ideal for a general theatre-loving public who simply want to experience high-quality new work, sung by professionals, and accompanied by some delicious food and a cocktail or two.

There’s no need to buy a ticket. Just book a table at Joe Allen and enjoy some food and drinks. With excellent food to nourish the body and exciting new music to feed the soul, can anything beat this combination of new musicals and brunch?

Musical Starters is at Joe Allen on April 28 from 12pm. No ticket required – just book a table to attend. For more on Unicorn, visit @unicornamusical ‏ on Twitter and Instagram

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