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National Theatre’s six-figure bid to create ‘UK’s Hamilton’

Rosalie Craig and Kate Fleetwood in London Road, which won the Critics’ Circle award for best musical in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris has unveiled a major drive to develop new British musicals.

The NT has formed a group of leading playwrights and composers with varying degrees of experience in musical theatre – as well as some with no experience at all in the form – as a “seedbed” to improve the UK’s musical theatre output.

The initiative comes in response to concerns about a “lack of seriousness” about the genre within the UK theatre industry and in a bid to develop the next London Road for the NT.

No names have been confirmed taking part in the group. However, The Stage understands that leading musical theatre experts, including composer Stephen Sondheim, have led sessions.

“In some ways, I think our theatre culture patronises musical theatre, and does not regard it as the serious art form it is regarded as in America, for example,” Norris told The Stage, adding that he felt there was a misplaced snobbery around musicals in certain circles.

The NT’s musical theatre group has already been in operation for around a year as part of the venue’s new work department. However, details of the project have not been revealed until now.

Emily McLaughlin, the NT’s head of new work, said the monthly group comprises around 17 regular attendees, a mixture of composers and playwrights, some of whom have never worked in musical theatre before. They meet for sessions given by musical theatre experts, as well as develop their own ideas that are worked up for performance during biannual week-long sessions.

“The group has so many benefits because you can engage with artists in other ways than a straightforward commission. It is a lovely way to sit outside of that contract and explore the art of it, and keep that conversation going with a group of artists,” McLaughlin said.

The project is being financed by the Genesis Foundation over an initial period of two years. The NT declined to give a figure on the amount it receives. However, the foundation’s chairman John Studzinski told The Stage it was “several hundred thousand pounds per year”.

“The foundation has been in existence for 15 years and we haven’t done any major projects with the National Theatre. This gives us an opportunity to set up a very focused partnership as well as a chance to develop an idea that I think is innovative, namely musical theatre,” he added.

Norris said he hoped the group would create new musicals such as London Road – which he directed and which premiered at the NT in 2011 – but stressed that its importance also lay in the projects that never reach completion.

“In a way, what we are looking at is the seedbed. We’re in the first stages. Some will come up, some of them won’t, some of them will come up in ways that we don’t expect.”

He said he would be happy if a musical came to fruition from the group within the first five years.

Norris went on to say that British musical theatre innovation was suffering due to the cost of mounting a new show.

“It feels like we’ve got to a stage where because [new musicals] are very expensive to develop, it’s very difficult for them to thrive in our theatre culture other than by coming through the commercial sector, although for many shows that has proved successful.”

He added that adapting well-known titles, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda, had also become popular.

“There’s nothing wrong with that but you’re not going to get a show like Hamilton like that and you’re not going to get a show like Fun Home like that. Our culture, to my mind, is poorer for us not having the breadth of musical theatre that we could. Who is going to step up and try to engage with this if not this organisation?

“We come from a literary culture and we really prize the work of the writer. A lot of the writers that come through the Royal Court or the Bush or Soho or the NT will see their plays being put on all over the world because we put energy into that. You’ve only got to look at the musical theatre that [the US] have in their universities and the seriousness with which they approach it. Everybody is developing a musical and we don’t have an equivalent.”

Last week, Andrew Lloyd Webber bemoaned the state of British musical theatre in comparison to Broadway, saying he thought the UK had “lost its momentum”.

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