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Talking about musical theatre

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There’s nothing, as regular readers of this blog will know, that I like better than seeing a great musical or cabaret performance, and then sharing that passion, of course, by writing about it. I do, as people regularly tell me, have the best job.

The rough, of course, sometimes comes with the smooth; I also have to see some junk, too – Rock of Ages, anyone? – and then write about that, as well, which is more painful than enjoyable, but a necessary part of the job. Still, I had some fun with Rock of Ages in print, and continue to do so as it offers such a wonderful low benchmark for musicals for me: when it opened, I reported that it

not only puts the cause of musicals in the toilet but also actually has scenes set in one. This marks a new low point for that already-tarnished form of jukebox shows made up out of old pop and rock hits, and makes We Will Rock You seem like it’s Sweeney Todd. A noisy collection of punchily performed 80s rock hits are embedded in a senseless story about an LA club facing eviction. I say bring in the bailiffs now. The Shaftesbury once had its roof fall in during the run of Hair in the late 60s that led to the show being shut. Here, the indoor fireworks may yet set the place on fire. We can only hope.

Actually, and proof positive that critics like me have no place in this sort of conversation anyway is that it continues to run regardless, as it does for We Will Rock You despite what we said when that show first opened. And I welcome the fact that we’ve not managed to put either of those shows out of business – that’s not our business. Ours is to call it like we see it, as honestly and forcefully as possible, and let our readers decide for themselves.

But if there’s one thing I enjoy almost as much as seeing shows and writing about them it is talking about them, their past as well as their future. And on Tuesday, I spent virtually the entire day doing exactly that, at the Fuelling the Future conference jointly staged by Musical Theatre Network and Mercury Musical Developments at Soho Theatre.

I opened proceedings myself on the day by doing an onstage interview with the brilliant Phelim McDermott, co-founder of Improbable and a director and creator of new work, including musicals, that has stretched from the West End to Broadway, and English National Opera to the Metropolitan Opera House. And he spoke openly, warmly and intimately of experiences that have stretched from the unlikely but welcome success of Shockheaded Peter, on the one hand, that played for some seven years in various incarnations, to the far more personally bruising one of being employed to bring The Addams Family to the Broadway stage, but being fired from it after its Chicago try-out before it transferred there.

Broadway producers, he pointed out, are addicted to firings – it makes them look like they’re in charge. And suddenly, a window opened into the experiences of Julie Taymor on Spider-man – Turn off the Dark. McDermott and Taymor have, I realised, followed almost identical trajectories: from being experimental artists, working on their own material, they’ve been conscripted to lend those distinctive talents to Broadway’s giant machine – but the process is so different and so adversarial there that it cannot fail to chew them up and spit them out again.

But McDermott, who above all is a kind, feeling sort of fellow, works in a different way, forging conditions of trust and honesty. And that’s when good work can happen – not when people feel threatened and under attack. Yet Broadway, he said, often employs military warfare analogies. He himself compared making theatre to gambling; you never know when you’re going to win.

The British musical hit a winning streak in the 80s, but is yet to return to those glory days. But suddenly, thanks partly to the work of the conference organisers, there’s a new vitality to the idea of creating original musicals here. The conference explored other themes of how to bring it on, from finding the talent to finding the audiences, and creating the creative spaces in which that both can be nurtured.

Fuller reports will be written in time about the day, but I’m delighted to have played my part. I am also fully committed to playing my critical part in the discussion, too, as I regularly do on this blog and in my review writing.

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