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Broadway’s continuing investment in new musicals

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Everywhere you look (and listen), new British musicals are being written. Just last night, an evening of emerging writers was presented at Crazy Coqs as part of the inaugural London Festival of Cabaret.

It featured contributions from performer-writers Madelena Alberto, Tamar Broadbent, Stuart Matthew Price and composer Tim Sutton.

And last month’s opening of From Here to Eternity at the Shaftesbury also brought a new composing voice to the West End Stuart Brayson, working with the rather longer-established Tim Rice, while last year saw the West End debut of another young composer James Bourne with the (sadly shortlived) Loserville, who had previously been best known as part of the pop groups Busted and Son of Dork, working with the prolific Elliot Davis (who also collaborated last year with Stiles and Drewe on Soho Cinders that was premiered at Soho Theatre).

But those two are exceptions rather than the rule; the only British musical theatre composers guaranteed a West End berth these days are Andrew Lloyd Webber (who returns, of course, next month with his latest Stephen Ward) and Elton John.

By contrast, Broadway is still investing in writers new and old. Right now, we are enjoying the fruits of that sort of long-term investment in its writers in London, with the UK premiere of 86-year-old John Kander’s The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic, even as Kander is seeing his latest show The Landing also premiering now at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.

But meanwhile, too, the Broadway and Off-Broadway roster for the current season is full to bursting with new work by other, somewhat younger composers who’s also proved themselves before and are excitingly back in the game.

Already on the boards is Big Fish, Andrew Lippa’s new stage version of Daniel Wallace novel that is also based on the 2003 film scripted by John August, and this coming Sunday Lippa will be in London to offer a concert of songs from that show, plus his last Broadway show The Addams Family and others, at the St James Theatre.

When I met him in New York a few weeks ago in a cafe near his apartment on the Upper West Side, he told me,

The one thing you can’t control is timing – you can’t control it in life and you can’t control it in art. You have things happen when they happen. I was fortunate enough to have two shows come to Broadway within a few years of each other, and that has been a remarkable thing.

But you also can’t control the critical reception, either, and he also told me,

I didn’t read any of it. But that’s showbiz kids, and our job is to overcome any negativity in the world – our job is to do that as human beings, let alone as artists. The truth is that my job now is finished – it’s up to the  producers to sell the show and get people to come and see it. They either can or they can’t.

It turns out that they can’t, and on Sunday it was just announced that Big Fish will be closing on December 29. But Lippa, for his part, is already busy on other projects, including another new musical he is writing called The Man in the Ceiling. Earlier this year he starred in the title role of another new piece he’s written, I Am Harvey Milk with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus; the album release that is now out debuted, he told me, at number two on the iTunes classical chart, and productions are now being planned for New York’s Lincoln Center, LA’s Disney Hall and Washington DC’s Kennedy Center next year, with interest also in a London production.

No wonder he’s had little time for personal concert and cabaret performances in the last five or six years, but is looking forward to revisiting this part of his artistic life in London now. Jason Robert Brown, a fellow composer with whom he used to perform together earlier in their careers, has made regular London concert performances over the years and has a substantial following for them. Jason also, coincidentally, recently premiered another new show Honeymoon in Vegas at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse to a rave review for the New York Times that could see it eyeing Broadway anytime soon, but already also has his musical version of The Bridges of Madison County booked in to begin performances on Broadway in January.

Cabaret is a fruitful genre for composers to introduce their work through, and last month saw Benj Pasek and Justin Paul do a night at the Hippodrome in London. Their Tony nominated stage musical version of A Christmas Story, seen on Broadway last year, is about to return to New York to be staged at the Theater at Madison Square Garden from December 11.

Pasek and Paul are new voices to Broadway; so is Steven Lutvak, whose A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is currently previewing at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre before opening this Sunday; and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, whose First Date is currently running at the Longacre through January 5.

But more established voices also have new musicals readying to arrive on Broadway: Ahrens and Flaherty, whose previous Broadway shows include Once in this Island and Ragtime, have a stage version of Rocky coming to the Winter Garden in February, while Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who wrote my own favourite Broadway musical of the century so far in Next to Normal, return next March with If/Then, a new musical starring Idina Menzel.

And Off-Broadway also continues to be a place where writers test new work, too: currently at Second Stage, William Finn is offering the New York premiere of Little Miss Sunshine, and at the Public, Jeanine Tesori has her latest show Fun Home.

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