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Bravo to those putting in the hard graft to make new musicals happen

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion at St James Theatre. Photo: Bronwen Sharp Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion at St James Theatre. Photo: Bronwen Sharp
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A flood of new musicals will be arriving in the West End from New York this autumn. There are British premieres for the 2010 Tony-winning Memphis and the current Off-Broadway hit Here Lies Love, plus transfers for two more shows originally seen Off-Broadway before they moved to Broadway: Urinetown (seen previously at the St James Theatre) and The Scottsboro Boys (Young Vic).

Then there’s Forbidden Broadway, a compendium revue of current shows playing on both sides of the Atlantic, which transfers from the Menier to the Vaudeville (where it officially opens on Monday), as well as high-profile revivals of City of Angels and Sondheim’s Assassins at the Donmar and Menier respectively. In South East London, Greenwich will offer a brief UK premiere for the Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz.

[pullquote]New British musicals are rather thin on the ground[/pullquote]

New British musicals, however, are rather thinner on the ground. Only Made in Dagenham is made in Britain from scratch for the West End, with book by Richard Bean, music by David Arnold and lyrics by Richard Thomas. There’s also Sunny Afternoon, a jukebox musical based on the repertoire of Ray Davies and the Kinks, transferring from Hampstead. Otherwise, we are – as ever – reliant on Andrew Lloyd Webber to fill out the roster, with the return of two of his signature hits, Evita and Cats, to join the ongoing Phantom of the Opera.

Beyond the West End, though, we have a new musical at Stratford East, David Baddiel’s own adaptation of his 2010 film comedy The Infidel, with music by Erran Baron Cohen (older brother to Sacha).

Stratford East has long been a pioneering musical house, with shows like Oh What a Lovely War and Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be premiered there before transferring to the West End. But what’s good is to see the theatre actively engaging in creating new musicals; they don’t happen by accident, but require serious nurturing and development.

[pullquote]Shows rarely arrive ready formed for the West End[/pullquote]

And that is exactly what I’m encouragingly seeing elsewhere around town, too. Shows rarely arrive ready formed for West End success: even Les Miserables had a try-out under the auspices of the RSC.

The best new musical I’ve seen all year (so far) has also taken a long and winding road: Benjamin Scheuer, a New York-based composer and performer, first presented The Lion under a different title, The Bridge, at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, then developed it further and showcased it at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this summer before bringing it back to London to the St James Studio, under the aegis of producer James Seabright.

It’s a show that breaks the mould of musical theatre but uses its conventions rigorously. It also plays with form in other interesting ways: it’s a one man show, and a highly personal one, but it also feels as though he is reaching out, not inwards, to relate his story.

Scheuer is swapping the 120-seat intimacy of the St James Studio for the 5,000+ Royal Albert Hall at the end of the month when he supports Mary Chapin Carpenter, but his songwriting and performing skills are so terrific I’m sure he’ll rise to the occasion.

Howard Goodall and Charles Hart’s musical The Dreaming has just had its London professional premiere at the Union, but it has been kicking around for a long time: it was originally commissioned for the National Youth Music Theatre at the turn of the century. And 13 years after its student premiere, it proves to be an English musical that’s a ready-made masterpiece of aching melodies and supernatural wonder. Once again, the Union comes up trumps for exposing great musicals to a new light.

Charles Miller is another British composer who often tries out work with student companies, but he gets a serious cast of five for the premiere of The Return of the Soldier, a really special new chamber show at Jermyn Street. With its brooding, lingering score, set to lyrics by Tim Sanders, it is performed with a fierce integrity by Laura Pitt-Pulford, Zoe Rainey, Stewart Clarke, Michael Matus and Charlie Langham. The musical throbs with feeling and heartache, and is a triumph for director Charlotte Westenra and co-producers Aria Entertainment and Guy James.

Yet again, it hasn’t happened by accident or magic; it has required development. And strong shows need stronger producers to provide that. Bravo to all.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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