Why do musicals often get treated as second-class citizens in the theatre industry?
South Pacific, Next to Normal, Urinetown – these shows fearlessly tackle issues such as race, tolerance, social injustice and mental health, sending their message out to the most diverse and broadest of audiences. I would argue that makes the form more significant than many plays.
But there are also times when you just need a bit of tap-dancing in your life, the same way that in drama you may need a dollop of Falstaff and his antics with those Merry Wives, or Francis and his Two Guvnors.
However, while Falstaff or Francis may have their first London encounters with the RSC or the National Theatre, musicals, whether via a tour or regional venue, will be landing straight into London’s commercial West End heartland where pressure to succeed, especially for new work, is intense.
Why then, for the global position musical theatre holds, do we still not have a national theatre just for musicals?
Imagine if one of our West End houses became designated for such a purpose. It could link up with regional and Off-West End producing houses to curate combined seasons of work, providing more possibilities, more productions and more opportunities for growth and alliance between sectors. If properly developed, imagine how such a venue could also bring workshops and cabaret under its umbrella.
A national theatre for musicals – or national musical theatre – should be embraced by the West End and could also provide a base for organisations such as Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network.
Crucially, such a model could also enable a season subscription to be developed. To succeed it would need sensible deals created and managed responsibly by producers and landlords alike but such a venture might even engender better sponsorship and funding models.
In a focused environment, hosting a season of work might provide a better profile for new shows and a cushioned launch pad that would allow musicals to establish themselves. Subsequently they could tour or transfer elsewhere.
Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a new American musical by David Yazbek, will open at the Playhouse Theatre in December. Its 2010 Broadway run closed early, so whether its run in the West End will have better fortunes remains to be seen. But I wonder how such a work could benefit from being nurtured by an organisation dedicated to supporting musical theatre.
For new British musicals such a bridging model could prove invaluable. Both George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s Soho Cinders at Soho Theatre and the National Theatre’s London Road by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork saw a move to the West End as too much of a high risk strategy. Last week, Tim Gilvin’s Stay Awake received the S and S award presented to an as yet unproduced British musical.
Could all these works have been presented as seasons at a specifically designated West End venue for musical theatre?
Maybe it’s a fantasy but with artistic directors such as Nikkolai Foster taking over Leicester Haymarket with big ambitions for its musical future, and the likes of Sheffield Theatres and Theatre Royal Stratford East creating exciting new musicals and revivals, we need to be thinking about musical theatre’s identity and development.
If we work together as an industry we can create a better future for musicals, and enhance the success of this significant art form.