Can the fringe be a sustainable home for new musicals?

Original British West End musical hits such as Matilda are few and far between. Manuel Harlan
Original British West End musical hits such as Matilda are few and far between. Manuel Harlan
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Brand new musicals have become something of a rarity in the West End. Even the producing and composing giants of the 1980s Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have each seen new shows of theirs fail spectacularly there in the last four years, with Betty Blue Eyes (2011), Stephen Ward and From Here To Eternity (both 2013) respectively, while producer Judy Craymer, who shepherded Mamma Mia! to global domination in the 2000s, dismally failed to repeat the same winning formula with the Spice Girls catalogue musical Viva Forever! in 2012.

No wonder that the West End has had to look towards Broadway to replenish its musicals roster, with shows such as The Book of Mormon, Once, Memphis, Beautiful and soon Kinky Boots sweeping in on a tidal wave of Tony awards to at least have something of a security blanket of prior success before chancing their arm and getting a financial leg-up in London.

Two British-born musicals of the past five years have, however, been the exceptions that proved the recent rule that Brits have lost the golden touch we briefly had with musicals in the 1980s. These are Matilda and this year’s Olivier winner for best musical Sunny Afternoon (the sole contender for the title that was actually British, with the three other contenders – Memphis, Beautiful and Here Lies Love – all originating in New York).

George Maguire and John Dagleish in Sunny Afternoon at Hampstead Theatre.  Photo: Tristram Kenton
George Maguire and John Dagleish in Sunny Afternoon at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A large part of the success of a musical is producer-led, in that a strong producer oversees the process of employing the team and bringing the work to fruition. In the case of Matilda, it was a show developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which put composer Tim Minchin and book writer Dennis Kelly together with director Matthew Warchus, and premiered it in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 before transferring to the West End and then Broadway. With Sunny Afternoon, it was West End producer Sonia Friedman who took charge of development and then seeded it with Edward Hall to premiere at Hampstead ahead of its transfer to the Pinter Theatre.

Both Matilda and Sunny Afternoon were, in other words, put on their feet in a ‘protected’ environment, just as in New York places like the Public (which has produced the current Tony-nominated Fun Home, as well as the soon-to-be Broadway-bound Hamilton) routinely do for new musicals. London, though, has no comparative network of properly funded and artistically-led venues that produce new musicals. The last significant entry in London was the Almeida’s American Psycho in 2013, which is now planning its next steps in the US.

In the West End the stakes are usually too high to launch an untried and untested musical. It will be interesting to see how Friedman’s new production of Bend it Like Beckham, which she has propelled directly into the Phoenix Theatre, where it is now previewing, will fare.

UK-based composers of new musicals are often forced instead to take their first steps on the ‘do it yourself’ fringe. Mark Carroll, a composer of several musicals but whose night job is as a performer in the West End (he’s currently in Memphis), this week sees his latest, Duncton Wood, receive its premiere at the Union.

He also offers sage advice for other aspiring composers: “You’re going to have to go out there and do it yourself and show people what you can do, because if you don’t do it no one else will.”

The show isn’t small — there are 16 actors and 5 musicians in a company of 31 people — and Carroll notes of the process of putting on a new musical: “Be aware that you are going to have to dig deep into your own pockets to get your show on and be prepared to beg, steal and borrow from anyone who can help. I was very keen as an actor to pay the performers and so approached the arts council, which has given a substantial grant towards the costs.”

Carroll has previously appeared at the Union on a profit-share basis himself, but with just 50 seats to sell and a 31-way split in this case, a profit-share would mean hardly anything for each of them.

Joseph Prowen and Jennifer Kirby in rehearsal for Teddy. Photo: Darren Bell
Joseph Prowen and Jennifer Kirby in rehearsal for Teddy. Photo: Darren Bell

By coincidence, it is one of a slew of new music-based shows that are being showcased on the fringe right now. Teddy is a new play by Tristan Bernays, with original songs threaded through it by rising British theatrical composer Dougal Irvine, that premieres at Southwark Playhouse (from June 4), while The Clockmaker’s Daughter is an original story with original music by Daniel Finn and Michael Webborn that opens at the Landor on May 27.

Then there’s Neil Bartram and Brian Hill’s The Theory of Relativity, a Canadian-born musical that is being developed for a full production by British fringe company Relative Motion at the Drayton Arms from May 26, with a cast that includes regular West End-er Simon Bailey. Christopher Lane, artistic director of the company, says that the biggest challenge of putting it on has been financial.

“As a company we had some capital to invest but have had to seek out in-kind support in order to keep the capitalisation for the show in a range where it’s possible to recoup costs while still maintaining a viable ‘profit share’ framework. We could not in good conscience ask people to work in a model where profit share equalled working free. It was essential to us to keep our budgets minimal and manageable in order to ensure that there is every possibility that there will be profits to share at the end of the project.”

They’ve been, he says, both completely transparent and realistic with the company about that ambition, but with a cast of eight and a production team of 11 more and costs of around £5,500, there’s not going to be an awful lot to go around. So, in a sense, it is the company members themselves who are its own biggest investors with their time and talent.

The fringe needs new musicals, but there’s no easy solution to the conundrum of how to make them pay. The figures simply don’t stack up without requiring everyone – producers included, who stand to make no money from their efforts – to take a hit while trying to make one.

The commercial theatre model, in which investors are taken on board to finance a show, doesn’t work either, as investors need to be shown a realistic hope of recoupment (and hopefully profit) which a properly paid fringe show would simply be unable to do. Costs are invariably going to exceed income where there are five or six people to pay and less than 80 seats to play to.

The subsidised model of supplementing grants with benefactors is another way to go, and more enterprising and/or well connected producers are finding seed money from both, in which the reward is supporting the work, not getting their money back. But that requires a strong producer and there aren’t that many of them to go around.

Is the answer, then, to simply curb the creativity of the fringe? That would shut the doors on writers of musicals who can’t get them opened at other funded theatres, and deny opportunities for performers to hone their craft on new shows, too.

Musicals can, of course, make a killing — let’s not forget that The Rocky Horror Show began its life in the 80-seater Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Small acorns can yield mighty oaks, and it is the hope of replicating that which leads many to continue hoping for a similar breakthrough. Hope, of course, doesn’t pay the bills, but it keeps the spirit alive; and we crush it at our peril.

I’d love every theatrical endeavour to pay everyone a living wage, but it’s unrealistic to expect that the fringe can always do so. Perhaps we need to acknowledge this fact of economic life, and allow people to make their own choices accordingly.

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