Where is the next Les Miserables?
Les Miserables chalks up a remarkable 30 years in the West End today. It is a phenomenon, a juggernaut of a show and a seemingly immovable fixture of London’s cultural scene.
Its remarkable ongoing success, though, does shine a light on the paucity of hit new British musicals to have seen the light of day in the West End in recent years.
With the exception of Billy Elliot and Matilda – both of which are excellent shows, but neither of which, one imagines, will enjoy similar longevity – many of the West End’s biggest new musical hits have been imported from the US: Wicked, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King. And that trend looks set to continue with Motown following Kinky Boots, which followed Memphis.
It’s not that there haven’t been decent homegrown shows – Betty Blue Eyes, Made in Dagenham, even I Can’t Sing! in its own way – but they have failed to ignite at the box office, nor have they really attempted to develop the form. The latest big hope, Bend It Like Beckham, doesn’t look like it will buck that trend.
As Mark Shenton observes, Broadway has notched up a pretty impressive roll call of musical hits over the past 15 years. The West End has struggled to compete with these both in terms of ambition and box office success. Where is our Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon? Where is our Here Lies Love?
Conversely, there’s been a steady stream of innovative, exciting new theatre writing moving in the opposite direction, which would seem to suggest that the situation is reversed when it comes to ‘straight’ theatre.
Maybe it’s a cyclical thing, or maybe it points to a problem in the musical supply chain, which British theatre has so far failed to crack.
I fear it’s probably the latter. Certainly, funders in the UK have been slow to treat new musical theatre to the same levels of investment that new writing has enjoyed. That probably stems from a reticence to be seen to be subsidising a ‘commercial’ art form.
It’s promising to see a theatre like Curve in Leicester committing itself to developing the genre, and there are some worthwhile initiatives run by Mercury Musical Developments. But perhaps we still need a flagship, dedicated musical-producing house, the equivalent of a Royal Court but for musical theatre, if we are to witness a genuine sea change in the creation of new British musical theatre.