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Kerry Michael: UK musicals should look to Broadway for lessons on diversity

The Infidel – The Musical at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Infidel – The Musical at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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When it comes to musical theatre, the word on everybody’s lips is officially no longer Roxie, but Hamilton. With a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, Drama Desk awards galore and even a Pulitzer Prize under its belt, there is no doubt that Hamilton has hit a rich vein.

It’s a musical telling a story set in the past but all about the here and now. It has a vibrant contemporary score; with hip-hop and spoken word presented by a company of performers, many of whom are of colour.

Theatre must constantly find new voices and tap into alternative forms of expression

Its success comes as no surprise to us at Theatre Royal Stratford East. For the past 15 years, we have invested in the development of new musical theatre through our MTI initiative and we understand that all theatre must constantly find new voices, tap into alternative forms of artistic expression and seek to expand into diverse cultures: to evolve or perish.

I’ve been asked whether a home-grown Hamilton phenomenon could have happened in the UK right now.

Well, I was recently in New York where, alongside Hamilton, also playing to full houses was The Color Purple – starring our very own Cynthia Erivo, a graduate of our in-house youth theatre who went on to RADA – and next door, Eclipsed. Across the way was Shuffle Along. All four shows have people of colour at the centre of their creation and execution. And the whole street was dominated by African-Americans going to see those shows.

This creates an entirely new theatrical ecology; a virtuous circle. The more successful these shows are, the more their audiences are seen as regular patrons, producers back shows that cater to their taste and the industry takes risks in other non-traditional areas.

By contrast, in Britain, culturally adventurous shows such as TRSE’s The Infidel or Bend It Like Beckham are so few and far between on mainstream stages that the burden of expectation becomes a crushing one. So the risk is either never taken or taken only briefly. The constant obstacle faced by producers seeking backing and space in the West End for such work is: “There isn’t an audience for it, is there?”

The expectation is that a single show must “bring to the theatre” an entire community. But of course it doesn’t work like that. Audiences must be gradually nurtured and developed.

Subsidised producing houses and touring companies have been taking on the mantle of developing such new work and new audiences, as well as exciting organisations like Perfect Pitch and events like BEAM. But the transfer to the mainstream is always more difficult for a show telling stories by those who are culturally unfamiliar.

Everyone accepts that some traditional pieces will be runaway successes and many will be miserable failures. But when it comes to work that either draws from more culturally diverse sources or involves a cast of predominantly people of colour, anything less than sold-out houses becomes a cautionary tale for others not to take risks in this area.

The level of critical review and debate across the UK could improve too. The recent cull of theatre critics and the extreme pressure on column inches has created a pincer movement that squeezes out much worthwhile work. So journalism is getting increasingly addicted to turning its gratitude only to consumer-friendly, ‘star-led’ vehicles.

When both critics and readers come from a homogenous group – in terms of race, age and class – it creates a feedback loop of relative conservatism in terms of taste.

But if a show is going to appeal to, say, the British Pakistani community, it needs people from within it to champion it. Schemes like The Stage’s own search for a new theatre critic may help with this.

We must also work towards expanding our appreciation of alternative musical styles. In America, hip hop is considered an art form in its own right, as is jazz or rap or latino music. In Europe, the mainstream appears to be slightly stuck in only considering a musical theatre style descended from opera and operetta. The positive news is that this was not always so, which means it doesn’t always have to be so. From the 1950s to the 1980s, musical theatre was much more closely aligned with pop culture. The hit songs of hit shows regularly topped the charts. Consequently, musical theatre had a larger, diverse, general audience – it didn’t have to vie for a piece of a very narrow, dedicated musical audience.

Would anyone today have taken a risk on a largely unknown Andrew Lloyd Webber, I wonder, bringing to them a show with a religiously contentious subject matter and filled with rock music? That’s why in our musical theatre summer workshop we relish working with composers who “don’t like” the musical form. “Great, change the form”, we demand back.

The double challenge is to ease expectations of such work a little – some will succeed, most will not; this is par for the course – while also overcoming our fear of getting it wrong. Because of a lack of cultural diversity in all aspects of musical theatre, from producers and directors to musicians and performers, there is a terror of offending someone, of being seen as cultural tourists. Or worse, appropriators.

There is only one solution to this conundrum and it is diversity. When I co-directed The Infidel with David Baddiel we had people in all aspects of the show – business, creative and technical areas – of all faiths and colours. This meant that issues could be thrashed out, mistakes corrected. This makes the work braver, bolder and – by extension – almost always more impactful.

We urgently need, for instance, an event to celebrate the achievements of diverse artists, to get them in the mainstream press. Awards are effectively trade shows. America has a plethora of People of Colour events, forums and awards.

I say all this, of course, against an increasing backlash from regressive elements who suggest that multiculturalism is a dirty word and diversity a politically correct burden. We, in the arts, have a duty to actively reject this world view. The exchange of ideas, the mingling of cultures, the creative mixing of styles, is the absolute lifeblood of cultural evolution. Do we really have to continue to import from the east coast of America to feed our musical theatre ambitions? Especially at a time when we celebrate our first London mayor of colour; and as he and the rest of us pound the streets of our capital, which are as diverse as any in the world.

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