Mark Shenton: Witnessing the birth of a new age of British musical theatre
In Arthur Miller’s great masterpiece Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman famously says of her husband, Willy: “Attention must be paid to such a person!” And to co-opt it to musical theatre: “Attention must be paid to such a genre!”
Musicals already dominate the West End – eight million people bought tickets to see them last year, against four million for plays – so surely a lot of attention (and the lion’s share of the box office) is already going their way. How much more of a leg-up do they really need?
The fact is that, while new writing of plays thrives in theatres up and down the land, there’s hardly ever been a truly coordinated attempt to develop and promote new musicals from the ground-up. Until now.
Sure, there are shows such as the National Theatre’s disappointing Wonder.land and its previous (though also disappointing) The Light Princess; or its triumphant productions of Jerry Springer: The Opera and London Road that have emerged, and show the opposing sides of the coin that separate success and failure. The Royal Shakespeare Company, too, has scored a major global triumph with Matilda. And London’s Old Vic is about to put its summer musical, Groundhog Day, reuniting the composer Tim Minchin and the creative team of Matilda, on sale. At Sheffield, soon-to-depart artistic director Daniel Evans has just announced the premier of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which will premiere at the Crucible in February 2017.
A few commercial producers invest long and hard in developing new musicals – two of this year’s four Olivier nominees for best musical are British shows, the recently departed Bend It Like Beckham (produced by Sonia Friedman) and the recently arrived Mrs Henderson Presents (produced by Michael Harrison), while Jamie Hendry also has a new Stiles and Drewe musical of The Wind in the Willows premiering regionally in Plymouth in October, with an eye (presumably) on a West End transfer.
There are also smaller-scale initiatives, such as Aria Entertainment’s annual From Page to Stage festival, now in its fourth year, or Perfect Pitch — first established in 2008 and now in receipt of Arts Council England funding, which will see a show developed under its auspices head to the West End with the opening of The Go-Between in May, five years after it was co-produced by three regional theatres.
I’ve never felt a buzz quite like it
But last week, for the first time, we saw how they are only part of a much bigger picture of new musicals that are being written by independent writers all over the place. Beam:2016, co-produced by Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network in association with the Park Theatre, was a two-day event held at the latter – and I’ve never felt a buzz quite like it. I chaired the opening session in which I spoke to three younger directors – Adam Lenson, Kate Golledge and Lottie Wakeham – about the challenges of developing and creating the new musicals that they’re each actively involved in.
It was then followed by a series of workshops and presentations in three of the Park’s spaces – its 200-seat main house, 90-seat studio and upstairs meeting room – in which six new musicals were given 25-minute showcases, another 25 were given 10-minute pitching platforms, and another nine producing organisations pitched shows they had in development, including West End actor-turned-producer Michael Peavoy, who is co-producing a brand-new musical The Buskers Opera that is premiering at London’s Park Theatre in April.
More than 40 writers were represented. Some of them are already established, such as Dougal Irvine (who as well as The Buskers Opera was also pitching Angry Birds, a new show I saw an early development workshop of at a college in east London), Craig Adams (whose Therese Raquin played at the Park after transferring from the Finborough Theatre), Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger (who wrote the musical version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, that was produced at Leicester’s Curve Theatre) and Tim Sutton (currently working at the National as musical director on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and previously in the West End as MD on Memphis the Musical). But none has yet had a break-out hit that might send them on their way; while lots of other younger writers, such as Tamar Broadbent, Chris Ash and Tim Connor are also circling around, waiting for a break.
What Beam did was to bring them all to the same party – and make them part of a community, rather than being isolated in their writing cells. New York has many such initiatives; now, for the first time in recent history, London has provided one. And it isn’t just about inventing the future, but also learning the lessons of the past: one workshop saw Claude-Michel Schonberg, composer of the longest-running musical in West End history (Les Miserables) sharing his wisdom and experience with Brunger and Cleary on their new National Youth Music Theatre show Prodigy; another saw the ever-erudite Jeremy Sams and Howard Goodall talking about workshopping experiences, with Goodall demonstrating how one song in his show Bend It Like Beckham changed over the course of four workshops.
It was an inspiring event – and a provocative one. The future of the British musical may well have born in those two days in Finsbury Park.