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Mark Shenton’s week: The US is a factory for new musicals

Nick Cordero and Hudson Loverro in A Bronx Tale the Musical in New York. Photo: Joan Marcus
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Getting new musicals to public ears is a tough job, at least in the UK, where audiences are not ‘tuned’ into hearing them. The current Broadway season will have seen four new musicals open this side of Christmas: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was joined last week by A Bronx Tale that opened on December 1 and Dear Evan Hansen that opened on December 4, with In Transit to follow on December 11.

There are also four more new shows already announced for the new year, including Come from Away, War Paint, Anastasia and The Bandstand (all of them after regional try-outs), plus transfers from London of Groundhog Day and a revamped version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Jack O’Brien replacing Sam Mendes as director).

But then American musicals have a rigorous, well-tested route through from developmental workshops and Off-Broadway to regional try-outs (both A Bronx Tale and The Bandstand began their lives at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, where last week I also went to see the US premiere of the ongoing West End hit The Bodyguard ahead of a regional tour).

Of course we follow something of the same model in the UK, but not with anything like the rigour or opportunities enjoyed in the US. Nevertheless, when and where it does happen, the advantages are massive to both the show and the originating theatre. This coming week, I’ll be in Leeds for the UK premiere of the next iteration of Strictly Ballroom, first premiered in Australia in 2014 and now being restaged here by Drew McOnie.

As McOnie told me in an interview for The Stage, “I wanted to go somewhere where there’s an in-house artistic team that would feel resident with me… [the West Yorkshire Playhouse] is a very trusting environment, not to mention that the sets are being built and the costumes made in the building. Every tea break, I nip over to talk to the sets builders, props supervisor and carpenters – it’s so much better than endless emails. We’re making a show together – it’s a complete luxury.”

And West Yorkshire, of course, will be the beneficiary if and when it has a life beyond Leeds, too – not just in terms of royalties and participation, but also in terms of visibility and profile.

Playing the long game for musical theatre success

If you speak to producers, as I regularly do, you will find that many are chasing the holy grail of producing an original hit musical. Michael Harrison, whom I recently interviewed for The Stage, told me that even though Mrs Henderson Presents (that he brought to the West End earlier this year) didn’t recoup its investment, “I don’t regret doing it at all. If you do pantomime and The Bodyguard, you have to take risks, and not a lot of people are producing new British musicals.” He has two more in development right now.

I’ve also recently spoken to Australia’s John Frost, the leading importer of Broadway and West End musicals to Australia, and he, too, is always chasing the seemingly elusive prospect of an original hit. “Creating a new musical is really, really hard to do,” he commented.

He produced the original Australian production of the musical of Dr Zhivago in 2011 that went to Broadway last year and quickly expired. “I only had a little stake in it there – enough to buy you and I a nice dinner on a Friday night – but I would have licensed it straight to European opera houses, not Broadway or London,” he comments now.

Another new musical called Dream Lover, based on Bobby Darin’s catalogue of chart hits, has just finished a run in Sydney. “It got mixed reviews,” Frost told me, “but the audiences are just loving it. It still needs work, but I think there is an international market for it. I’m in no hurry though – I want to get it right first. We’ve seen what we’ve got and I think we can improve on it now.”

You have to play a longer game in musical theatre sometimes. And the Stable, a new producing company dedicated to developing new musicals, is doing just that.

Last week, it showcased four of the new shows it has in development in a one-night West End gala at the Lyric, including new shows by actor-turned-composer Douglas Hodge and Gwyneth Herbert, with actors that included Hodge himself, Haydn Gwynne, Sally Dexter, Mel Giedroyc, Clive Carter, Alex Gaumond, Niamh Perry and Emmanuel Kojo.

It was an interesting snapshot of the work done so far, though not necessarily possible to spot the true potential in such short extracts from each of them. For my own part, I was most intrigued by Herbert’s show Joan about the great theatrical pioneer Joan Littlewood. But does the public at large know who she is anymore?

Both ends of the band-size spectrum

Finally, I had two sublime musical evenings that couldn’t be more different in scale yet proved that what matters is the singer(s) and the song above all.

At the Pheasantry, the delightful musical theatre veteran Sally Ann Triplett – now resident in New York – returned home for a wonderful cabaret set that stretched from reprises of her own big National Theatre hit as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes to Sting’s Englishman in New York, which she subtly altered to Englishgirl in New York, and with whom she worked herself on Broadway a couple of years ago in his own original musical, The Last Ship.

And at the Royal Festival Hall, the London Gay Men’s Chorus celebrated its 25th anniversary with a rousing concert of classic songs from Bond themes and Gershwin to Paul Simon, Bernstein and Sondheim. Their haunting, ravishing a cappella version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which they sang in the Old Compton Street tribute to the victims of the Orlando shooting and features on their newly released silver jubilee album, reduced me to tears. The LGMC is all about community building; and sitting in the Festival Hall, I felt part of that community.