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Richard Jordan: We’re judging new musicals by the wrong standards

A scene from Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“You’ll Miss Saigon” says the advertising slogan on posters marking Miss Saigon’s final West End performance on February 27 after a 19-month run.

Its first London revival has also been commented upon in various articles as being unsuccessful and it has repeatedly been compared to the 4,264 performance run of the original 1989 production.

The problem is that when it comes to many new British musicals, (such as Bend It Like Beckham, which closes next month after a nine-month West End run) today’s judgement of a musical’s success or failure by media, industry and then, conversely, audience, is still based on comparison with a few British hit musicals that ran in the 1980s and went on to become lucrative global exports.

The 1989 production of Miss Saigon was the last of these British-produced exports and marked the end of a decade when the British-produced musical dominated both sides of the Atlantic.

Where once a musical running one or two years would have been a great success, that achievement has now been devalued. The 1989 production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love was the first time I heard the expression ‘West End failure’ applied to a show that had, in fact, run a very credible 1,325 performances but was being compared to Lloyd Webber’s previous musical, The Phantom of the Opera.

It negated the fact that it was a far more complex musical score with less broad appeal than his other 1980s musicals. However, the more we apply a blanket judgment upon every new musical, so we make the struggle for new work breaking on to main stages much harder.

Let’s not forget that this West End revival of Miss Saigon had quickly recouped. By any standards, that should surely make it a success? If we look back to 1940-1960, the era described as the golden age of Broadway, those legendary hit Broadway musicals reflect run lengths more akin with many of today’s productions.

Perhaps we would be better treating the 1980s as an anomaly rather than the definitive yardstick by which we judge all new musicals (especially British ones)? For example, take the Broadway run lengths for the original productions of: West Side Story (732 performances); South Pacific (1,925); The Sound of Music (1,443) and The King and I (1,246).

Broadway does not make the same judgements in comparing its composers today to those of two, three or even four decades ago; instead, it is looking forward. Embracing the musical as an evolving art form has undoubtedly helped Broadway’s recovery from the 1980s when the American musical had been relegated, owing to a handful of British and French composers.

While the British are still busy reminiscing over their Broadway musical conquests two decades ago, Broadway’s own recovery has been achieved through various producing theatres’ in-house development programmes together with a strong national focus of its theatres committed to producing new American musicals – many of which have successfully made it on to the commercial Broadway stage.

Neither does Broadway continually push the word ‘new’ when it comes to its composers. Even today, I still hear British writing duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (arguably our most successful British composers since Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice and Elton John) described as ‘new composers’. They have been writing together for more than 30 years but to date, aside from various West End concert performances of their works, they have had only one solely British-produced and commissioned musical with an entirely original score composed by them get a West End run: Betty Blue Eyes in 2011. That’s in contrast to Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, who has had five musicals produced on Broadway since 1998.

We need to build a greater recognition from the wider public of today’s active emerging and established British musical composers, and also for the work of UK organisations such as Mercury and Musical Theatre Network, who support the development of new musical work. This has never been more important if the British musical is to have a future, together with also reassessing how we both measure and quantify the success of a West End musical.

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