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Soapbox: Writers, don’t give up on your new musical

St James Theatre in London. Photo: Photo: Agnese Sanvito
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A genuine producer looks out towards the future. I’m tempted to ask how many new musicals have been written in the past 16 years? I could go further and include the whole of the 20th century. Could the number now be approaching a million? There are certainly thousands of new musicals out there. But where are they? They remain invisible: thousands of new songs unheard and stories untold.

New musicals now face inflated expectations. They must compete with revivals and adaptations that are considered more likely to become the West End or Broadway’s next blockbuster, raking in huge profits. But the problems for new musicals run deeper than the financial margins.

Consider profit versus art. Let’s begin by comparing new musicals with paintings. John Berger asked a similar question in his 1972 essay Past Seen from a Possible Future:

Has anyone ever tried to estimate how many framed oil paintings, dating from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, there are in existence? During the last fifty years a large number must have been destroyed. But even to guess at it is to realise that what is normally counted as art, and on the evidence of which art historians and experts generalise about the European tradition, is a quantitatively insignificant fraction of what was actually produced.

Musicals are not critiqued by art historians or put into progressive categories, but importantly what Berger’s question signifies is that a painting needs to be seen like a musical. Musicals also require an extra sense: listening. Paintings that have been chosen by art dealers and are placed within the art market find a place. Either they find a place in a gallery, or on a wall. New musicals, with their fresh paint not yet dry – if it has not found a producer then it has no place. It remains invisible.

Tragically, so do the artists. The hours, the days and the years that go into a single musical are lost. Of course, I am not suggesting that musicals are intentionally being destroyed. But if they have no place, if they remain unseen and unheard, then they are destroyed. They are a kind of new modern waste.

A few years ago, I approached a director representative of an outreach programme regarding my own new musical project. I intended to write a musical that contained contemporary themes, a TiE project that would appeal to today’s youth about the problems they are facing in our so-called modern world. The first words he said were: “Seriously, everyone I speak to is writing a bloody musical.”

From that moment, I knew there was no point in collaborating. This is an exemplification of not only jealousy and envy but a sense of losing control. Musical snobbery has for too long invaded the intrinsic values of what a musical actually is. It also represents the continuous and present threat of an obsolete theatre class – a conservative class that chose its actors, bought its theatre season tickets, went to every musical show and drank glass after glass of wine while discussing how good or bad the singers’ and actors’ performances were.

What it also represented, especially during the 1970s and 1980s in the West End, was a privileged minority. They had the knowledge, and used it to their advantage, and they had the capital to produce their shows. The majority of current West End producers, in my view, do not take risks any longer. The musicals that dominated in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were new musicals; producers took risks to invest in art, for its own sake and for the future.

We have been left with a musical theatre industry dominated by a few successful writers and producers. The work has become monopolised in the name of profit.

But imagination is returning. The public wants new musicals. The revolution for new musicals has already started. While there may not be a platform through which to access new musicals now, as old attitudes fade and new producers scout for fresh work, a new art will emerge – we will see an explosion of new musicals.

My advice to artists is this: keep writing and don’t stop – for your work will become visible again.

By Patrick Phillips. Since graduating from Huddersfield Technical College with a BTec in performing arts, Phillips has abandoned acting and dancing to focus on writing. In 2015, he was commissioned as an additional lyricist on new musical Out of Place at the York New Musicals Festival. He is currently writing his second novel.

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