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Mark Shenton: At last, writers have spaces to nurture the next great British musical

John McCrea and Tamsin Carroll in new musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie. Photo: Johan Persson
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The original West End musical has, with a few honourable exceptions, been in the creative doldrums since the 1990s. Mamma Mia! opened here in 1999 before achieving global success, and this century the big-hearted Billy Elliot and Matilda have become hits.

The latter came from the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon. I have also been a huge fan of two National Theatre-originated musicals, Jerry Springer – The Opera and London Road, which both played radically with form as well as content, as well as two beautifully scored Howard Goodall musicals: Love Story and Bend It Like Beckham.

But we’re nowhere near the 1980s heyday of the British musical, when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh created a new template for musical theatre as a uniquely British export, either together (as with Cats and The Phantom of the Opera), or separately (Starlight Express for Lloyd Webber, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon for Mackintosh).

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the shows they created, with an emphasis on spectacle, coincided with the biggest crisis in Broadway history. At that time, deteriorating conditions had made Times Square an inhospitable place, while the arrival of HIV/Aids wiped out nearly an entire generation of Broadway talent.

Broadway’s resurgence as a creative force has restored its fortunes in every sense, particularly as a generator of musical comedies. This includes The Producers, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, as well as more serious revolutionary fare such as Fun Home and Hamilton. But on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve been playing catch-up again. The answer isn’t imitation, but rediscovering our own roots in telling authentically British stories in properly English forms.

In recent weeks, I’ve welcomed two new British musicals to the stage that give hope of green shoots of recovery in the genre. First there was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a wonderfully quirky musical about a 16-year-old schoolboy’s journey towards self-realisation through drag. Then The Girls, which tells of a group of Women’s Institute members who create a nude calendar to raise funds for a memorial to one of their number’s recently deceased husband.

Both are based on true stories of great personal courage and defying expectations to make a difference. And both shows will make a difference to the evolution of a uniquely British form. They rely not on spectacle, but on honesty and heart – and are scored by pop writers making a crossover to musical theatre: the Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells for Jamie and Take That’s Gary Barlow for The Girls.

Both shows sit outside the box of conventional musical theatre, but have embraced it warmly. And a new generation of writers is being actively developed and courted elsewhere.

In a joint venture between Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network and the RSC, Sarah Llewellyn has been appointed the Cameron Mackintosh resident composer at the RSC, beginning this month. She will compose music for new plays, work with the education department, collaborate on a Shakespeare production and develop an original musical idea of her own. Meanwhile, Theatre Royal Stratford East has just launched a year-long partnership with the New Musical Development Collective, a company focused on dramaturgy and development of musicals. It will support four new musical projects and eight artists in a musical-theatre lab, founded and run by Sevan Tavoukdjian, Adam Lenson and Aaron Rogers.

Lloyd Webber’s own project aims to turn the Other Palace Theatre into a home for the development, workshopping and production of new musicals. Paul Taylor-Mills, the young producer Lloyd Webber has appointed as the theatre’s artistic director, has said that when they set out on this journey, the composer asked him: “Where are the new musicals and the new voices? Why aren’t we finding them?” Taylor-Mills replied: “We’re looking in the wrong places.”

Just as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has become a show that everyone is indeed now talking about, opportunities need to be created for shows like it to be developed. And that’s key to the mission of the Other Palace. As Taylor-Mills commented, the theatre represents a “brilliant opportunity [for composers] to be subsidised to get their shows right. We give them the space and freedom to do that. We need to get the whole genre cooking again in Britain”.

It finally feels like that’s happening. Just as American musical theatre artists have long found a nurturing and receptive home in producing theatres in New York and beyond, so aspiring British writers are at last being afforded access to a network of their own.

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