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Mark Shenton: Is the Other Palace a new home for British musicals?

The Other Palace's artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills. Photo: Darren Bell
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In this column last week I noted that Broadway has the competitive edge over Britain when it comes to staging new musicals. I suggested there was a lack of confidence in the possible returns: investors don’t like throwing money away, but are willing to take the high-risk gamble based on the hope that they might be backing the next The Producers, Hairspray or Hamilton.

There are also multiple development channels for new musicals in America that, by and large, don’t exist in the UK. Almost every regional theatre in America is committed to producing a new musical every year, not to mention leading Off-Broadway venues such as the Public (original home to Hamilton and Fun Home), New York Theatre Workshop (Rent, recently Close to You and Lazarus, all of which came to London), Second Stage (Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen) and Atlantic Theatre (Spring Awakening).

The Royal Shakespeare Company was behind Matilda and the National behind London Road, and neither show might have reached fruition without them. Meanwhile, a commercial producer, Global Creatures, is using the West Yorkshire Playhouse to launch the UK premiere of a stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom. But these are exceptions, rather than the rule. We have lacked a theatre that puts new musical development at the core of its artistic identity.

Until now, that is. After Andrew Lloyd Webber purchased London’s St James Theatre last year, he announced ambitious plans to do just that. Rebranded the Other Palace, it will reopen with refurbished front-of-house areas and an artistic policy implemented by new artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills.

I was recently invited to the Really Useful Group’s offices to talk to Lloyd Webber and Taylor-Mills about their plans for the space. Lloyd Webber is keen to distance himself from the day-to-day running of the venue: “I want to try to slay the dragon of a feeling that it’s somehow to be run for musicals I am producing; it’s not. I want it to be a place where anyone can develop shows, to make it a place where people can come and try things.”

Importantly, he is putting the emphasis on development, not finished work: “We are not encouraging people to come in with fully fledged work. The idea, based on my experience of working on School of Rock at the Gramercy in New York, is that you can work on the material without having the complications that automation brings, and you can change things easily.”

The downstairs studio will be repurposed as an active laboratory for workshops, while the larger main house will have a mixture of new titles or shows that are new to London. Taylor-Mills is presiding over the first two such shows: Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party upstairs, with a cast including Frances Ruffelle and John Owen-Jones, with the Off-Broadway show Murder for Two in the studio.

“We have to build an audience from zero,” comments Lloyd Webber, “so that’s why Paul feels he needs to start with a couple of shows that are known quantities to establish it. But we hope that there will be enough people who are of a like mind that they will want to be a part of it going forward.”

Taylor-Mills agrees: “We need to build an audience that isn’t there, and it’s our job to catch up with New York.”

Lloyd Webber points out that while the current Broadway season has 14 new musicals opening, “we’ve only had Groundhog Day open, another show at the National that has come and gone and Gary Barlow’s The Girls on the way”. He continues: “I’ve excluded School of Rock, as that opened in New York first; so did Aladdin and Dreamgirls. Rome isn’t going to be built in a day, but this is a way of trying to start something in London where new musicals can be seeded.”

Lloyd Webber admits a venue like this might have benefited shows of his such as Love Never Dies and Stephen Ward, which opened cold in the West End to less than happy results.

“Everyone wants to go straight to the West End, but it’s probably a bad idea. If we’d taken School of Rock to Chicago, we’d have learnt very little as we couldn’t have reprogrammed the automation, unless we cancelled some previews – and then we’d have had people saying it was in dire trouble.” Instead, the show flew entirely under the radar and was shown to invited audiences Off-Broadway.

It’s a model he hopes to reproduce here. Taylor-Mills confesses: “I’m having awkward conversations with writers who want to do fully produced shows, but I’m saying they should use this brilliant opportunity 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’s an ambitious project. I said to Andrew at the start of the process, ‘I’m going to make mistakes,’ and he said, ‘I’ve got your back.’ ”

This could mark a new dawn for British musicals.