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James Hadley: The UK’s musical renaissance needs industry support to break into the mainstream

John McCrea in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson John McCrea in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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New musical theatre is enjoying a renaissance in the UK, but most of it is happening away from public and wider industry awareness.

A success story such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which premiered at Sheffield Crucible before transferring to the West End last year, stands out as a rarity compared with the dominant Broadway imports and revivals.

Occasionally, regional theatres get together to co-produce a new British musical, such as when Watford Palace and Octagon Theatre Bolton teamed up for I Capture the Castle. Notably, both this and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie required further partnership with commercial producers and/or public subsidy.

Staging a new musical on the mid-scale is an expensive business, so most such productions are still staged in smaller, fringe venues – for example, Buried by Tom Williams and Cordelia O’Driscoll, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and will receive its first London run at the Pleasance Theatre in April.

Buried: A New Musical review at C Too, Edinburgh – ‘excellent vocal performances’

Such productions seem to have been increasing in recent years. Certainly the number of workshops of new musicals funded by Arts Council England has increased significantly. But is that evidence of a renaissance?

Indications of green shoots include the Other Palace’s welcome emergence as a London venue programming exclusively musical theatre, and a marked increase in the number of higher-education courses in writing and producing musicals.

We’re also seeing more producing theatres investing in the development of new musicals to a greater degree, including the National Theatre, New Wolsey, Hope Mill, Old Vic, and Royal and Derngate Theatres.

When Musical Theatre Network and Mercury Musical Developments produced the first BEAM – the biennial industry showcase of new musicals in development, which opens today (March 1, 2018) – in 2016 at the Park Theatre, it featured presentations of 40 British shows in development, at least 24 of which went on to receive development support or production.

Two years on, 300 applications were submitted to BEAM, double that of the inaugural event. Significantly, that’s more than the applications received last year for New York’s annual National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival – the American equivalent on which BEAM was originally based.

Increased numbers of artists developing musicals does not indicate a renaissance in itself. However, the quality, diversity and innovation of the work shared at the pitching days – and the diverse nature of the pitches themselves – does. The writers presented have a 50:50 gender split, and more than a fifth of the projects are written by those of black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage.

These are all encouraging signs, but what we most need for the renaissance to happen is more fully staged productions. New playwriting grew in popularity through the second half of the 20th century due to theatres committing to commissioning and staging new plays within every year’s programme.

Until we have a similar level of commitment to nurturing new musicals, the art form’s development will continue to be held back. It is time for the industry to support the artists making the high-quality, though less visible, work. This includes using some of the profits of lower-risk stagings of musical revivals to subsidise support for commissioning and staging new musicals.

Venues need to develop their audiences’ taste for the form, too. The New Wolsey Theatre is a bold example of having nurtured in-house audiences for new musicals through regularly programming them so that the box office risk has decreased. Only through regular programming of such work do audiences grow.

James Hadley is executive director of Musical Theatre Network, the co-producer of BEAM with Mercury Musical Developments

BEAM 2018 runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London on March 1 and 2