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Mark Shenton: All hail the theatres supporting new musicals in the UK

Jason Winter, Michael Lin and Ross Dawes in The Rink at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Darren Bell Jason Winter, Michael Lin and Ross Dawes in The Rink at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Darren Bell
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The West End is dominated by musicals in terms of attendance, revenue and longevity. While plays are shoehorned into 14 or 15-week runs, musicals typically run on and on – their costs may be far higher, but so are their returns and capacity for finding a seemingly limitless audience.

Yet, few musicals arrive fully formed in the West End – unless they’ve been tried and tested on Broadway. Instead, they are the culmination of a development process begun years earlier in workshops, fringe theatres and regional try-outs.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber bought the St James theatre in 2017 and relaunched it as the Other Palace with Paul Taylor-Mills appointed as artistic director, there was the promise of it becoming Britain’s first-ever dedicated house for musicals.

At the time, Lloyd Webber told me: “I want it to be a place where anyone can develop shows, to make it a place where people can come and try things. 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.”

Sixteen months later, the bar has just been lowered on those ambitions, and if not entirely shelved, then at least substantially modified. Though the studio will remain dedicated to developing new productions, the theatre itself will revert to being a receiving house for hire, with Chris Harper – producer for Elliot Harper Productions – appointed as director of programming, and will offer plays as well as musicals.

Lloyd Webber’s Other Palace drops musicals-only remit in leadership shake-up

Yet, this comes at a time when the theatre was beginning to hit its stride. Just last week I attended an industry night for a delightful workshop staging of a new British musical based on the film Son of Rambow, and it seemed to be exactly what was originally envisioned: a place of play and playfulness, in which an as-yet-unfinished musical could get its sea legs in front of an audience, who are invited to contribute to the discussion of how it could be improved.

During the past year, I’ve also been to staged readings of other new musicals at the theatre or revised versions of older ones: Lloyd Webber has workshopped new versions of Stephen Ward and Starlight Express here.

And if the artistic thrust of the main house has been more to do with showcasing US shows that haven’t been seen here, such as Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House, Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish and currently Heathers, it also offered British musicals like (the overexposed) Exposure and Eugenius!. The latter was such a success it is to return soon.

Obviously Lloyd Webber can’t be a one-person philanthropist for musicals, and the Other Palace-model costs money. But 16 months hardly seems long enough to have established the kind of traction and audience development to put it on the map before changing course.

Instead, it seems that the Old Vic and Southwark Playhouse are increasingly becoming the go-to houses for fans of new musicals and rare revivals.

The Old Vic’s 2016 hit The Girl from the North Country, which subsequently transferred to the Noel Coward theatre, has just announced its transfer to the Public Theater in New York next year. This September it will premiere the Sadler’s Wells and ZooNation co-production Sylvia, written by Kate Prince and Priya Parmar, which celebrates the life of Suffragette campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst.

Southwark Playhouse currently has a terrific staging of Kander and Ebb’s rarely seen 1984 musical The Rink, and later this year is offering a London outing for Bring It On, a musical that includes contributions from Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ahrens and Flaherty’s Seussical.

With Southwark recently announcing plans to have not one but two venues – as it returns to London Bridge but also occupying another space near Elephant and Castle – its role in providing a home for musicals can only expand.

It’s a pity that the Menier – which once led the way in terms of looking at Broadway musicals in a new way that even took them back to Broadway, with A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage Aux Folles – has lost its golden touch for now (though they have this season taken Tom Stoppard’s Travesties there).

Outside of London, Sheffield-originated Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which has just announced a West End extension to next April and a feature film adaptation, while Flowers for Mrs Harris, which it premiered in 2016, is to receive another outing at Chichester Festival Theatre this summer.

Elsewhere, Northampton’s Royal & Derngate recently announced a major new initiative to lead a consortium to develop new musicals specifically for mid-scale venues.

As artistic director James Dacre said: “We shall support at least 150 artists to create a diverse range of truly original new work. These are exciting times. The will, the talent and the audience is out there but only through sharing the risk, the resources and expertise can this step-change happen.”

Hear, hear. But they are not alone: other regional theatres such as Colchester’s Mercury (where I recently saw Pieces of String receive its premiere), Ipswich’s New Wolsey, Nottingham Playhouse and Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester are also venues to watch.

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