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Mark Shenton: Will influx of Broadway musicals prove too much of a good thing?

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Prince Harry with the cast of Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre. Photo: Craig Sugden Lin-Manuel Miranda and Prince Harry with the cast of Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre. Photo: Craig Sugden
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Donald Trump hasn’t (yet) slapped a punitive tariff on theatrical shows crossing the Atlantic, even though Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the National Theatre’s revival of Angels in America scooped six and three Tony awards respectively this year.

Next month, too, will see the transfer of the Royal Court’s production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman to Broadway, as well as the Off-Broadway opening of the Old Vic’s production of Girl from the North Country at the Public Theater. And, in November, Broadway performances will begin for the transfer of the National’s hit stage version of the film Network.

But we have also seen a lot of New York-originated (or in one case, Broadway-bound) products coming the other way to London. Last year’s biggest Olivier winner was Hamilton. Its composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was in town last week for a Royal Charity Gala attended by Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. He also dropped in to see a London outing of his 2012 Broadway musical Bring It On at its final performance at Southwark Playhouse.

Meanwhile, The King and I, the 2015 winner of the best musical revival Tony, is currently playing a hit summer season at the London Palladium. The 2014 Off-Broadway version of Heathers is about to begin performances at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket after a sell-out initial run at the Other Palace.

The next few months will also see the London premiere of Hadestown, a new American musical originally seen at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, at the National Theatre from November 2 to January 26, en route back to Broadway; plus transfers, in quick succession, for Come from Away (to the Phoenix) and Waitress (to the Adelphi), both in February.

There’s also a transfer for Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2004 Broadway musical Caroline, Or Change, in a new production originated at Chichester’s Minerva, to the West End’s Playhouse in November, while Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home (a 2015 Tony winner for best musical, which has just ended a run at the Young Vic) is virtually certain to transfer to the West End, too. There’s also a lot of chatter that the 2017 Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen is eyeing a London transfer.

It will be a challenge for producers to establish their shows in such a crowded marketplace

As welcome as all this activity is, it is also slightly worrying that the deluge of productions arriving simultaneously could dissipate the audience. Yes, musical aficionados will want to see them all; but a wider public may not have the funds or inclination to do so. It will also be an added challenge for producers to establish their shows in such a crowded marketplace.

But there’s something else that’s being crowded out by this, and that is British composers and creatives. As the second BEAM Festival, held in March at Theatre Royal Stratford East, proved, there are numerous British musicals awaiting full production. More than 300 writing teams pitched their work, and more than 50 shows were showcased. But where are the theatres taking them up?

Obviously, we’ve seen some healthy examples of theatres that have invested in a proper process for developing new musicals, including the Sheffield-born nurturing of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (which is now an established hit at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue) and Flowers for Mrs Harris (which is about to have a second run this month at Chichester Festival Theatre. I also loved Colchester’s production of Gus Gowland’s Pieces of String back in April.

And, earlier this year, James Dacre at Northampton announced an initiative to revitalise the production of new mid-scale musicals, leading a consortium that includes Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network, Perfect Pitch, Scottish Opera, Improbable and China Plate that is being funded by Arts Council England to create four original musicals.

Mark Shenton: Exciting new musicals are starting to blossom in regional theatres

Elsewhere, though, originality is in short supply, with old film titles being retro-fitted with jukebox soundtracks to make new musicals, or yet more reruns of off-the-shelf titles such as Grease or Fame. There is an audience for those titles, but I only wish that theatres could aim a little higher.

Boldness pays off, as witness such Royal Shakespeare Company-led shows as the long-ago Les Miserables and the more recent Matilda, the National’s successes with Jerry Springer: The Opera and London Road, or the triumphs of Matthew Warchus’ Old Vic with Groundhog Day and Girl from the North Country.

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