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Richard Jordan: The UK’s disrespect for musicals is holding us back

Obioma Ugoala (centre) in Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy Obioma Ugoala (centre) in Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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More than any other art form, the musical seems to have the ability to cause an extreme reaction – either in support of the form or against.

You may well hear someone express a dislike for opera or Shakespeare, but even then it will usually be with a level of respect. Neither is likely to be dismissed outright or face the venomous response that the musical can prompt.

I find this both surprising and disappointing, especially when – as is so often in the UK – that attitude of disdain comes from other creatives in the industry.

The UK perpetuates an inverted snobbery towards musical theatre as being a lesser art form

Theatre is proud of being a supportive and collaborative industry, but in the case of musical theatre the UK can perpetuate an inverted snobbery towards it as being a lesser art form.

Maybe it’s because the form is considered commercial that many musicals are seen as “selling out,” or because of the litany of legendary flops in a quest for success.

Yet I believe the musical is the most accessible of all art forms. It has an unsurpassed ability to connect with its audiences across the widest of demographics, it raises issues and frequently challenges prejudices.

Among musical sceptics, there is a habit of treating the art form as trendy: it’s currently in vogue for them to fawn over Hamilton. I overheard a colleague rant about their dislike of musicals a few weeks ago only to go on to grandly praise Hamilton by claiming: “it’s not a musical, it’s a movement!”

Hamilton’s success rests, however, in its use of a classic Broadway book musical structure. It is arguably groundbreaking in pushing the form forward but achieves this because it follows the rules of musical theatre; it is as much about Rodgers and Hammerstein as it is about hip-hop.

This fusion is what makes it pioneering, but there’s an argument that a work such as Fela! is far more revolutionary in musical theatre form and a greater achievement to have ever secured its position on Broadway.

The greatest gift that American theatre gave the world is the musical. The US and its arts practitioners value this art form in a way that their UK counterparts do not. Great musical writers in America are held in the same regard and respect as their great dramatists.

Were Andrew Lloyd Webber an American musical composer, he may be given a greater respect for his body of work and past successes over the negative reception that he often receives from some UK arts practitioners and members of the public.

We should consider his breadth of subject matter and variations of style, for which there is an argument that he could, in fact, be the most prolific musical theatre composer of all time. With Cats and Song and Dance, he is also the British composer responsible for bringing dance to the mainstream British musical; in form, that could be considered as groundbreaking for its time as Hamilton is today.

The greatest gift that American theatre gave the world is the musical. The US and its arts practitioners value this art form in a way their UK counterparts do not. 

Last week, Lloyd Webber and veteran Broadway producer Barry Weissler spoke out about how the UK was lagging badly behind the US in its musical industry.

The problem is all too often we pat ourselves on the back as being the nation that produced William Shakespeare. This attitude can breed theatrical snobs who freely pour scorn upon the musical as being an inferior, populist art form, conveniently forgetting that Shakespeare is the most commercial writer of all time.

This attitude may also be why the British musical will never be able to pull itself out of the sand.

Another problem is the UK often tries too hard with new main-stage musicals. The belief is that a new show needs to push the form forward, that it will only be legitimised and cutting-edge by having a pop composer such as Damon Albarn writing the score, as opposed to looking at the wealth of British musical talent being championed by organisations such as Mercury or BEAM.

US main-stage success is, and has been, driven by its theatres investing in the valuable development of its homegrown musical-theatre talent. This is often through specific in-house programmes such as those at Lincoln Center, Playwrights Horizon, 5th Avenue and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

In contrast, the National Theatre Studio, our country’s leading producing-theatres-engine-room for creative development, scrapped the post of musical theatre associate during Nicholas Hytner’s leadership of the organisation.

Theatre Royal Stratford East recently revealed it was to end its musical theatre programme – which had received ongoing Arts Council England support over a number of years.

We have come a long way since 1891, when impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte opened the Palace Theatre in the West End as the intended home for the English Operetta. It was short-lived, however, as there were not enough British operettas to present.

Today, a number of interesting UK composers and lyricists are coming through but they need a significant main-stage platform for their work. However, if they are to succeed, there needs to be a greater home-grown respect, belief and awareness towards their craft which starts from the inside of our industry, which will in turn radiate out to the public at large.

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