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Poppy Burton-Morgan: Female musical theatre writers must hustle harder to be heard in West End

Hit shows like Six reflect the rise of women writers in musical theatre. Writer and artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan says the talent is out there, but the perfect pitch is crucial to breaking the ‘glass curtain’

In 2017, Mark Shenton asked, in a column for The Stage [1], where the women writing musicals were. Two years on, and the answer is: “We’re here.” We’ve always been here, but finally there’s tangible evidence on stages around the country.

There’s the West End transfer of Pippa Cleary’s Adrian Mole musical [2], the extraordinary success of Lucy Moss’ Six [3] with its revisionist history (‘herstory’), and mine and Cleary’s hip-hop musical In the Willows [4] smashing it out on tour. Two hip-hop musicals about the Suffragettes are in development with Kate Prince’s Sylvia, and the Guilty Feminist’s musical Suffrageddon, which has no fewer than four female writers on the team. It’s a great time to acknowledge and celebrate the rise of female musical theatre writers.

Beyond those shows, fellow writer Jenifer Toksvig’s Facebook group for women (and non-binary, gender non-conforming) writers of musical theatre has more than 700 members. We’re here. We’ve actually been here for ages, and in significant numbers. The pertinent question is, despite that critical mass: why are so few of us breaking through the ‘glass curtain’ with shows making it into production and the West End?

While things have got better, only two years ago The Stage found that nearly nine out of 10 musicals in the West End had a book written entirely by men. While there has been change in the intervening time, there is still a long way to go.

Exclusive: Male writers outnumber women 9:1 in British musicals [5]

Speaking from my own experience, running a theatre company – as both I with Metta Theatre and Kate Prince [6] with ZooNation [7] do – has massively helped. We have the agency to get our work put on and circumnavigate the gatekeepers and holders of the purse strings, the latter being producers and investors, who in the commercial musical theatre sector are still predominantly middle-aged white men for whom gender parity and (apart from a few notable exceptions) issues of diversity and representation are not pressing concerns. Musicals tend to sit within a commercial – rather than subsidised – production model, so the weighting that Arts Council England gives to promoting and developing ‘diverse’ artists doesn’t fully reach into commercial theatre.

The cast of In the Willows at Oxford Playhouse. Photo: Richard Davenport

Why should it be any harder to get your work on as a woman? Hundreds of us have our work ‘developed’, showcased and workshopped every year. And the launch of Bella Barlow’s Women’s Musical Theatre Initiative earlier this year was a welcome opportunity for female writers to have work showcased. But strikingly few pieces by female writers make their way into full production. Musical theatre is a tough nut to crack. It is more expensive to make than dance or straight drama and harder to get right: the alchemy of music, words and movement are just that – an alchemy.

While the UK has a flourishing ecology for the development of new plays, with dramaturgs and literary departments able to tell whether a script has ‘legs’ simply by reading it, the same is not true for musicals. The workshopping and development processes for musical theatre are far less established, well-structured and transparent than they are for plays. And when opportunities do arise they favour writers able to hustle, which tends to be men.

Working across theatre, musical theatre and opera, I have observed first-hand how the market-driven capitalist principles that underlie commercial theatre makes getting musicals on much more reliant on pitching and hustling. Several of my female composer friends cite their male writing collaborators’ ability to network on behalf of them both as key to their success.

The harsh reality is that there are some extraordinary musical theatre writers out there not getting the breaks because they’re not at ‘those’ parties and not adept at the art of the three-minute elevator pitch. Every single female writer that I have spoken to on this subject cites lack of ‘hustle’ or being self-deprecating about their own writing as a barrier to getting their work produced.

A highly successful female composer told me confidentially that after she failed to get onto one of the (rare) composer-in-residence schemes, one of the panel called her up to offer feedback. She was told that while on paper she was far more experienced than the two male composers who were also short-listed, at interview she downplayed her talents and achievements while they massively overstated theirs.

Toby Murray with the original cast of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. Photo: Pamela Raith

This is true of many female playwrights too – and many women, full stop. But for plays, the script and literary agents can speak for us in a way that musical scripts can’t. That’s why workshops are so crucial; but if you’re not in the room to witness the alchemy of book and music, it’s hard to convince with dry demos and archive footage of the day. So the pitch is still paramount.

The final piece of the puzzle is risk. Some musical theatre prospects are obviously riskier than others. Indeed, In the Willows – which transposes The Wind in the Willows to an urban state school and is brought to life through rap, hip-hop dance, soaring ballads and British Sign Language – would never have reached the stage without a significant investment from Arts Council England.

Now that it’s proved itself on tour, the commercial producers are hammering the door down. Adrian Mole followed a similar path, starting out in the Leicester Curve Studio in 2015. In these risk-averse times with funding cuts left, right and centre – as well as shrinking disposable income – it feels harder and harder to take risks, but it’s precisely those innovative and imaginative new works and adaptations that are capturing the public’s imagination.

The rise and rise of Six – a pop concert re-imagining Henry VIII’s wives as proto-feminist pop divas in a singing competition – is thrilling audiences in town and on tour. With the cast album being streamed 60,000 times on Spotify, there’s clearly an appetite – even a fierce hunger – for musical theatre that’s taking artistic risks and representing women’s voices. And in terms of perceived financial risk, let us look to musical films; Frozen, the highest-grossing animated musical film of all time was co-written by a woman, Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Again, our capacity to sell ourselves and our product impacts on a producer or venue owner’s perception of the risk. And the confidence with which we pitch our work – especially if that work hasn’t yet been produced – remains a major contributing factor to whether the work gets on.

For the system to really change, we need more female producers, investors and theatre owners to actively champion and elevate the work of women writers. The first thing I’m going to do when Willows transfers to town is use my royalties to establish a fund to support the training of female musical theatre writers to become better at pitching, as well as understanding the nitty-gritty of the economics of it all.

It’s important to encourage more artists to self-produce so they can prove the success of a work that more conservative minds might pronounce too risky. But certainly in the short term, as the current system of male power and hierarchy within musical theatre prevails, it’s down to us to perfect our pitches and shout a bit louder on behalf of our own and our sisters’ work. As our politically precocious Rattie sings to her fellow classmates: “We’ll never change the world by sitting quiet.”

In The Willows is on tour until June [10]. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 opens at The Ambassadors Theatre in July [11]. Six is currently running at the Arts Theatre [12].

Poppy Burton-Morgan is a writer and artistic director of Metta Theatre