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Richard Jordan: Six’s Olivier nominations are great but will it face a backlash if it wins big?

Photo: Idil Sukan
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Six is the past year’s UK musical success story. On Sunday night at the Olivier Awards, it is represented with five nominations including the coveted best musical.

Two years ago, the musical made its debut at Sweet Grassmarket, a small pop-up venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. Today, it’s enjoying an open-ended run at the Arts Theatre in London, a forthcoming US premiere in May at the Tony award-winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and various international productions pending.

Its talented composers, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, have become feted as Britain’s most exciting new musical writers, an accolade that has already seen their names shortened to Marlow and Moss, following in the footsteps of Stiles and Drewe, and Lloyd Webber and Rice.

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss: ‘Writing our Tudor musical Six was just us having bants’

There is also similarities between the path of Six and Lloyd Webber and Rice’s early breakout work: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Both musicals began professionally in Edinburgh and then went through stages of development to become the versions seen today.

Joseph, however, was an eight-year journey from its first performance to its 1982 Broadway premiere, which had a final score closest to the one that’s used today. The production also received a best musical Tony nomination after an initial Off-Broadway season rather than transferring from the West End.

It’s interesting that by the time Joseph opened on Broadway, Lloyd Webber and Rice’s heavyweight musical hits Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita had already premiered there. This meant when Joseph arrived, Lloyd Webber and Rice had already been established as serious composers through two very different and altogether more sophisticated works.

The first show they professionally produced in the UK became their third show on Broadway – so those second-show challenges had already been put to bed. With Joseph being light-hearted and frothy, it showed these two serious composers could let their hair down. That’s not to diminish Joseph, which contains some of Rice’s cleverest lyrics.

Six’s emergence last year as a feminist musical with its message of empowerment, coincided with the focus on #MeToo, and was embraced by critics and fans alike. I have watched this musical at various stages of its journey and been thrilled about its success. But there is also an aspect of it that concerns me.

I would not for a moment deny it the considerable achievement of five Olivier nominations, including for best musical. But I fear this nomination will mean all eyes are on it and with them a much higher level of scrutiny. I hope this early musical doesn’t become overexposed.

If it was a nomination in either an emerging or affiliate theatre award category, then Six would feel an obvious fit. But in the best musical category it stands shoulder to shoulder with Come from AwayTina and Fun Home. There is also no nomination in any category for the National Theatre’s pre-Broadway run of Hadestown – that’s already proved a source of contention with the belief that Six took its slot.

And the 2019 Olivier award (probably) goes to…

With its high-profile best musical nomination, and the fact it’s an original British musical, the Olivier nominating committee is making a powerful statement about our musical industry. Six is the little guy in the room doing something remarkable – just the sort of thing the Oliviers voters love to champion.

But that could also risk a backlash from the industry. Especially those behind the large-scale musicals, who are perhaps feeling annoyed that this small, 70-minute early musical is more like a hybrid concert than a full-blown show. It risks opening it up for criticism.

We need to look closely at the current state of the British musical industry and consider how we can improve its development opportunities and status.

When these two talented British composers emerged with an original musical, the Oliviers were quick to reward it – otherwise in the UK’s leading theatre awards there would have been no new British original musical representation in its best musical category. What statement would that have made to the world about our musical industry?

Equally important is the care of Marlow and Moss in all this. There is excitement about them, rightly, but already Six has been compared to the British equivalent of Hamilton. In truth, it’s a fantastic first musical that shows all the promise of great things to come – but it’s not Hamilton and its success needs to be kept in perspective.

This significant award recognition places considerable pressure on them and their next project. Thankfully, they have the mentorship of experienced British composer George Stiles, who co-produced Six, but they need to be afforded the time to breathe and sufficient time to develop the next show and get it right.

Olivier-nominated set and costume designer Gabriella Slade: ‘Six was an amazing brief’

If a leading subsidised producing theatre were smart, it should be looking at commissioning these two and giving them a supportive environment for career growth. When it comes to the future of the British musical, and finding its next generation of composers, we need to learn from past musicals such as Joseph. How the journey that show, and other musicals like it, took in development and revision paved the way for its growth and served to establish the careers of Lloyd Webber and Rice as major British musical writers.

I am excited to see what happens to Six after it has received further development work in Chicago for its US premiere there next month. At the moment, I am unconvinced that – had it opened in New York – in its current form the Tony nomination panel would have looked as fondly upon it as the Oliviers have done.

That’s arguably testament to the Olivier’s talent-spotting, but it could also be combined with the added relief that in a generally bland year for the British commercial musical, at least it found two talented domestic writers to include on the ballot paper.

Six review at Arts Theatre, London – ‘Tudor history goes pop’

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