Last week began with Cameron Mackintosh on Michael Ball’s Radio 2 show, saying it was highly unlikely his West End musicals would be back up and running before 2021. A few days later, Nuffield Southampton Theatres went into administration, and the week ended with the streaming of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn’s musical By Jeeves as part of The Shows Must Go On! YouTube series.
Looking at the events after they unfolded, I was reminded how subsidised and commercial theatre are intricately linked – how they rely on each other. The producing theatre’s survival across all scales of production is crucial to our industry in all its many forms, especially the development of the musical.
By Jeeves began in 1996 as the reworked musical of Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn’s 1975 West End flop Jeeves. Its failure at the time was a shock for Lloyd Webber fresh from success with Jesus Christ Superstar and Ayckbourn already an established playwright. Its original (and now very rare) cast album was quickly withdrawn and meant that only a small number of audiences had ever heard its score, which only added further to its notoriety as a fabled flop.
Two decades later, Ayckbourn reunited with Lloyd Webber and opened Scarborough’s new Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he was serving as artistic director, with the world premiere of the reworked By Jeeves.
The role these producing theatres play across many art forms is vital
From there, it transferred to the West End, this time for a successful six-month run receiving three Olivier nominations, including best musical revival. It was then remounted regionally in the US and eventually had a Broadway run. Howard Sherman related the story of the musical in the US in his column last week.
The revised version and successful West End comeback dispelled much of the past stigma that had surrounded the original as did last week’s stream to a large global audience.
As many watched this charming work for the first time, the film highlighted what I believe was the biggest single contributing factor in helping revive its West End fortunes: the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
This is a producing theatre located in a seaside town with an enviable reputation. It afforded a musical such as By Jeeves the opportunity for development (and in its case, rediscovery). The Scarborough season also allowed the production sufficient time to be worked on, adjusted and fine-tuned by the creatives and a skilled in-house team.
The theatre’s location also greatly contributed to its success. A two-train ride to get to Scarborough from London meant relative isolation and reduced sneaky industry trips to see what was happening before the show was ready. This was also in an era before social media spoilers.
By Jeeves’ premiere season is an excellent example of the right placement for the right show. Had it begun in a larger theatre or opted for a cold West End opening – which the canopy names of Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn could easily have secured – then By Jeeves might have suffered the risk of again being quickly judged and dismissed.
This was the fate that unfairly awaited Lloyd Webber’s intimate 2013 musical Stephen Ward, which, in my view, was his best work since Sunset Boulevard and would have benefitted from a similar development, creation and initial run at a producing theatre outside of London.
A contributing factor in musical theatre development at all scales of production has long been the relationship and exchange between subsidised and commercial houses. Mackintosh famously demonstrated this with his 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company collaboration on Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables.
The producing theatre’s survival across all scales of production is crucial to our industry
With their 1996 musical Martin Guerre, maybe the show suffered from a cold West End premiere rather than being developed in the subsidised sector. It was not until later reworked versions in smaller regional houses at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Newbury’s Watermill Theatre that it really found its feet.
This is where the loss of a producing theatre such as the Nuffield Southampton Theatres – and others that are now also at risk of closure – greatly concerns me. Many of these theatres, especially the smaller house or second stages in larger theatres, have championed new works and driven musical and drama writing talent. Their scale and size have often provided stages that can sometimes better suit the first iteration of a new show.
The role these producing theatres play across many art forms is vital, along with the significant contribution they also make to their communities, and in the many livelihoods that they provide. It is why we all need to fight for their survival because to lose any of them would have a damaging impact across the towns and cities where they stand, our industry, and everyone working in it.