British Musicals – thinking of audiences in the UK

I’m not sure if, in my lifetime, there has ever been such a variety of British musical theatre in and around London’s glittering West End.  The old warhorses are still looking strong, but there are some new thoroughbreds exciting the punters.  And this morning I was watching a new international work which is working with British creatives to explore whether it, too, could get into the stables.  This made me think about what was working, and what the tastes of writers, producers and audiences might be at the moment.

This weekend I caught up with The Little Big Things by Nick Butcher, Tom Ling and Joe White under the direction of Luke Sheppard and settling beautifully into Nica Burns’ amazing @sohoplace. Last night I caught up with Flowers for Mrs Harris by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff under the direction of Bronagh Lagan at Riverside Studios.  It has been brought to the edge of the West End by producers Katy Lipson and Ollie Hancock following its initial commission/nurturing by producer Vicky Graham pre-lockdown.  Last week I caught up with The Book Thief by American writers Jodi Picoult, Timothy Allen McDonald, Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson which is on the same West End trajectory (I presume) under the direction of British artistic director Lottie Wakeham.  Finn Anderson’s amazing tonepoem Islander has had a new production by Broadway’s Martin Platt in Plymouth before a US tour. Six and Operation Mincemeat are now getting into their national and international stride. Andy & Wendy Barnes, Kenny Wax & George Stiles have guided writers Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow on their global Six journey, and UK comedy giant Avalon are guiding the original mincemeat writers and stars David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoë Roberts to Broadway soon.  I’m sure I have missed some new British musical theatre hits – but even these half dozen pieces show the amazing array of writers, producers, directors and guides who are changing the West End.

So what makes a British musical, or a new musical destined to play to an audience in the UK, as opposed to a Broadway or American or Korean or Japanese musical.  I sense writers are considering a few key things in their writing, and producers are shaping the development and choice carefully.  (For some readers I am now stating the b***ing obvious – but it gives me a chance to think as my train takes the strain back to Scotland)

A: Book and Source material are really important. More and more very British novels and sources being considered, along with playwrights and novelists beginning to ‘get’ and respect Musical Theatre as an artform that does dare to speak its name.  [So many NPO/RFO funded British theatres are now commissioning or working with creative teams to bring shows to life – and drama is at the heart of what they are exploring]

B: Why us ?, why now ? Producers and writers are debating whether (and why) they are the right people to tell this story and that now is the right time for this story to be told.  This also relates to the drama at the heart of our theatreland – we are 4 nations of storytellers, and we are islands of diverse cultures with stories to tell.  Two plays I saw last month – untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play at the Young Vic and Mina’s Reckoning from the National Theatre of Scotland were both amazing lyric theatre storytelling (without showtunes in this case) which reflect ‘why now’.

C: Contemporary or Classical in style – whatever these terms might mean for the piece in consideration. Six and The Little Big Things make bold choices of musical styles to reflect either the contemporary sound world of the chosen audience, or the contemporary sound world of the character at the heart of the story.  Mrs Harris and Islander explore classical themes and orchestrations/sound worlds which evoke the atmosphere of post war London and Paris or the mythic world of the Outer Isles. Every musical sound in these scores was, I sense, chosen to emotionally connect to story and storytelling.  [E&OE – I can’t read music, play any instrument and therefore should not voice opinions on this world].

D: Necessary and Universal storytelling. In telling the story the writers and producers are, I sense, looking for a future life, an international affinity with story and music. There is a sense that the core reason for the storytelling is not too rooted in the here and now.  We see every year at EdFringe examples of carpe-diem-musicals – Boris the Musical, Brexit the Musical, Diana the Musical.  They may be topical for 1 or 2 or even 5 years but they are not meant to be Universal.  I’m loving the long appeal of Operation Mincemeat which seems as though it should have very limited international appeal, but the audience I watched a few weeks ago were international and having a ball.

E: Hit songs or a crafted score.  Someone wise said that a hit song is one you have heard many times before.  This goes back to Tip Pan Alley, the double-album concept shows, and the old fashioned radio-play hit numbers.  Mr Sondheim and Lord Lloyd Webber along with their publishers and lyricists are two examples of very different pathways embracing or challenging the take-home-hit.  What was amazing about Six, and a phenomenal decision by writers and producers, was how they harnessed the 200-400 individual marketing officers (audience members) who had paid for the privilege to be in the EdFringe venues and then Arts Theatre.  Each one, each night, took the crafted material, filmed it, and became social media experts sharing their love of the live experience with those who had not yet bought a ticket. Genius.  

F: New Pathways to Glory.  I feel that the new (well younger than me) creative producers and artistic directors of our regional producing houses are embracing the need and the power of collaboration. It isn’t new. Cameron Mackintosh had Arts Council support for his co-productions of My Fair Lady and then Oklahoma! with Leicester Haymarket Theatre under their artistic direction of the wonderful Robin Midgeley. Les Miserables came from the subsidised world of the RSC and would not have existed had it not been for the collaboration of young John Caird and Trevor Nunn with Nicholas Nickleby. This showed their extraordinary ability to craft a lyric flowing theatre piece and gave John the confidence to bring the Paris concept album to Cameron’s attention.  Now ACE and Creative Scotland are funding the theatres who commission, co-produce, and nurture new musicals. The early work of Arts Council funded Perfect Pitch connecting to Universities and Theatres with new work led them toward Six. The Arts Council funded MMD and MTN writer/producer networks are championing new stories, new storytellers, and new collaborations between writers and theatres. Exciting times.

I’m looking back at this article and thinking ‘what a random A-F’. But as new writers and new producers go into the development process for a new piece of Musical Theatre or a piece being shaped for a UK based presentation, these six thoughts might be helpful.  When I teach/lead Musical Theatre courses or producing courses around the world my oft-repeated word is ‘Specificity’. Specificity of world and language and sound world for each character and scene.  But looking at this A-F it also asks for producers and writers to consider the specificity of their answers to these discussion points.  Together they still may not make a Hit – but they will help to consider the writer, producer, audience connections going through the development process.

Thanks, dear reader, for wading through this – and I always welcome challenge and improvement. I am a sponge learning from the amazing experts it is my pleasure to share a room with in the teaching and workshop process of making theatre.

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