I’m on my fifth country in 3 weeks – Yorkshire – exploring with writers and producers the future of Musical Theatre. I’ve been in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Seoul. Now I am in York for the 3rd annual New Musicals Festival. Unlike the massive festivals in New York, and the scratch programmes in London and other International cities, this is organized by one man with a passion. Jim Welsman, so far, receives no Arts Council support and is not connected with or championed by any of the regional regularly funded arts organisations. He’s asked, but his lone voice has not yet been heard. Maybe 2016 will be his year – I hope so.
Elaine Pechacek, the Florida based writer bringing her second show to the festival, gave an impassioned short speech last night championing the Festival. She told us that, as a direct result of playing and testing her work at the 2013 festival and other festivals, she has just signed for an off-Broadway production for this piece. I don’t know how many UK writers have submitted work to Jim, but success like this will hopefully encourage more.
In 1992 I was also a lone voice creating a festival of musicals a long way from London. I too received little support from Arts Council, but I did manage to find a major sponsor (after 3 years of searching) who put in £100k to the launch of the first global quest for new musicals – 491 musicals landed through our letterbox from 16 countries, because we had commercial support, if not arts establishment support. Maybe Jim and friends can unlock a commercial champion. It may not fully replace the cheering of their peers, and the championing by their arts council, but it sure helps to make a festival happen.
I am intentionally writing this over breakfast before starting to see the work and meet the producers and writers, because the existence of a festival such as this is more important than my personal taste for the content which goes into a season. Musical Theatre is a vast canvas of creative opportunity, and there are performance opportunities for new work across the West End/Broadway world, through the community and schools market, onward to the Fringe and University edgy sector. Plus the international world out there where the storytelling and playing may be different from our immediate expectation. I love the moment before going into a festival or showcase season just not knowing what I may spot.
What is clear from my 5 nation tour this month is that – a) everyone will benefit from being more connected, b) everyone believes the grass is always greener on the other side, c) there are writers with talent and stories to tell, d) there are producers looking for shows to nurture and put before a paying audience, and e) there is an audience which will enjoy themselves at Musical Theatre if there is a hook to draw them into the theatre in the first place. Oh and f) there remains a vestige of a feeling from the establishment that Musical Theatre is not really like serious art (by that they mean plays or opera), but there is a grudging acceptance that it is rather popular and can, like plays and opera, tackle serious subjects or be allowed to be fun.
So calling all tradional opera, theatre, play and even musical colleagues around Yorkshire (and even up from London which is not so far away)– I hope to see many of you today around the tiny and welcoming Upstage space near Monksbar.
Now off to do my first surgery – with a Russian writer/producer.