I Went To A Marvelous Party

Yesterday was the 2024 biannual conference on the UK Musical Theatre industry created by Musical Theatre Network (MTN) and Mercury Musical Development (MMD). It was opened by the amazing Nica Burns who has done so much over the last few years to bring British musicals to the West End. She broke the mould in the way West End theatre proprietors programmed their houses. And it is also fitting that we were being hosted by the Royal Court Theatre which has also had the vision to appoint another mould-breaker, David Byrne, as Artistic Director. David revolutionised the way in which a Fringe theatre supports emerging companies to create work which may move on into the West End.

Over 350 writers, producers, directors, venue and festival programmers, publishers and agents crammed into the two theatre spaces and the vibrant noisy bar of this legendary new writing house, to talk about new writing.

It was 1992 that I hosted the first very small international conference on Musical Theatre, going on to form New Musicals Alliance and then New Musicals Development (which later merged with Mercury Workshop to form MMD).  These were tough years where no-one in power and authority seemed to wish to acknowledging Musical Theatre as a legitimate artform to be celebrated, taught, nurtured and produced.  Yes David Land and Bob Swash were bringing Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to take over the West End. Cameron Mackintosh was producing and reproducing the works of Boublil and Schoenberg with Trevor Nunn, John Caird, Herbie Kretzmer and Richard Maltby creating the English language versions.

Yesterday was a celebration of what has been achieved in the last 5-10 years with a selection of us remembering the dark years.  It is extraordinary that it is only this year that the UK has its own dedicated new musical department in a major theatre – Birmingham Hippodrome under the direction of Jon Gilchrist. Compare this to the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) in New York boasting 120+ dedicated theatres across the USA principally programming, producing and commissioning new musical theatre.

I remember being told by an architect that the timeline for a building project comes in three relatively equal phases. The first third of the time the building work is underground as the foundations are created – work which will never be seen.  I guess that was the work we all did from 1992 through to 2007.  There were a few amazing bright sparks in that time – such as the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street as a home to musicals.  The Vivian Ellis Prize which I had the pleasure of producing from 1998 until two Trustees decided to crash the project against the wishes of the really dedicated theatre professional trustees.

In that phase I ran joint conferences with Mercury on Musical Theatre writing with our close friends at the Tisch School of New York University. And with them and other wonderful teachers we also created short musical theatre writing courses. This led to Philip Hedley wrestling some funding from Arts Council England for a summer writing programme at the Theatre Royal Stratford East led by two Tisch writer/lecturers Robert and Fred.  The Big Life came out of that programme and it is brilliant seeing that it is having a long overdue revival this year in Stratford.

The 2nd third of the time on a building project is the building of the outer structure through to topping-out.  For me that seems to have been the vibrant period from 2007 when so many things changed because of the dogged determination of a few of us to change attitudes to new British Musicals.  The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport under the chair of Sondheim aficionado Gerald Kaufman MP was persuaded to run a study on Musical Theatre.  The leaders of Mercury, the Bridewell and others were questioned. I was charged by Cameron Mackintosh to write my proposals for a way forward.  Firstly my ‘look back in anger’ document was rejected by Cameron, and then – having got that out of my system – I put plans in place for a range of initiatives.

Then we started Musical Theatre Matters (MTM:UK) which later renamed as MTN. Andy Barnes started Perfect Pitch, the very first dedicated development unit for new British contemporary music. The annual Musical Theatre Matters Awards began firstly with judges led by Andy and me, and then taken on by the passionate Edinburgh based musical theatre specialist Fiona Orr who still runs the prize to this day.  In 2008 and 2009 we ran Musical Theatre at George Square as a dedicated hub for new musical theatre. The lineup of early career talent over those two EdFringe seasons now reads like a who’s who of the current new musical West End champions.  They cut their teeth in this group of 4 venues and my one regret is that the University landlords did not honour the three year initial contract, nor give us the chance to grow this buzzing hub. Instead they saw dollar signs with comedy big names and nothing the Pleasance nor Assembly executives or I could do would persuade them to stay for the long-game.   I hope someone soon starts another Musical Theatre hub – it was a British and International buzzy time at EdFringe.

One of the key successes we had in that phase was, with the help of Emma Stenning, to persuade Arts Council England to include the artform of Musical Theatre as a line in their budgets.  The big win was made possible with the help of Bill O’Brien, head of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) in Washington who joined us at a MTM MMD Conference in the Leicester Square Theatre and talked eloquently, along with Kris Stewart of the New York Musicals Festival (NYMF) about the development path and funding of new work.

It feels that this was the topping out moment for this structural phase. It was definitely a flag waving day when we learned ACE London had at last acknowledged musical theatre as an artform.  Over time Perfect Pitch, MMD/MTN, and the wonderful Book Music & Lyrics (BML) training programme would become part of the National Portfolio of regularly funded organisations.

So now it feels we are in the fitting out and decorating phase of the building programme. 350 people gathered yesterday to listen to experts talking about what was happening and what was needed next. Big wins like Six and Operation Mincemeat were celebrated. Producers talked in corners about new projects which would open at Southwark Playhouse or the Lowry Manchester or EdFringe 2024.  Writers met publishers, and international producers listened to the world of British Musical Theatre which is now shouting loudly and with great joy.

I met one academic who has worked with an in Musical Theatre for many years here and in the USA. They are wondering whether their next book would be a study of these years of foundation and building work. I hope they do celebrate the forgotten crafts people who brought new work to life from the ealiest days of the Sondheim Masterclasses at Oxford University through “The Challenge” which became the calling card for 20+ composers and lyricists and onward to this very day.

Yes. I went to a Marvelous Party yesterday

It will be others who occupy the building and create the theatre productions and festivals and conferences of the future. It will be a new generation of writers banging on the doors to get their work seen and brought to life. It will still be tough but, in the words of the writers of Operation Mincemeat, they will I hope be ‘fearlessly ambitious’ whilst also remembering Nica’s wise advice to be humble and ‘listen to the room’ as they develop their work.

Thank you James, Natalie, Martin and Kate for creating a great conference day.

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