This week has seen the death of two international champions of Musical Theatre, the first the Dean of the Tisch School course for Musical Theatre writers, Sarah Schlesinger, and the second a much less well known global figure but a passionate contemporary historian of the form, Mel Atkey.
Mel died yesterday in London where he lived for many many years without ever losing his love of his homeland, Canada, and its unsung Musical Theatre legacy. As recently as Dec 9th his Facebook post was exploring the ever present love of Anne of Green Gables. Sadly he is likely to have died alone of covid/flu in the past week in his flat. The messages of support and condolence are, like mine I suppose, celebrating a man we didn’t know that well but who’s passion for Musicals shone through. I first heard his work, Perfect Timing, on a cassette recording made in demo form by John Barr and Claire Burt back in 1993 for the planned 2nd International Festival of Musicals destined for Oxford that year. It was also shortlisted by the Vivian Ellis Prize and the Ken Hill Prize, and performed as part of Musical Futures – all projects now lost from the world of new musical development. In lockdown he made a movie of the work and it is here for anyone who might like to explore
My last meet with Mel was 14th November when, large as life, he was wanting an interview recording of my experiences of Saudi Arabia to be able to add to his growing material for a new version of Million Miles from Broadway. Plus he wanted to look at self-producing Perfect Timing at EdFringe 2023. I hope someone will fall in love with this 2 hander and bring it to the stage in a way which he did not have time on this earth to do. If you know him better than I did, do add messages and thoughts to his sister who shared news of his death via Facebook.
We have also lost this week the phenomenal Sarah Schlesinger who led the Musical Theatre MFA in New York for decades, building it from a small bi-annual course attracting one or two Brits to join the US contingent, to a major global programme. The Korean musical industry owe her a phenomenal debt of gratitude for all those writers she has trained on the programme. So too across Europe and China.
I first met Sarah when Roger Haines and I created the first UK Festival of Musical Theatre in Buxton. I went on to relish her wisdom and teaching in many different forms. First she became guest faculty at a London programme on Musical Theatre writing that I created, then she helped me fashion a short course on writing, A Month of Sundays, and the skeleton for a UK Masters programme in Musical Theatre. We first took the idea of twinning with the Royal Academy of Music, but they didn’t get the need for a writers course with a proper faculty of skilled teachers. Then I took it to the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow but a change on management dropped it. Then on to Trinity but it fell at the final hurdle. On to Goldsmiths where my lead contact decided to create their own instead of collaborating. There was a one year attempt at Mountview, but sadly the idea of a fully taught MA for writers still remains an unfulfilled wish. Her work with me in the UK led to Philip Hedley taking time to study the course in New York and then to raise funding from ACE to create a summer programme for Theatre Royal Straford East. Two of her most respected younger faculty, Robert Lee and Fred Carl led this for many years under Philip and then Kerry Michael, until again a change of regime dropped Musical Theatre from that theatre’s remit. Quietly she has been instrumental in helping many of us create programmes and support writers in their development. It was always a joy to sit in labs and classes at NYU, and my last session landed me with Michael John La Chuisa critiquing new compositions – at least he gave words of wisdom and brilliant challenges to all the writers.
It feels strange not to be able to drop her an email, wander into the School, or grab a call with her to talk about a new idea or a new country seeking to develop Musical Theatre. I reached out a couple of weeks ago to share my experiences of Saudi Arabia, but too late.
I am so glad the UK Musical Theatre world got to see her and Mike Reid’s Ballad of Little Jo at the Bridewell Theatre when under the inspired leadership of Carol Metcalf as a centre for new musicals starring Anna Francolini. Here’s Lyn Gardner’s 4 star review
Thank you Mel for exploring Musical Theatre across the world and reminding everyone that it is not an artform focussed within Zone 2 of the London Underground or just along one Great White Way. It is a global artform. I thought of you when sitting in Vilnius Opera House last month watching a celebration of Zarzuela musical form in Spanish with Lithuanian surtitles. I was wondering whether I could admit to you when we met that I had never before seen Zarzuela…well I have now.
And thank you Sarah for knowing it is a global form, welcoming writers from across the globe, and then thank you for helping to teach them, in Sybille Pearson’s eternal words ‘the tools not the rules’ of Musical Theatre. The world will be a little dimmer for all those who served with her and all those she wrote with. I can’t wait to learn about a celebration of her life and her writing promosed in the New Year.