In February 1990 Jonathan Larson turned 30. Six months later he heard about the worldwide Quest for New Musicals and submitted his first two musicals to us at Buxton Opera House. I was 32 and just starting on what would become a 25-30 year head-banging-wall pathway on my career to make some differences in Musical Theatre in the UK.
I have just watched Tick Tick Boom, Lin Manuel Miranda & Steven Levenson’s astonishing realisation of five things – a celebration of Jonathan, a look at the struggle of so many writers to make work and be noticed, a joyful performance of much of the original Tick Tick Boom and a hint at what might have been Superbia plus a star-studded cast of extras – who clearly all wanted to be in shot.
This weekend also saw the death of Larson’s first greatest champion Stephen Sondheim. A death which has generated so many inspiring anecdotes from so many writers who have benefitted from his generosity of time and honesty of opinion. I’m loving seeing some of the letters that he has written. But at the heart of these obituaries is a dichotomy – on the one hand a celebration of a global Musical Theatre maestro celebrated by all the giants in the business [save the Guardian obit writer who’s words will be forgotten way sooner than a single lyric of Mr Sondheim’s]. And on the other a quiet voicing of thanks to a maestro who listened, offered by writers who have struggled to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to be presented professionally by the same giants in the business.
Musical Theatre in the UK has struggled to be taken seriously and for future writers to be nurtured. Too few of the Sondheim class in Oxford set up with generosity by Cameron Mackintosh have gone on to be presented in the form they wanted – as serious dramatists in musical theatre form, as might have happened with a playwrighting programme in this Country.
I hope a more recent Sondheim championed writer, Conor Mitchell, will not mind my quoting his recent post:
“Wouldn’t it be astonishing if the London/NYC musical theatre/theatre producers who are currently extolling Sondheim’s work as ‘their everything’ began producing new musicals that shared the spirit of his canon. I’ve watched 100’s of new musicals be dismissed as ‘too smart’, ‘too artistic’, ‘too clever’, ‘too Sondhiem’ over the years, and then watched numerous brilliant composers and lyricists simply give up; convinced that ‘art doesn’t sell’; Convinced by the producers’ lack of belief in the audience’s capacity for intelligence.
“SS’s canon is proof that art, and intelligent music with a structural ingenuity not only sells, but matures over the years to become ‘the canon’. And SOMETIMES someone has to take the leap of faith… produce the show about a Victorian serial killer, about a painting, about a Porgy, about a Shark and a Jet… you know… the leap of belief.
“I always found it heartbreaking to know that a new writer like him would have been dismissed in London/NYC in the 80’s, 90’s and onwards. Not only dismissed, but openly told to ‘think less art’. Maybe those producers who now weep at ‘art’s loss’ might see their role in forwarding the very form they purport to adore, and commit to a future canon… and not this culture of McDonald’s-style theatre & music. But then… what’s a Pulitzer?”
Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson, Conor Mitchell, Lin Manual Miranda – each phenomenal dramatists who deserve the same support as writers might get in our richness of Arts Council/Creative Scotland and DCMS funded development and producing houses for plays. It is wonderful having a Sondheim Theatre playing host to Les Miserables, but oh for a centre playing host to the Superbia and the Tick Tick Boom of tomorrow.
I returned from Korea yesterday from the K-Musicals conference with a sense that the Korean writers of the future are going to have a far faster path to market. The managements and investors and governments championing musical theatre ‘get’ that it can be dark and light, political and fluffy. It does not need to appeal to the mass audience all the time – just as plays can be dark and light, political and fluffy.
Let’s have no more deaths to help the cause of Musical Theatre be re-considered. Let’s re-look at it again and again at the highest level of influence and government. And in the meantime I will continue to help the next generation of producers to navigate their way to successful productions at all scales – dark and light, political and fluffy, musical theatre or spoken word. It is all show business.
To wrap up my 1990 anecdote: Out of 491 new musicals submitted to the Quest, both Tick Tick Boom and Superbia made it into the last 20, and after the final round of deep assessment made it into the last 10. It was Superbia that I especially loved – the extraordinary voice from 2064 future worlds that explored Delimbination, a word I quote forever. [just checked his original application for the spelling].
Sadly for us and our festival, mid 1991 Jonathan was called away to focus all his attention with Mr Sondheim on his third show. He didn’t feel able to commit the rights to us and we had a lovely (but firm) call from Flora Roberts to let us know that she would be handling Jonathan’s work from now on. So in the end the international audience for the Quest in April 1992 did not get to see professional stagings of these two works – and sadly no-one in the world will ever see Superbia as originally conceived.
I’ve just looked back at the Judges’ comments and Reader’s forms from assessing these two extraordinary pieces. In one weekend we listened to around 70 musicals which bemused the readers and made our collective ‘subjective’ decision on the shortlist. I am so glad that Roger Haines, the late Martin Tickner, Anthony Drewe, Martin McEvoy and Caroline Parry weighed up the many comments from readers and were absolutely convinced Jonathan Larsen was very special.
Thank you Lin Manuel Miranda for the wonderful film tribute to his/this struggle.