Last night another new British musical opened in the West End, whilst ironically, on the same day, the news broke that Stage Entertainment were axing their UK Production department. Cue a load of people tweeting woefully about the demise of new UK musicals before they've even got started.
This is just so frustrating though isn't it? Now I might call myself a composer and a lyricist hell <drop that link> MMD even made me a feature of their latest Spotlight feature http://us10.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ec5465f9637ff25801f1e12bc&id=070983c735, which I have to say I'm really grateful for as it's nice to remind people that I have a day job which runs alongside being the Principal of The MTA. However I live under no pretence that I'm ever likely to write a West End mega hit. More than that, I've never even attempted to. I'm much more 'functional' than that - I simply write to demand. So I write whatever somebody asks (and indeeds pays) me to write. I hope that I've always delivered a really good piece of writing that I can look back on with pride. So far so good.
However I still don't think that the UK is getting it right with new writing. I'm sorry to be negative, but I really don't. I think that we try really hard, but at the end of the day, the Americans seem to be really storming it. The reason, I believe is rather simple (disclaimer right here...of course, what would I know?).
Many moons ago there was the inaugural Musical Theatre conference run, back then, by MDM (which morphed into MTN a while later). It felt like the dawning of a new age - a whole group of writers/directors/producers, sat upstairs in the Old Vic discussing Musical Theatre in the UK. However the bit that really stuck in my mind was a line said by one of the American guests that day. So I'm clearly paraphrasing now, but it was something along the lines of, you have to put on 100 crap musicals to find that special show. This concept blew my mind, because in that moment I knew that we were fighting a real uphill battle, as there just weren't those opportunities to produce (to stage) that many new shows.
It's just so bloody expensive to put on a musical, and therefore nobody was going to take a punt when funds are stretched already. We workshop shows really well over here, we spend years developing them...but we always fail at that last hurdle of getting them into production. There are literally a handful of provincial producing houses, and the West End is blocked by the long runners, so we haven't got the physical space let alone the inclination.
Then the poor shows that actually do make it into production have the weight and the expectations of the world on their shoulders, as immediately everybody's waiting, hoping for that next great British 'hit'. Seemingly though the playing field has also changed as to what constitutes a hit. A point made beautifully I thought by Howard Goodall the other day. Nowadays you have to have been running for at least a decade before people consider the show successful. It's like a musical maternity ward....some of them come out a bit, well, ugly and under developed, but you can't say it, so you smile sweetly and congratulate the writers on its birth anyway. You might even say a slight fib to help them on their way, and even compliment the new born, whilst walking off, thinking something very different.
When the new show closes, everybody gets annoyed that 'we didn't support our own', and then moan once more in a typically British way about how it's not fair and things needed to be given a chance. Yet the Americans were saying that a closed show isn't a disaster...you just get up, brush yourself down and put on another new show...and so it goes on, until you find the one that's perfectly formed, and bingo...THEN you have you mega musical, ready to be franchised out around the world (if indeed, that is the definition of a 'hit').
Over the years I've seen some UK shows that have closed early and genuinely been amazed (and indeed disappointed for the writers) that they've never taken off. Really well crafted pieces that for some reason, didn't spark the public's imagination enough to support it. Similarly I've seen some bloody awful shows that everybody else seemed to be raving about, running for far longer than I would have put money on. I guess I'm saying that there's a bit of luck involved here too isn't there? The show has to hit the public's imagination at exactly the right time e.g. the happy go lucky musical in the middle of a depression, the musical that has enough star power to raise the Titanic, and that alone can keep a bad show afloat for longer than its craft might really dictate.
In spite of Stage Entertainment's news, we are really trying. The upcoming BEAM event is definitely a new departure for the UK, and it will be really interesting to see how quickly the successful pitches get their shows actually up on their feet and produced at a theatre.
It's not the lack of material that's holding us back, nor the lack of writers, however it might be the lack of good material. Plus the chemistry has to be just right doesn't it? That lethal cocktail of a storming book that holds up to scrutiny, lyrics that are clever but not too clever leaving an audience fully understanding the reason for the song, a kick ass score well arranged, a cast and a creative team that do the work justice and finally a society that is ready to 'tune in' to your show at the exact same moment that it's produced.
When you think of it like that, then there's little wonder why shows close. I think that my gripe really is the fact that we don't jump up and write another one, we throw all our toys out of the pram and sulk for a few years before trying again. Performers are the worse for this on twitter, moaning about people not supporting new musicals and therefore what else could we have expected. Of course within a few months they're onto their next show, and whilst they might still be cross about the closure of the 'amazing new piece of UK writing that they championed', they are fundamentally over it, living 'the dream' on the next piece, whereas the poor writer has another few years of purgatory ahead of them as they 'start again', and this time it's even harder as the royalty cheques have dried up and they're having to 'earn a living' too.
I go to see an American transfer, and I instantly seem to get why it's a success (even if I don't personally like it). Before your eyes you see all the components fit smugly together like a well oiled machine. I seldom get that vibe from a new British show...one of the ingredients just didn't work out, but we just can't admit it as that's like musical blasphemy; or it's the other extreme and the writers have been so clever that those of us that that love this art form seem to just adore it, but you know instantly that there's no real commercial future for the show. It's the show that's too clever for it's own good (at which point everybody talks about the writers in terms of 'Sondheim'...they are always 'the next Sondheim', as opposed to the 'first them')
The answer is, that we need to produce more shows, and get that turnaround of new material out there. It's getting better for sure, and if there were a road to follow, it seems obvious that we've gone the right way....however, we're playing catch up, and I suspect that it'll be another few years before some of the amazing writers out there really get the break that they so richly deserve. In the meantime though let's keep it real - we're all capable of writing a turkey (they're seemingly much easier to write than a hit), and if it so happens that our turkey gets produced with none of the right components to turn it into a hit, why don't we just quietly acknowledge the truth that you can't polish a turd...and just go straight back to our computers and attempt to write another one. Meanwhile the performers can 'act out' their annoyance that nobody supported the show (when in reality they're cross that their contracts have ended sooner than their landlords needed them to)
So with this most insightful of realisations, feel free to go to the Pheasantry this Sunday to hear Jordan Langford singing Romantic Notions from Dangerous Daughters, courtesy of Snappy Title who are producing the evening. See whether from that snippet I should be buying some polish in an attempt to keep that song and show alive.