Singing our own tune

The West End is full of American musicals . . . but where is all the British talent?

Bring on the dancing girls - the West End is primed for a bumper season for musicals. Trevor Nunn does Porgy and Bess! Rufus Norris does Cabaret! Andrew Lloyd Webber does what he always does - but, this time, on TV! Meanwhile Wicked and Spamalot, Broadway imports hyped so long that it feels as if they've been open a year already, plan to dominate the Christmas market.

We're told we haven't seen anything like it for years. But are we really living through an MGM-type golden age? Not a single one of the shows opening this autumn is a new British work. After a year when tribute shows (Movin' Out, Daddy Cool) and film-to-stage adaptations (Dirty Dancing, Footloose) have dominated Tube pos ters, the West End can count its current spread of recent, British-written musicals on one finger: Billy Elliot. And without belittling the redoubt able talents of Sir Elton John, he does not represent the future of musicals in the manner of, say, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, whose foul-mouthed Avenue Q transferred from Broadway to such acclaim, or the Canadian duo Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, who swept the board at June's Tony Awards with The Drowsy Chaperone.

Their British equivalents are nowhere to be seen, according to those in the business. "There's a problem with talent," says Simon James Collier of Okai Collier Productions, which specialises in producing new musicals. "We get sent stuff all the time, but only one or two shows a year are new or inventive. The success of Lloyd Webber and mega-musicals like Les Misérables seems to have suffocated young talent. Now there is very little to replace them."

Laurence Mark Wythe, who has been working as a musical director and composer for 13 years, says he sees a "vacuum" where there should be a new generation of writers. "British musical theatre is struggling to find its own voice, particularly because people like Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg [the composer of Les Misérables] have been so dominant," he says. "It creates a powerful influence or temptation to re create their style - and that doesn't work." The Far Pavilions and Napoleon tried it, aping the grand historical narratives and passionate, swelling tunes of Lloyd Webber/Schönberg. Both were ruinous flops. "Haven't we had enough epics?" asks Collier wearily.

Curiously, there is no shortage of compet itions, organisations and awards designed to nurture and showcase new musical theatre in Britain. From annual festivals such as Greenwich Musical Futures to such prestigious workshop groups as Mercury Musical Developments, there seem ample opportunities for aspiring composers and lyricists. Yet the consensus is that these well-intentioned methods have yet to achieve results.

Mark Goucher, whose company's recent West End and touring productions include High Society and Footloose, describes it as a problem with no end in sight, "as complex and complicated as the funding of the NHS". The difficulty is that "there is not a great structure in this country to produce new musical theatre".

Fringe venues with the capacity to stage new shows are scarce. The Bridewell, which was once London's foremost venue for new musicals, was forced to close its operations last year because it could not sustain itself financially. Although a few regional theatres are willing to buck the trend by backing ventures from little-known writers, most, like their bigger siblings in the West End, won't touch anything that comes without a money-spinning name attached. When Goucher last saw a fresh musical he rated enough to back - significantly, that was two years ago - he spent a dispiriting three months trying to find it a home. In the end, Brenda Blythe: teen detective foundered despite its charm and originality. No theatre would put it on without a star in the lead role.

Jerry Springer: the opera is British musical theatre's surprise success story of recent years. But even that had a hard time getting an (ultimately sell-out) transfer from the fringe. "The truth is, the National Theatre regarded it as a risk, despite the fact it had already done brilliantly at Battersea Arts Centre and at Edinburgh," says Jon Thoday, who produced the opera. "And that was a show that had been highly acclaimed. How hard would it have been otherwise?"

Laurence Mark Wythe, who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, says the contrast in attitudes within musical theatre in New York and London is the single most powerful factor: "The driving energy in America is just to get stuff up and on." There's no doubt that that is easier in New York, with its vast network of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway venues. But, in the end, it comes down to tradition. The musical is an American art form, and Broadway is an energised milieu where musical theatre actors train, workshop and socialise together whenever they are not working. Compare that to the West End, where the stars of most musicals are drafted in from soap operas and reality TV.

The same is true of the audiences. "In New York, it's almost a competition," says Goucher. "You go to the restaurants uptown and you hear people talking about who saw what show first. Whether they liked it or not doesn't matter." That enthusiasm translates into ticket prices. "In a 350-seat venue in Britain, to get someone to see a new musical, you couldn't charge them more than £15. In New York, people will pay $69. It's ludicrous. We're in a business that can never make money, and unless people make money there won't be a business."

Collier, however, believes that things will not change until producers begin to work together and take more risks. "We have an increasing demand to make shows bigger and better and more flashy, and that cost gets passed on to the public," he says. "I'm trying to produce creatively, rather than throw money at a show. I believe if we want diversity in musical theatre then people should be able to fail. Before Cats came along, a six-month run was considered successful."

Wythe points out that until new shows begin to get an airing, musical theatre will be stuck in a Catch-22 situation. He also warns that there is already a noticeable drain of lyricists and composing talent to the film industry. "There are a lot of composers out there stuck at the aspiring level," he says, "and with so little money in the theatre, a lot of them will get sucked up in the Disney machine."

Thoday, who says that since he worked on Jerry Springer he has seen nothing he would be interested in backing, agrees. He argues that the problem is that the West End is, ultimately, a closed shop. "People moan about not having new writing, but they're not open to it, either. They're risk-averse. And creative people gravitate to where they can get their work performed. That's why composers hung out at Tin Pan Alley. And that's why you won't find them hanging around the stage door now."

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