New Writing, New Musicals
The British musical sometimes gets a bit overshadowed by its American counterpart, so a new book series from Palgrave Macmillan is a fitting way to bring more focus to the area.
When people think of British musical theatre, their thoughts are probably dominated by two of the biggest names in the industry, who over the last forty years have produced some of the most enduring shows in the world. With rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar, megamusicals like Les Misérables, and innovative celebrations of world music like Bombay Dreams, Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber have towered over the industry for a generation. And that success has been genuinely international: this year, Lloyd Webber became the first composer since Rodgers and Hammerstein to have four shows running on Broadway at the same time (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, School of Rock). But as Lloyd Webber noted while celebrating this success, America has once more taken the lead in the development of new musicals, with around 13 new original shows being produced on Broadway last season, and only two in London’s West End.
A big cause of this is the lack of a supportive infrastructure in the UK for developing new work—plenty of new work with potential exists, and there are now some organisations committed to developing and promoting that work; but unlike America, which has fostered new musical theatre writers for generations, the UK’s new musical theatre infrastructure is underdeveloped, and lagging behind.
What a shame when some of the most glorious, dynamic and exhilarating musicals have come from British origins, tapping into the huge reserves of talent this country produces.
Think of the first real team of musical theatre writers, Gilbert and Sullivan, who created almost a show a year in the last couple of decades of the nineteenth-century (shows like The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado); or the wealth of tunesmiths and lyricists who dominated the West End leading up to the second world war—people like Vivian Ellis (Mr. Cinders), Noel Coward (Bitter Sweet), Ivor Novello (Glamorous Night), and Noel Gay (Me and My Girl). Some years later, it was the turn of Sandy Wilson (The Boy Friend), Julian Slade (Salad Days) and Lionel Bart (Oliver!). Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh may then have dominated the scene in the 1970s and 1980s, but other figures have been equally as important in their own ways to developing the British musical—what about Howard Goodall (The Hired Man), Willy Russell (Blood Brothers), or Leslie Bricusse (Jekyll & Hyde)? Much more recently, a slew of really significant shows have dominated the box office, reflecting perhaps a more global perspective in their origins, but distinctly British talent in their creative teams: The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Billy Elliot, and Spamalot.
As we anticipate this year the undeniable sensation of Hamilton hitting the West End, and as several other fantastically innovative shows from Broadway await their London transfers (Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away), what’s the future for new and original British musical theatre?
For a long time the resistance to subsidising new musical theatre development was born from a misguided preconception that musicals could only be highly profitable, commercial vehicles. Why should tax payers’ money be invested to make rich producers even richer? But gradually the status of musical theatre has changed—thanks in part to the fact that it is now studied as a degree subject at a number of universities, the fact that scholars, practitioners and theatres are taking it seriously as a credible artistic form, and the fact that key organisations are beginning to put their money where their mouth is.
The National Theatre has had major successes in recent years with shows like Jerry Springer: the Opera and London Road; regional theatres like the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Watermill at Newbury, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and the Theatre Royal Stratford East (among others) have all nurtured new writing; and the Arts Council has begun to support initiatives like Perfect Pitch, Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network. All represent huge steps forward for the buoyancy of British musical theatre.
So, against this backdrop, the launch of Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre is very timely. Overseen by series editors Dominic Symonds and Millie Taylor, it will feature books by some of the country’s leading academics, historians and researchers in the field. And it means we can look forward to a long run of innovative new writing exploring and showcasing the rich world of musical theatre in the UK.
Dr. Dominic Symonds, July 2017
Dr. Dominic Symonds is Reader & Director of Research at University of Lincoln and co-editor of the Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre series.