It truly is conference season for the arts! Mercury Musical Developments and Music Theatre Network put together this event held at Soho Theatre today which sought to bring venues together with producers, writers, composers and even the odd director to ask essentially how can we continue to make new musical theatre in the UK? Are there lessons to be learned from producers and shows that have had hits (not the Juke Box shows – but shows made up from scratch!) and if so what are they?
The day was encapsulated for me by a brilliant Q and A between Mark Shenton who writes on theatre for the Sunday Express and Stage papers and the wonderfully imaginative director Phelim McDermott, whose theatre company, Improbable have been responsible for some truly wonderfully and irreverent nights at the theatre.
About 10 or so years ago, Phelim and his collaborator Julian Crouch created ‘ShockHeaded Peter’ with an ensemble cast and a band called the Tiger Lillies. It was a crazy show based on the Strewel Peter tales – cautionary stories for children which saw, amongst other things, thumb suckers who refused to give up the habit getting their digits removed with a pair of huge scissors – cue wave upon wave of red ribbons flowing across the stage. It was delightfully gruesome, imaginative, funny and magical and it’s sheer anarchic mix of song, style, fabulous cast – and some lovely writing- made it a cult hit. It was a piece of theatre with music (probably not what most people would call a musical) and an absolute winner.
That wonderful heady mix was in part responsible for Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch being brought into co-direct and design The Addams Family, a broadway musical with a budget a thousand times as big as ShockHeaded Peter. Aha, the big break! What a chance – how fantastic! but this is where the true cautionary tale begins…because between then and its opening in New York a few years later, the show moved from being a great pooling together of talent to a disaster which saw the co-directors on a plane back to Britain before the show opened in New York and the wielding of a vicious pen as the reviews came in – most notably from the New York Times which didn’t pull any punches.
What had gone awry? The answer was fairly straight forward -the producers had forgotten that creating a show is a gamble.
But this show had to be a hit. It couldn’t afford to be anything else. Like the Big Banks – it couldn’t afford to fail. Where fear came in by one door, creativity gradually began to leave by the other. Great Art can’t be made by numbers either by copying the steps of a previously made hit or by throwing money at it, and by not letting the team work in the way that ensured they could play in the rehearsal room, follow their own instincts and processes, the very essence of what made Shock Headed Peter so wonderful and free, was missing.
That was Phelim McDermott’s point. Making theatre, and putting it in front of an audience is risky – and producers and venues HAVE to accept that. Sometimes the gamble goes well and you get a hit and obviously the theatres that can afford to back their hunches the most (the RNT and RSC who both had representatives of their respective hit musicals, London Road and Matilda at this event) have reaped the benefits. But it can also go wrong.
Can smaller theatres afford to take a risk? Once they could, but it’s obvious from our experiences that they are much less willing to do so now. So what we have more and more is the Juke box musical – the songs of Green Day are coming, the Spice Girls musical is just around the corner, the Beatles, Abba. All fine and dandy but who is prepared to gamble on work such as ours? Not quite musical theatre, or opera, not made in the usual way…who has the nerve to really put on something different?
Watch this space to find out