#1 - Hating the right things
Why being angry at the powerful is ok and why activism and trolling aren't the same thing.
I spend a lot of time talking about my dismay at the actions, words, and attitudes of two men; Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I also spend a lot of time feeling dismayed at the gap between the glowing, celebratory way they are perceived by the press and general public, as opposed to the way I observe them and their activities.
In fact I often use the two of these men as a load bearing pillar onto which I pile so much of my sadness with the way musical theatre is perceived, managed and thought about in the UK.
Lately I have been asked a question that has stuck with me; Why do you focus so much of your energy on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh and the commercial West End instead of aiming your frustrations at all of the other venues and producers who don’t care about musicals at all?
Instead of being frustrated at the two most important men who actually make musicals why do I not spend more energy on all the venues who don’t receive script submissions of new musicals, or any of the venues who barely ever programme or touch the form at all? Why not aim my sadness at the subsidised buildings that would never dream of using tax payer money to uphold and uplift the form I love and care about?
Surely the people who have never produced a musical and show no interest in doing so are far more useful a target of frustrations and reprimands than people who have spent their lives making musicals? Surely Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh should be lauded for promoting the form and turning musicals into a multibillion industry? Surely my activism should be aimed at those who do not consider musicals viable or necessary or important? Why focus on those who love musicals when we could trying to convert those that hate them?
But here is my answer to that sticky question. What if those who love what the form was, are actually causing the most hatred for what they could be? What if those people who are most historically successful have contributed most of all to the medium’s calcification? Doesn’t it make sense that the most successful men in British musical theatre have the most to gain from it staying the same? And by keeping the medium the same is it not the form’s greatest success stories who are most dangerous to the form’s growth, expansion, and innovation?
I believe that it is Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh who through their sheer success and their singular, specific idea for the form who are also most dangerous to its future. I think it is worth noticing that success leads to repetition and repetition is the enemy of innovation. Many forms have examples of dusty corners where repetition and familiarity lead the way. But what if that dusty corner were most of the medium? In musicals the past has come to define the largest part of the form.
I agree that personal vilification is pretty unproductive. I agree that negativity is unappealing. I of course observe that we are living in a time of persuasive slogans asking us to “be kind” and “stay positive”. While I have often noted that both of these are good ways of maintaining the status quo by framing any disruptive or innovative sentiment as one of unkindness or of negativity. I also am aware that negativity is only helpful to people if it comes with an offer for something better as part of the package. Negativity with no purpose is trolling. But negativity with hopes of a better future is activism.
One of the reasons I left twitter discourse for this substack newsletter is because twitter makes everything look like trolling, even activism.
Thus given a longer form than Twitter allows I am eager to reframe my criticism of Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh and the commercial West End as something much more positive. It is in fact a call to arms, a plea for freedom from the prison of formal constraints and fear-based repetition that their success and influence has used to trap and restrict an entire medium.
I notice that so many venues, artists and producers feel hemmed in by a rigid perception of musical theatre. And maintaining and reinforcing that rigidity is only beneficial to those whose legacy and financial dominance depends on its perceived importance.
The reason that so many producers venues don’t care about musicals is because Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh have so utterly monopolised the form that it has become unthinkable that musicals can be anything other than what the two of them decree or have decreed. Musicals have become a monarchy.
Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh spend the majority of their time speaking up for themselves rather than their form. They focus on past triumphs, present vanities, and future transfers of blockbuster American hits. They use their resources to feather their own beds and continually reinforce their fixed ideas of what musicals are to them. Anything outside of that gets starved of oxygen and light and energy and space.
It is common in theatre to speak disparagingly about the conservative government or the monarchy. Both are examples of power and individualism and their wrongheaded triumph over equitable meritocracy and opportunity. Artists tend to often be able to see the virtue in disrupting hegemony and hierarchy. Equally most theatre is aware of an intrinsic debate between art and commerce.
But for some reason musicals have often become a medium where the few decide the fate of the many and rather than speak up people just go along with it. The power structures in musicals if seen in politics or government would be easily legible as problematic. But in musical theatre this autocracy has now been going on for so long that it has become invisible. And the stacks of money mean a lot of people turn a blind eye too to the systemic rot.
I will restate that the reason I spend my energy calling out those who have had so much success in the form is because that power and influence has more and more been used for less and less. Those who have gained and benefitted from the form should know better and we should expect more of them than we expect from people who have never dipped their toe into musicals. Those who were allowed and afforded the chance to innovate should bestow that space to innovate and create on other generations and other writers.
Moreover I find it hard to be angry at those who have decided musicals aren’t something they want to partake in when two of the most prominent custodians of the form have said over and over again in both actions and words that the form is only for them and only for the few people they anoint.
I will say that my negative feelings towards the West End Musical Theatre hegemony have always led to positivity in me. To concerts, readings, workshops and shows. They have led to a desire to do better. To offer alternatives. My speaking out against the injustice and rigidity I see has also led to friendships with others who have felt hemmed in by the perceptions of what musicals are, have been or must be. Many of the theatres and producers who were staying away from musicals feel that freedom from the past will lead to space to create and breathe without restriction or boundaries.
Rather than speaking negatively to those who don’t think musicals are for them my recent attention has been spent on questioning why musicals are given so little opportunity to be anything other than what two men have decided them to be. Breaking those perceptions, structures, autocracies and hegemonies to me is the clearest way of releasing the musical from its imprisonment. Untarnishing the form and creating space and opportunity for it to be whatever it wants.
I want to also acknowledge that negativity without an equal and opposite force is dangerous. Negativity displayed in isolation time and again can look like it is purely destructive. I know that my negativity towards a calcified, autocratic past is well intentioned and also comes paired with a passion to make good things happen wherever and whenever I can. But I know and acknowledge that sometimes my negativity has been public while my productivity has been private. I know that despite the fact I support many writers and produce shows and concerts and albums, that from certain perspectives and from a certain gaze that my negativity and positivity are not always seen next door to one another at the same time. That showing negativity without a counteracting positive action can lead to unbalance. And therefore discomfort.
But again I will say that my frustrations with the past and with the power dynamics in musical theatre have led to a lot of positivity and optimism. To a lot of friendship and belief in what can be round the corner. But sometimes the energy that comes from frustration can look like it is fixated on that frustration. And that is something I’m eager to change.
The opposite of love isn’t hatred, it is indifference. So I am going to try and be more indifferent to those who keep musical theatre trapped in the past. I am going to take the energy from the negativity I feel and convert it into positivity for what’s next. But I won’t apologise for my frustrations. They are part of me. And anything good I have done comes from a desire to change the system as it currently exists. Out of a desire for more space and more understanding and more opportunity and giving audiences more to see. Not less.
Yesterday while finishing off this post I saw a September article from the Financial times where a few celebrities were asked their favourite musical. The summary of the article read “superfans celebrate the blissfully uncool world of jazz hands and overtures”
It led me to wonder what has made musical theatre so obviously “uncool”. And it seems evident to me it is because the medium has become so very publicly associated with a certain type of musical. Once again it felt clear to me that because the powerful publicly hold onto that past of the medium it makes it significantly harder for those associations to be shifted.
Uncool things tend to be those that don’t move with the times. Things that resist updating. It is evident to me that our two powerful friends are hugely responsible for making sure the musical doesn’t really grow, expand or update unless they say so. Two people have been responsible for musical theatre’s past and if we aren’t careful they might well cast a long shadow over its future.
Oh and I’ve probably directed thirty musicals at this point and not a single one has ever had either an overture or jazz hands.
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