In 2019 I formally created a new musical theatre company and I named it after myself. I felt weird about that then and I feel weird about it now. This newsletter is going to explain why and add a bit of history and context to it all.
In late 2017 I founded a concert series called SIGNAL. It was hosted at the hospital club in Covent Garden. The idea of the concert was that a house band would accompany a selection of newly written songs by UK based writers. I never picked the songs or shows, just the writers. The space was theirs to use as they wanted as long as they did something new. Every performance was filmed and put on YouTube. The night was hosted by me and would be full of stories of how I met these amazing writers as well as impassioned sermons about why we should value these writers and musical theatre more.
I wanted the concert to be its own brand. I wanted it to be a space for writers of radical safety and trust. I wanted it to be a communal, collective space. The metaphor that kept being used was one of a Bonfire that was accessible to anyone who felt shunned by the mainstream and commercial theatre. It was a place where anyone and everyone could bring their light and their music. The more people that came and contributed, the brighter it would get, the more it would be noticed. It was open to anyone, it was free to perform in and originally it was also free to attend.
The original twitter and instagram handles were @signalmusicals and we were signalmusicals on YouTube. I was never visible in any of the videos which were cut into individual segments for the writers and their songs. Here’s how the concerts worked. The Hospital Club gave a small amount of money for the band and the videographer. Each concert took about a full week to organise, curate and plan and I was never paid for any of them. In fact I would lose money each and every time on food, studios, printing, refreshments. But the benefits to musical theatre seemed to outweigh any strains. I always planned that the concerts would be quarterly so that there would be a regular infusion of new songs and work. So that we could build a community of writers and voices, and so slowly and surely shows could start to be written.
In early 2018 not long after the first SIGNAL I went to BEAM. A brilliant biannual festival of new musicals. At the end of day two drinks turned into dinner at the Stratford East Pizza Express. As dinner began to finish I looked around the table of nearly 30 people and realised I was the only person there who wasn’t a writer. I turned to a friend nearby and remarked on this and he said that in reality I felt like a writer. He said that I was one of them because I cared about them and was an artist to my bones.
Later that year I got a group of writers together in a room and we spent a work session collectively establishing what musical theatre in the UK needed. We shared aspirations, hopes and dreams. We shared ideas of how we might collectively rally and bargain for the form. We looked at groups of writers like the Monsterists in the UK and 13p in the US. I held the space but I didn’t run it. I wanted to know what writers needed and how we might all work together to get more of it. I wanted more musical theatre, I wanted better musical theatre. I wanted space for my colleagues and friends who I believed in with my whole being.
I had said I would happily run a lot of the logistics and lobbying for this group of writers. We agreed that a collective, think tank or advocacy group might be a great option. We could all speak out together. But it was here in formulating and thinking this through that we all noticed something. I wasn’t a writer. Sure I might have felt like one to them but I didn’t actually write musicals. So the idea of making a non hierarchical writers advocacy group would work but it couldn’t include me. I wracked my brains about this for weeks but the long and short was, I’m not a writer so I couldn’t be in a writers’ collective. I would always look different to the writers. Like I was in some ways there wrongly even though my goals were their goals. So another thought came to us. I could support anything and everything these writers were doing in the background, and in the foreground I could focus on my own advocacy and beliefs as a maker of musicals. It was also apparent that I could speak up for writers in a way that they couldn’t for themselves.
So in 2018 I was surrounded by writers, making a concert for writers, helping groups of writers plan and formulate. I was meeting writers regularly to read their scripts and offer notes. I was giving writers slots in SIGNAL and I was running concerts and readings. And just so it’s clear: I was making no money. New musical theatre development in the UK is not a great way to earn money. It is a great way to spend money. My income was coming from teaching, graphic design, and the odd bit of directing.
Now I will say at this point, that everything was absolutely as I wanted it to be. The concerts were going brilliantly. I am listening to more great songs and reading more great scripts than ever before. Something is changing in new UK musicals and I feel that I am in the exceptionally lucky position of getting to be that near to it. My inbox is full of new songs and new ideas. I am getting to have coffee with incredible writers each and every week. I am developing collaborations and friendships and working partnerships but I am also acting as a router; I am introducing people to one another, making connections. All I ever wanted was to be making new musicals and part of a community of people who wanted the same. And here I am. I knew I was playing a slow game, building connections, building infrastructure, getting to know the best shows and the best writers. It would all lead somewhere. I had time.
But in 2019 I was diagnosed with cancer. A mole on my back turned out to be a malignant melanoma which is an aggressive form of skin cancer. This was incredibly scary. There was a very real possibility that I could die. I had been playing the slow game and I started to worry that it was too slow. That I wouldn’t make it to the finish line.
Three days after my surgery I went to the MMD conference where I bumped into a writer who said they were about to have their second meeting at a major subsidised theatre in London to talk about a possible commission. The writer went on to tell me that the literary manager of the theatre had found them through SIGNAL. Had been watching the YouTube videos to learn about writers that were good and had set up meetings because of it. My mind froze. Someone in a well paid literary role at a well funded theatre had spent a few hours scrolling through videos from a concert that had taken me months of time and expertise to organise, and he hadn’t even sent an email to say thank you.
A month later I got to meet the literary and music department at the National Theatre. They’ve heard about SIGNAL and wanted to chat new musicals with me. We speak for about two hours and it is a lucid and freeform exchange of ideas and theories about new musicals, their writers and their development. At the end of the meeting they ask if I might send them a list of the writers I like for them to take a look at. I ask, what are you planning to do. They said, they are looking to meet more writers and bring them more into the building.
Now maybe what happens next is the fear and sadness of my cancer. Maybe it’s based on the story of the literary manager who took my work and didn’t say anything to me. But I said, what’s in this for me? Why am I doing all this unpaid work so that I can send writers to the National while I get no upside from it all? They were genuinely gobsmacked by my question. But also very kind. They responded that they really have no way of interacting with directors or producers as intermediaries. That they have directors and teams that work at the national and that they as a literary department meet and uplift writers and their work. I asked if they could maybe consider some sort of consultancy role for me or some sort of paid script reading. They were very thoughtful and kind and said they’d think about it. They apologised that there was really no precedent here. They acknowledged that I was doing a lot of heavy lifting in this sector and that it was a real worry that I could do all this work and get looked past. They said that producers and venues want to meet great writers and that how they get there as well as the infrastructures that uplifted them on their journey so far is often regrettably overlooked.
I wasn’t a writer. I was making space and time for writers. But no one knew what to do with me. All I was really asking for was for a little energy and kindness to be given back to me. That the energy I was putting into the medium might find its way back. I was always getting so much kindness and so much energy from writers but the wider industry either looked to be uncertain what to do with me, or genuinely believe I was in the way of them having meaningful relationships with writers. Neither is or was true. All I wanted and want is some recognition and energy in return for what I had expended. Lineage is, as I have said before, important. Those who put energy in deserve to get some out.
So, 2019. Noticing that I am creating a bonfire, noticing that more and more industry are noticing. Fearing for my mortality and for the meaning of my life. Uncertain of my place as a not-writer in a world of writers. I set up a production company. And I put my name on everything. Initially it was Adam Lenson Productions but I genuinely hated seeing my name so I changed it to ALP musicals. I still don’t love it. But at least people can see the work I do. The many days I spend with writers, giving notes, giving advice. The many days I spend organising concerts and readings and workshops. The hundreds of writers I uplift and support and care about. At least when people with well paid jobs watch the videos from the concerts or come to a reading, they know who made it happen.
And here’s the real sadness. In theatre people often take the work at the grassroots level for granted. I had to put my name on my work because before that no one was particularly interested in the time and energy I was spending. Few others were spending as much time on an infrastructure and medium that is massively under appreciated and undernourished. I was spending maybe 40% of my life caring about musicals unpaid in the hope that me and my friends might get to make more musicals. In the hope that the medium might become more respected and valued. But I kept noticing that those in power were happy to take my work and my energy without even a second glance.
I still know that the people who were benefitting from my work were being careless rather than actively mean. People are beginning to realise that new musicals might be worth pursuing and they are taking short cuts to get there. They are looking for the next Hamilton without any real investment in the infrastructure, care and depth of work that is required to make that happen. I have very little money. But I have ideas and a lot of enthusiasm. I have put years of my life into making new musicals, I don’t think it is wrong to want that to be noticed.
But the bad news is, as soon as you put your name on things and try to be noticed, you look to some like you only care about yourself. You look self-centering, self-interested, self-obsessed. The two possibilities are to be overlooked and ignored or be selfish and self centred. Do you see the problem here? Why is that the choice?
I didn’t have a theatre or a mentor. I didn’t have a rich benefactor who would write me endless cheques. I didn’t have a regular salary or a job title. I still don’t.
My friends will tell you that I hated putting my name on my company. But I was out of options. I had spent years on my own. I kept hoping a building might make me a literary associate or a script reader for new musicals. I kept hoping I might get more in-building work as a dramaturg or consultancy in a producers office. But musicals are seen as singular, everyone’s got one they’re betting on, rarely do people care about systems and infrastructure. They’re looking at lists trying to pick the next winner.
So I struck out on my own. Well not on my own. I am always surrounded by many many many writers. I have lots of meetings now with buildings and producers but as was ever the case, they aren’t always sure what to do with me. They aren’t sure how to acknowledge my work or include me. They are looking for writers and shows. They aren’t looking to change the world.
Oh and one more thing. I hate producing. I don’t want to be a producer. The fact I have a production company is hilarious to me. I am a theatremaker. I’m a director and a dramaturg. I wanted to make new musicals and got to where I am because there was no infrastructure to make them. I realised I wouldn’t have a career of any sort unless I made one up. Every concert and show is an act of profound belief. They almost all lose money. For now. I raise the money and I spend hours and weeks and years of unpaid time. I have received very little help along the way. It turns out that the industry doesn’t like to help people who seek to disrupt it. Who care about things that they have deemed unworthy of care.
I love musical theatre. I spend almost all day every day thinking about it. About how it can be better, about how it can be different. I spend most of my time speaking to writers. Those who have plans to give us more to see and hear and appreciate. If we let them. I put my name on it so I’m easier to find. So if you’re looking to make and care about new musicals and the writers who write them. Then here I am.
Thank you for reading
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I’m extremely glad to have a place to think about and share opinions with more space for nuance than twitter. Over the coming weeks I will be sharing thoughts about musical theatre, formal disruption and creative technology that once would have been twitter threads but are now actual sentences. If you think someone else might enjoy them then please do share this newsletter with your friends and colleagues.
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I recently wrote a book about musical theatre called Breaking Into Song. It is 200 pages of manifestos, theories and hopes for musical theatre and is written to get anyone and everyone thinking about musical theatre in a new way no matter their preconceptions. Here is a picture of it on the shelf at actual Foyles!!
If you fancy picking up a copy then the best place to do so is from my amazing Publisher Salamander Street.
Thanks so much for reading and I will see you next Thursday.
Thank you for your tireless work, Adam and for sharing your experience with us. It serves as a cautionary note to any young composer/lyricist or promoter starting out. (I teach/facilitate MT to young degree students) Btw I thoroughly enjoyed your book. Bravo!
Thank you for explaining this Adam, it's a marvelous thing that you're doing and greatly appreciated by myself and many others who love musicals I'm sure. This is just what we need.