#3 - Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Why musical theatre needs more charity than it gets and how continuing to codify it only as a commercial form is bad news for its future.
With word this week that another commercial producer was buying London’s The Other Palace to again try and make it a home for new musical theatre I was struck by these words in an interview with returning artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills.
"But it's also a venue that has to be run commercially – it isn't a charity"
I was immediately disappointed to see a venue on one hand suggest it was going to be a place for new musical theatre development and then immediately reaffirm that it would do so using only commercial mechanics and ideologies.
Musicals now more than ever need spaces for development and growth that are mediated by artists' voices and ideas. Most other forms of theatre have funds, theatres, and parts of the ecosystem that give opportunities for innovative, unpredictable, new types of work but once again it is evident that musicals rarely get that. They get spaces that are mostly focused on commercial ideas and commercial viability from day one. Once again, new ideas and new shows will have to get audiences in quickly and sell tickets in volume and face unkind financial deals without any safety net or insulation. Once again producing will be immediately requiring of privilege or based on familiarity, commercial viability, brand recognition and having to cater what an audience wants now rather than getting to show them what might be around the corner.
But my disappointment isn't specific to Paul or The Other Palace. It is due to a mindset that is all-pervasive in this country. It is one that says ‘musical theatre must be commercial’. And not only that but it says that ‘musical theatre must be commercial from the start’. The medium and its writers are hardly ever afforded the chance to write what they want but instead have to ask what does this medium and its audiences expect from me. Producers meanwhile search relentlessly after known titles to adapt and pop stars to write the scores. In the hope that this will make them a commercial musical.
The idea that in musical theatre early risk can be mitigated, or that there could conceivably be space, or time, or heaven forbid, money to test out new ideas is once again hardly ever seen. Rather than giving space to writers and shows that may be initially perceived to have absolutely no commercial viability and may in fact just be interesting, or thrilling, or disruptive, or cool, or new, or strange, or terrifying, or unpredictable.
Musical theatre is entirely codified as a commercial art form in this country. When people think of musicals they think commercial. Even if shows were once allowed - in some long forgotten 70s and 80s heyday - to be more wide ranging and imaginative that has become less and less true. Musicals are seen to be commercial and they are thus forced to be commercial.
America has a multitude of non profit pathways that lead to shows that are formally audacious such as Hamilton, A Strange Loop, Fun Home, The Scottsboro Boys, The Band’s Visit. But even our non profit sector tends to steer towards commercial viability when making musicals. Often when UK’S subsidised theatres make new musicals in the UK it is clear they make them with the hope and expectation of making a profit. So we see the RSC do The Boy In A Dress and the National Theatre do Hex. Both clearly look like shows that follow traditional audience expectations of what a musical is with the hope of making those theatres some royalties over the coming years. The rare innovation of London Road seems a long time ago and seems like it is left to be a lone anomalous point on a graph of commercial musicals coming from all directions. No one seems to have any interest in letting musicals be ‘a charity’.
And yet so many theatres push the form of new plays and this gives rise to exhilarating new voices and writers, precisely because they can be programmed without theatres feeling the immediate risk and exposure of them needing to be commercial. Theatres like the Royal Court, The Bush, The Young Vic, The Kiln and many other smaller venues and companies have the ability to take a chance on something that doesn't yet have to be commercial. Or ever be commercial. But musicals don't get that chance. Even the spaces claiming to be dedicated to them in theory make early demands on what they have to be. What they have to look like, sound like and be about. What they have to achieve and what they have to achieve quickly.
We have a rich tradition of writers’ theatre. Of new writing that serves and elevates writers. That takes what they find interesting and shows it to audiences. But time and again when asked about musicals I am always asked early and often ‘what audience is it for?’. I would much rather focus on the writer who the idea has lit on fire. Writers can show us the future and it is demonstrably true that if a writer is compelled to write something that is interesting to them that it will inevitably be interesting to others too. If given time and space and money to grow and develop.
And the irony is that the plays of the commercial west end are largely built upon voices and skillsets nurtured in the subsidised sector. Plays like Warhorse and Harry Potter are built by writers and creative teams who got to make non-commercial work for years and got to hone their voices and their talents. But musical theatre writing rarely gets to be honed or refined. Voices rarely get to be discovered and nurtured. Musicals are not allowed to be a charity case. So they always have to make profit and make it quickly. And if that's so then they become the preserve of the privileged or the famous, and no one else can really get a look in.
And here's the thing. Unless musical theatre can be a charity sometimes. Unless it can be subsidised and non profit. Unless it can be made with the intention of leading an audience rather than following it, then I worry we are playing a losing game with the form. Because the form is complex and requires time and consideration and the ability to take risks and figure out how the pieces and layers all fit together. It is a deeply collaborative form and those collaborators need time to get to know one another's voice and learn how to merge them into something cogent and unique and polyphonic. But if it's all just commercial, then it'll be pop stars and adaptations and familiar familiar familiar familiar all the way down. And while writers of plays like James Graham and Michaela Coel and Lucy Kirkwood can rise up from non profit sectors to commercial prominence, writers of musicals have few places to rise from and even fewer places to go.
Every day musical theatre in this country becomes ever more handcuffed to commercial theatre. And the chance for artists to experiment and learn and innovate and breathe grows ever dimmer. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton because people fell in love with his voice and perspective and gave him time, space and money to write whatever he wanted. They believed in what he believed. He made them a hit but that only seems inevitable in retrospect. A similar belief has been given to Dave Malloy to write numerous disruptive and exhilarating new works. None have been commercial with a capital C but his voice has inevitably changed musical theatre as a form and will be refracted onto shows for years to come. Voices are just important as commercial viability. If theatres raise the voices of talented and intelligent writers then it will mean something, even if that meaning isn’t immediately about money.
I remember a season at the Royal Court in the early 2010s where three shows in a row transferred to the West End. A playwright friend of mine mostly interested and involved in the subsidised part of the landscape said to me at the time that if the Royal Court is making too much work that transfers to the West End then they're programming the wrong work. Because, he said ‘it's their job to find out what's next’. And what's next is rarely what people expect or what they think they want. But it might just be what we all need.
I know people care about musical theatre in a lot of different ways. I hope that people read this with the passion and care with which it is intended and perhaps wonder if maybe we should be finding more opportunities for musicals to be made where they are insulated from commercial pressures and fears. I know a lot of brilliant writers that are in desperate need of some charity to get their unique and beautiful and exhilarating stories into the world. Who are in desperate need of spaces that aren’t focused on whether they can make profit but what they can contribute to the pantheon of artistic endeavour.
I truly believe that musical theatre needn’t just be a charity case. But it needs parts of its landscape and ecology to be charitable. It needs parts that are unshackled from capitalism and immediate profit. Because if not, it will quite simply wither and die. And that isn’t something I will let happen on my watch.
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Such a great title - especially with the implication of the song's hook line! I hope we don't get fooled again and that some risk and innovation in new British musicals will happen at The Other Palace. But as you say, Adam, the commercial flag was firmly planted by Paul in that press release. He definitely loves musicals. Everything crossed here for some boundary-pushing among the commercial stuff. If it's 'not a charity', then searching elsewhere at tax-payer funded places yields us that National Theatre, where their big musical this year seems designed to bolster the finances of the artistic director's household, with one eye on a transfer and the resulting royalties rolling in to the book writer and self-appointed 'lyricist'. That can't be right for a place we fund with our taxes.
I read other artistic directors’ announcements and they talk about what values they hope to advocate for in the venue (inclusivity, diversity, social awareness etc).
We all know we live in a capitalist hellhole, we don’t need the AD reminding us of that. The AD’s job is help us fight back against all that - to champion our shared values in the face of this brutal, corporate race to the bottom.
I have nothing against Paul himself but that announcement was indeed symptomatic of the wider problem with musical theatre and commercialism.