Discover more from COUNTERPOINT by Adam Lenson
#8 - The Middle
Why I live between commercial and subsidised and why I'd love more people to visit
I have often said that when it comes to musicals that I live in the middle. In the hinterland between Britain’s commercial and subsidised sectors.
The UK commercial sector does seem to love musicals. But the musicals they seem to love are an ever decreasing subset of the form. They like big, splashy, feel good extravaganzas. They like brainless confectionary. They like nostalgic film adaptations and they like scores written by pop stars. Oh and they also like unassailably huge hits from America. Shows that have been rubber stamped with awards and box office records across the Atlantic.
The UK subsidised theatre mostly seems to view musicals with an air of profound suspicion. They often view musicals as an inferior art form that undermines the things that they admire about theatre. The inclusion of singing and songs seems to most of them to diminish the perceived artistic content of theatre and as such the form is spoken down to and treated with a regular lack of care. Worst still, on the rare occasions that the subsidised sector does programme musicals they often tend to reach over and emulate the commercial sector and look to create big crowd pleasing extravaganzas with the hope of making a hit show that might bring in some much needed money.
It seems that neither side is particularly interested in letting the medium be the art form it so richly deserves or supporting the pool of eager and talented artists who have made it their life.
And so I live in the middle.
Trapped between the commercial and the subsidised but feeling part of neither.
But paradoxically, the middle is where the best writers are. The most talented craftspeople who absolutely know how to integrate story and song to make the most profound, exhilarating, entertaining and life changing works of art. But most of those people have nothing even resembling a career. There is just no shop that stocks the products they are making. There is no part of the landscape that cares about the form enough to elevate them on their own terms.
The past few weeks have brought us an increased awareness of two American artists who lived in the middle and who forever changed what musical theatre is capable of.
Tick Tick…Boom shows us that Jonathan Larson had no interest in emulating what had come before but sought to make something new and original. His show Rent led to a paradigm shift that forever changed the sound of the American Musical.
The outpouring of grief and rightful veneration of Stephen Sondheim shows us what is possible when someone intent on leading with artistic endeavour is given the time, space and opportunity to make new musicals. Sondheim changed the world because he was given opportunities to tear up what had come before and build something new in its remains.
But no one in the UK wants to tear up anything. Both the commercial and subsidised ends of the spectrum seem to have no interest in changing the status quo and thus me and the best writers I know stay trapped in the middle. Unable to benefit or engage with many of the processes and resources that would give them the ability to make their art possible.
It was pointed out to me that I throw stones at both sides. That I acknowledge the lack of care and interest in change on both sides of the landscape. In so doing it feels like I am often speaking in a way that leads to alienation or frustration from both sides.
I was recently asked why I do this and I wanted to lay out my answer.
I throw stones so that people notice the middle. I have little interest at this point in my life of journeying to either side. I have spent too many years asking either side to properly care about the form that I and many others care about so much. Both sides are so deeply entrenched in their world-views and preconceptions that it borders on ignorance. Both sides have a fixed idea of what a musical is and must be to them that they tend to ignore and undermine the artists with the greatest capability to change and evolve the art form in this country.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had committed to a side, tried to belong there and aimed for slow iterative change. What would my life have been if I had embedded myself in the literary departments and offices of subsidised theatres and slowly but surely tried to edge them towards a deep and profound care of the artistry of new musicals. Equally what would have happened if I had calmly spent my time appealing to the commercial monarchy and slowly showing them that musicals could edge ever closer away from the cynical money makers into a more profound space of artistic hope.
But the truth is I spent plenty of years bouncing back and forth between these places, looking for a space that I and the work and writers I cared about might belong. And no one ever made space on either side.
And so the only space was the middle.
I throw stones at both sides in the hope that people will visit me in the place I most understand and most belong. In the hope they might come to me and the writers I love on our own terms. Mostly I realise I throw stones to be noticed. They aren’t big stones and they aren’t truly capable of breaking anything. They are small pebbles tapping against the windows of each side with the hope that people might see them and leave their houses and take a journey to the middle. The middle is where the best musical theatre is.
I truly believe that anyone who wants to change musical theatre, anyone who wants to make musical theatre better, has to be willing to leave the warmth of their current location and experience all of the truly mind-blowing and exceptional work that lives beyond the walls of their established topography.
Yes I throw stones but what if I have found that it is the only way for the things I care about to be noticed. What if not throwing stones just leads to invisibility and ambivalence. Yes it may look like aggression but what if it’s just a profound desire for theatre in this country to notice us.
I believe that the best way to honour Stephen Sondheim is for theatre in the UK to truly think about the artists who look to create work in his image. Those who seek to tell mature, dazzling and provocative stories using stacked layers of text and music.
All of them are in the middle.
Why not pay them a visit?
Several people sent me a photograph of a piece of art featured in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.
The piece as you can see describes A Chorus Line as ‘a form of escape from life’s woes’.
A Chorus line is anything but an escapist show. In my opinion it is closer to a horror story. It is a show made up of verbatim transcripts from Broadway dancers and tells stories of abuse and anonymity or struggle in the service of the momentary and fragmented exhilaration of getting to do what you love in the service of art. It is about how individuals are forced to erase their narratives and identities and speaks to the collision of individual artists with an industrial machine looking to subsume them.
The final number is and should be horrifying. It is a sign that everyone was competing to be just another faceless part of a line. A piece in something anonymous. It is a show about how artists ‘love’ for the art they make is often used against them and how we are often made to compete for what few crumbs of opportunity are laid out by those in power.
The cast of the show are athletes who are forced to push their bodies and minds beyond reasonable expectations because of a voice over a microphone telling them to do so and fearing a lot less than them.
A Chorus line is hardly escapist. It looks you in the eyes and says, entertainment has a cost. That art is not easy even for those who can get in the room. The piece is about individual and shared trauma balanced against the exhilaration it can offer to both performers and audiences.
But yet art hung in one of the world’s most esteemed galleries in the world declaims that musical theatre provides a form of escape.
And here, once again, is the profound and regular misunderstanding that I believe is used to constantly undermine and ring-fence musical theatre. That it is after all, despite its ‘grit’, ‘cruelty’ and ‘suffering’, just an escape for most.
But I think we all know that art isn’t just an escape. It’s a way of connecting with the biggest questions in all of our lives. Why do we so regularly deny musical theatre of that even as we celebrate it?
Thank you for reading
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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.