For many people, musical theatre is all about the big Broadway shows, full of choruses, big dance numbers and an orchestra of thirty – 42nd Street, say, or Oklahoma. Or it’s the films that were always there to be watched on TV on a rainy Sunday afternoon, where Fred Astaire would put on the Ritz in top hat and tails, and Gene Kelly could spin effortlessly around lamp-posts in the rain. For a younger audience, it’s the West End hits like Wicked or The Lion King that draw them in time and time again. Love it or hate it, this is the world of musical theatre.
But musical theatre is changing. Your Carousels and your Miss Saigons are going nowhere; but there is now also a generation of artists starting to play with new ways of using song to tell a story. They are trying out a wide range of musical styles too – hip hop, beat boxing, folk – and they are finding audiences for their work outside London’s West End.
The National Theatre broke new ground with its production of London Road. The show, subsequently turned into a well-received film, was set in Ipswich during a series of murders of prostitutes and the subsequent trial, and the spoken text and lyrics were created from verbatim speech. And Glasgow Girls, a collaboration between National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Citizens Theatre, reached an entirely new audience with its contemporary, uplifting story exploring the experience of asylum seekers in a Glaswegian housing estate.
And nowhere can you see the changing face of musical theatre more clearly than at the Edinburgh Fringe. A quick flick through the brochure reveals revivals of Into the Woods sitting alongside the brand new UKIP the Musical; Grease cheek by jowl with Get Your Sh*t Together. Delve more deeply, and you will find My Beautiful Black Dog – part gig, part musical and telling a very personal story of mental illness or Willy’s Bitches – a song cycle giving new words and song to Shakespeare’s heroines. Musical theatre is spilling out of its previous definition and bubbling up in cabaret, in theatre. And in doing so, it is reaching new audiences who may previously have declared “I don’t like musicals” but who find a real appeal in these new forms.
But creating new musical theatre is often not commercially viable. Arts Council England and Creative Scotland offer valuable support and there are a number of development companies whose remit is to develop new work and the artists making it – Musical Theatre Network, Mercury Musical Developments, Perfect Pitch. There are venues with a commitment to new musical theatre – Glasgow Citizens; the New Wolsey in Ipswich; Curve, Leicester – and a growing interest from drama colleges and higher education establishments to commission new work from emerging composers. But there is still a lack of investment in the development of musical theatre and an unwillingness (or perhaps a financial inability) for companies to take real risks with new work.
Which is where the Musical Theatre Network Development Award hopes to be able to make a contribution. Offered in collaboration with Curve, Leicester, this award is in its first year and is designed to identify those artists or companies who, with the right support, have the talent to create new and innovative work. Musical Theatre Network brings together a team of assessors and judges at the Edinburgh Fringe; this group of musical theatre directors, performers, producers and composers spend three weeks seeing as much work as they possibly can where song helps to tell the story. Out of a process of seeing shows and then fiercely debating their respective merits, one company or artist is then identified for the award: £1,500 plus a week’s worth of development support through Curve. The chosen artist or company is also provided with ongoing mentoring to help them find the right collaborators and networks to take their work forwards.
Of course, one award won’t change the way in which musical theatre is developed in this country. But it can help to continue a conversation about what musical theatre might be in the future; it can help identify the artists who will be at the heart of that conversation and then introduce them to others who will be able to help them take their work forwards. It can also reduce that very early risk of not being able to afford to fail, so not being able to afford to try. And in the long term, it can seed work that will be bold in its approach to song, story and sound; work that is proudly musical theatre but with its own unique flavour.
• Caroline Routh is executive producer of Musical Theatre Network (www.musicaltheatrenetwork.com). The winner of the new award will be announced at The Scotsman Fringe Awards on Friday 28 August