In this new blog series, David Byrne, Artistic Director of the New Diorama Theatre, will explore the process of writing and staging a musical, looking at the place of musical theatre in Britain today…
This April, here at New Diorama Theatre, we will stage our first musical. The Universal Machine will be a new musical about the life and death of Alan Turing. And I really didn’t want it to be a musical. I fought against it for quite some time but it was the only way to go and, as soon as I gave in, it felt right. The most recurring question or reaction I’ve had to the piece is why have we turned such a potentially tragic story into a piece of musical theatre?
There is a prevailing assumption that all musicals are staged with lines of kicking girls, jazz hands and camp choreography. Personally, I’ve never seen a musical like this. I’m not sure they really exist outside pastiches in The Simpsons. Most musicals, especially popular ones of the past 20 years, are centered around obscure subjects and issues that you wouldn’t initially dream of setting to music – just look at the Lloyd-Webber back catalogue: the life story of the wife of an Argentinean dictator, obscure parts of the Old Testament and, soon we’re told, the Profumo affair.
The truth is we’ve made Alan’s story into a musical for one main reason: the content fitted the form. I wanted to show the world of a man who can make the most incredible, genius intellectual jumps but had problems connecting to those around him. Showing the people in Alan’s life moving with erudite ease, able to express themselves and their emotions with effortless clarity seems to fit the idea of a completely choreographed piece. Here, through a musical language, characters can communicate freely and try to connect through music, which is always hardwired into us emotionally.
That is the basis on which we’re going forward.
The smaller reason was I’ve been dying to programme some musical theatre at New Diorama. One of the recurring themes I’ve noticed in my professional career has been the complaint that there aren’t enough new musicals. Barely six months goes by without somebody writing an article or starting a debate to ask why in the UK there are so few new pieces of musical theatre attempted while our cousins State-side, seem to churn them out to a more consistent high standard quite regularly.
I’ve always been a huge fan of musicals. Early in my career this was scoffed at by my superiors but, landing a venue of my own to run and programme, I was determined to make musical theatre part of the mosaic of work we present. Also, Jemima, our General Manager had championed new musical theatre while she worked at Arts Council England and fought for companies such as Perfect Pitch to get public funding for the first time. We felt like the right team to do it.
I started off at the big festivals (mainly Edinburgh) trying to find really strong new British musicals. I then moved to looking across the London Fringe, attending showcases and new productions. What I found was a surprising lack of variety and innovation, especially when compared to developments in other dramatic forms, with nowhere near the same number to choose from. I’ve been wondering why that might be the case.
My theory is that all the best writing programmes in the UK that playwrights gravitate towards encourage “straight” theatre – after all, few new musicals are staged at The Bush, the Royal Court, Hampstead etc. I think there’s also an historical issue: for some reason writing musicals is barely a respectable career in the UK. In America, the musical is a respected art-form but here it’s seen as an embarrassing cousin to ‘serious theatre’. At university I wrote my first musical and it was a great success – we won several prizes and a good time was had by all. After it all died down one of my lecturers took me to one side: “Stop with this musical theatre business”, he advised. “Why not try working on some European translations next, maybe move to Paris, live in a squat and date a whore. That’s the respectable way to do it.” He added, with a glint in his eye, “after all, it worked for me”.
Photos: The cast of The Universal Machine in rehearsals. By Richard Lakos for A Younger Theatre.