Last week, I spoke to Sarah ‘Roxie Hart’ Soetaert about her West End career. In a couple of days, I’ll be meeting Dan Bowling, one of the creative team behind Cats, Joseph and The Phantom of the Opera. All this talk of musical theatre made me consider the longevity of some of these shows, that can run for decades and still stick to their original template. Last year, Les Miserables celebrated its 25th anniversary – a quarter of a century since it opened (to negative reviews) in London. To mark this occasion, Sir Cameron Mackintosh commissioned a new version of the show, touring the country and eventually bringing it home to the Barbican Centre. A brand new creative team redirected, redesigned and re-imagined the musical, and yet some people grumbled at the announcement – why mess with the original?
It was only when The Mousetrap had been running for 48 years in London that a new set was built and installed, apart from the original clock on the mantelpiece, which remains to this day. The theatre claims to have sold 320 tonnes of ice cream while the show has been running – 58 years.
These long-running shows may replace their set, or alter their cast, but the original template still remains, like the symbolic clock on the mantelpiece. More often than not, when a long-running show is recast, they are not auditioned or directed by the original team. Rather, a resident or associate director will recreate the show, working from the initial director’s notes. The show will not evolve or develop: it will remain the same, and without due care, might stagnate into little more than a museum piece – a tourist attraction.
I spoke to Nigel Richards, a musical theatre performer and tutor at Arts Ed and LSMT. Nigel campaigns for fresh new writing in musical theatre, and shared his concerns about the lack of original material on the London theatre scene. He worries that “the creators of these shows may have been breaking new ground 25 years ago, but they’re certainly not looking after the art form anymore”. He looks to shows such as Mamma Mia that have spawned their own brand of ‘jukebox’ musical – stitching a loosely fitted story around existing music. “Young people see these shows, and think that this is what new musical theatre is,” he says. We spoke about the few new non-jukebox musicals that have surfaced recently. Nick Hytner’s new season at the National includes London Road, was originally billed as a new musical about serial killer Steve Wright, but now it has lost its nerve, a press statement admitting “we’re not going to call it a musical in future”. Rather, the show will see verbatim interviews set to music. At least this is new work and a step away from the culture of revivals that Trevor Nunn implemented in his time at the National – reproducing an old classic as a safe way of filling a musical theatre quota.
Perhaps ‘safety’ is at the heart of all of this, with producers unwilling to risk commissioning a potentially expensive flop (anyone remember Too Close To The Sun and Gone With The Wind?). My main concern is the potential for this risk-avoidance to be carried through to the shows that do actually get produced – with more and more orchestras being cut down, and more and more soloists being assisted with auto tune or click track. With this computer-based assistance, the West End seems to be focused on recreation – the same shows delivering identical performances day in, day out for 25 years.
I understand the practical, financial benefits of minimising risk and expenditure, allowing these shows to continue selling out and acting as a huge boost to our economy, but it does seem to beg the question: is it possible, these days, to remain an artist in musical theatre? Or is it the ‘art’ of these shows that they can continue to attract and entertain 25 years down the line?