Is it curtains for the British musical? Judging by the critical response to Rock of Ages, the latest jukebox musical to set up shop in the West End with a reliable back catalogue of sing-along hits, this was the ringing of the death knell for this country’s musical theatre. Joining a gaggle of film adaptations and shows crafted around well know songs, Rock of Ages is the latest in a growing West End trend that seems to have left originality and innovation behind.
But this isn’t quite the full story. While the West End is considered by many to be the ultimate destination for musical theatre lovers, the more intriguing and original work is currently thriving on the peripheries of London’s theatre scene. For those who can resist being dazzled by the West End’s big names and familiar tunes, fringe musicals can be a cheaper, smaller scale and far more interesting alternative to the often prohibitively expensive mainstream offerings.
Miniature musicals have long thrived at the Menier Chocolate Factory, with many making welcome transfers to the heart of theatreland, but this is not the only home that musical theatre has found away from the bright lights and derivative fluff of the West End. The Union Theatre, which is currently staging a new production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, has gained a solid reputation for quality musical revivals, while the likes of the Landor Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre are fast catching up.
What fringe theatres lack in budget and spectacle they make up for in other ways. Intimacy is often a hallmark of these cosy pub venues, giving the audience access to the actors’ every flicker of the eyes and laying bare each vocal nuance in the performances. Fringe musicals need not lack ambition either, as the Landor recently demonstrated with the extraordinary feat of squeezing the huge scope of Broadway belter Ragtime onto its modest stage.
If one production this year epitomised the rise of the fringe musical, however, it was Thom Southerland’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade at the Southwark Playhouse. Inspired by the true story of a Jewish factory owner accused of murdering a 13-year-old employee, the gritty subject matter typifies some of the riskier musicals getting staged in these sorts of venues. This lauded show also proved that high-quality musical theatre can thrive on the fringe and the snowballing critical buzz that surrounded it began to draw greater attention towards other musicals being produced beyond the West End.
Although shows such as Ragtime and Parade have now come to the end of their runs, there are positive signs for the future of musical theatre on the London fringe. In much the same way as theatres such as the Royal Court and the newly relocated Bush have pledged support to new writing, Theatre Royal Stratford East has singled out musical theatre as a key priority in its artistic vision, dedicating time and resources to nurturing new talent and producing musicals that bring freshness and innovation to the genre. Meanwhile, at the Soho Theatre, another home of new writing, new British musical Ex is currently receiving its world premiere.
“There is life for the British musical,” theatre critic Mark Shenton confidently declared at this year’s recent Empty Space Peter Brook Awards, which boasted the musical-nurturing Southwark Playhouse, Landor Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre among the nominees. This optimism is reflected in the daring and exciting productions that are finding a voice on the fringe, as well as in the glimmer of hope for the West End coming from new shows such as the RSC’s acclaimed Matilda. Musical theatre is still very much alive and, in the words of Shenton, “the fringe is a wonderful seed bed for its future”.
To read more of Catherine Love’s theatre-based musings, visit her website.