This is a question that has been burning away for a while but no one has really wanted to acknowledge, especially a country that prides itself on its performance heritage and its hub of theatrical activity in the West End. But with the seemingly unexplainable closure of critically acclaimed Betty Blue Eyes last year it appears people are coming to the same conclusion: musical theatre has reached stagnation point and if something doesn’t change soon then future generations of shows, writers and performers may be lost. Yet many stalwarts of the theatrical community are now speaking out.

The Times (3 March) recently ran an interview with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim which included exciting news about him writing a new show. Yet what stuck out most were his comments on the current state of musical theatre here and on Broadway. In the interview Sondheim calls the situation “terminal”, stating that “theatre is becoming more marginalised”. He goes on to say that Broadway and the West End are “commercial crap”.

A fair point – in London there are 21 shows running and only one of those is a completely new ‘book’ musical, Matilda. Most of the other shows are mega-musicals (Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera) that have become part of our national theatrical psyche after a quarter of a century, juke-box musicals (We Will Rock You etc), tried and tested revivals (Sweeney Todd) or based on a hit film (Shrek, Dirty Dancing). These all have their own merits but there is no escaping the lack of complete originality and risk in the West End. Sondheim says all this with a tone of finality, but is the situation really becoming that fatal?

Perhaps not. Michael Billington for the Guardian points out that “like the banks, musicals have become too big to fail”. We may have created mega musicals with Les Miserables et al, but it seems they have come to bite us on the proverbial behind with a lack of small shows and producers unwilling to take risks. He speaks of new ways to showcase new musicals and writers – something akin to the Royal Court, where the focus would be on the writing and the talent of performers and not on elaborate sets and celebrity stars. Billington refers to a run-in with producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh who mentioned he was pursuing such a concept, and he is probably one of the only people to have the money to invest in such an idea.

Other options might be to invest in regional repertory theatre, which was where many actors started out and honed their craft. Like a need for a Royal Court-style theatre in London for musicals, there is also a need for other  small regional theatres similar to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Nothing is lost by making musicals small, as proved by many successful shows at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and in theatres such as Southwark Playhouse where Floyd Collins is currently playing, receiving rave reviews. Indeed many writer/lyricists start small with song cycles and two-handers such as Jason Robert Brown with Songs From A New World and The Last Five Years.

It is also important to learn from musical theatre history when making an argument regarding new and experimental shows. Many of the great musicals would never have happened had producers not taken a chance on them. Oklahoma! was extremely experimental and was the first show for Rogers & Hammerstein as a writing duo, and, as Sondheim points out, “it didn’t sell out on opening night.”

It seems musical theatre is reaching a crisis point and I hope that we can find a way to change that or to adapt. As much as I don’t want to speak negatively about Sondheim I do hope we can prove his predictions wrong as I would hate to see musical theatre become so narrow as to be non-existent.

Image credit: Dave Patten.