Saturday, 27 February 2016

Déjà vu

Do you sometimes feel like you're living in a world of déjà vu? Or like you've been banging the same drum for so long that it's just become a noise that people can blot out...yet you KNOW that it's still relevant?

My friend and esteemed colleague Chris Grady has just written a great blog about the need to create 'celebrities' from Musical Theatre performers.  Here have a read: I took the opportunity to remind him of a blog that I'd written way back in Jan 2015 In part covering the same topic that I'd touched on then...and indeed making reference to the fact that I had been speaking about this very subject some 9 years earlier (or was it 8?)!  In fact (as stated in my 2015 blog), the thinking behind The MTA covering acting for camera in a 50/50 split with acting for stage was predominantly for this very reason.  I'm still staggered by the fact that some 2 years on we are still the only Musical Theatre course to genuinely split the focus of our acting course.  In fact next term will see (we hope) the birth of the third MTA short film.  Oh how I wish that I could share the links with you of the first two, as they're genuinely inspired, and indeed, when you think that they were written and shot in just one week, they're truly remarkable too.  Now we can only do this because a) our Head of Acting is Tilly Vosburgh who is in fact a national treasure (except that the nation doesn't quite realise it yet) and b) we have an up and coming award winning director called Alex Warren who has an amazing eye, great vision, and a very generous spirit to edit the film for us.

How many times since I first spoke out about this in 2007 (or was it 2008...I still don't remember) have I seen 'Musical Theatre' performers cross over into the medium of film, blatantly, and wisely IMHO, raising their profile, so that they can cross back into the world of theatre, suddenly being seen for roles, and demanding a much higher salary  (which also means that they can indulge in the occasional off-West End profit share type show too).  It's the perfect win/win.  The world of TV is gaining some great 'names' and the world of theatre can reclaim them, and surprise a whole new audience.  If Celebrity "X" is putting new bums on seats AND being brilliant what's not to like about the arrangement? Right now John Partridge is shocking Eastenders' audiences up and down the UK by staring in Chicago. I'd love to know what percentage of the Chicago audiences are newcomers to the theatre just to see a popular soap actor 'take on' a musical theatre role.  Of course the fact that he trained at both the Royal Ballet Lower School and then Birds just might have passed them by. Just like the fact that for the 20 years before he was the 'newcomer' in Eastenders, he had predominantly worked in Musical Theatre.  However I love that!  Rewind to 1991 and I vividly remember paying my 2nd visit to Into the Woods down at the Phoenix...but this time I had my mum and dad with me. I'd been out of college for a couple of years, and I'd saved up enough money to take them to the theatre for a change.  In retrospect why I thought that my dad would like Sondheim, when he didn't really 'get' musicals at all is beyond me.  Anyway the show starts and my father sits up, all excited to see 'that woman from Fresh Fields' on stage...all shocked (he explained in the interval) that she could sing alright couldn't she?  Of course 'that woman from Fresh Fields' was the amazing Julia McKenzie, half the reason that I had opted to pay a 2nd visit in the first place (the half being Imelda Staunton, who was playing the Baker's Wife, and I hadn't seen her in anything before, but thought that she was really something quite special and wanted to watch her performance again).

So even as I write this blog, the penny drops that psychodynamically maybe I had made the connection way back then that 'celebrity' could actually be a good thing for Musicals, as opposed to the force for evil that it suddenly became in the noughties? Now before anybody shouts about all the stunt casting...well that's a different thing altogether isn't it?? All of the above is clever casting, and clever career progression.  Having a Big Brother contestant playing Billy Flynn is ludicrous, having them playing a pantomime villain is insulting to all those people who trained to do it properly, yet sadly, good business, and last time I checked, the secret to commercial theatre producing was the first word, not the second two(and yes, yes, the ideal world commercial, good business and integrity all combines, but the world has never been perfect).  Also look at the social change that took place in the noughties - the television landscape suddenly changed overnight.  Big Brother, American Idol, The X Factor, Masterchef, Location, Location, Location, Wife Swap....the list is never ending.  Hours of broadcast time with TV companies spewing out 'the everyman', who let's face it, were much cheaper to populate our screens with, than the 'every actor'!  Ironically we then attempted to turn them into the latter via pantos and 'an audience with..' theatre tours.  The trouble is, as I stated up in Edinburgh however many years ago it was. . . you either moan about it, or beat them at their own game. In the Noughties, everyone was still in the Thatcher glow of you could have anything if you wanted it.  The daughter of a humble grocery store owner could become Prime Minister. We could all become that illusive thing called 'a celebrity'.  This was a different thing to 'celebrities' of old (who we actually called stars not celebs....because they shone a bit brighter than the rest of us, or at least that's my favorite definition of the word).

I think that theatre lost it's way a bit during this time. We were so busy moaning about this new era, we forgot to keep up.  Shows became 'stars' not performers, and our 'stars' faded into the background.
Fastforward 10 years and we're all writing blogs about it!

Then my 2nd déjà vu is the constant 'noise' at the moment around the fact that we have a Mental Health crises in this country.  I've lost count of how many times in the last week alone friends and colleagues who are aware of my fight around this topic (specifically within the drama school sector), have sent me links to articles stating that the Mental Health provision in this country is in trouble. The service is crumbling under the demand.  Well pardon my French but 'no shit Sherlock'? MIND have long stated that 1 in 4 people will experience some sort of Mental Health crises in their lifetime. As my PA corrected my maths just the other day, meaning that in The MTA, which currently has a roll call of 41 students, I should have 10 students either struggling with a Mental Health issue, or who are ticking time bombs waiting to go off later on in life. Now these time bombs could be an almighty explosion or a tiny whiff of smoke, who's to say...but that's a lot of 'tiny bangs' going off in society at any one time isn't it?  I'm currently collecting stories (both good and bad) from people that have gone through a drama school education with a Mental Health issue, plus from staff at the colleges, just finding out what support is really being offered (as opposed to tick box exercises where an administrator says in theory what's going on).  I'm not exactly letting a cat out of the bag when I say that early findings support the Australian findings on this topic (, The Californian findings ( The Icelandic findings ( ....I won't go on but you get the picture.  A little bit like my thoughts around 'celebrity' I hate to say 'I told you so' (although as my students know those are my 4 favorite words)...but I've been banging on about this for years.  Way before The MTA in fact.  Well clearly, otherwise I wouldn't have thought of opening a college with Mental Health Wellbeing at the heart of it.  I mean if I could timetable  the subject in I really would (instead my students have to 'study it' in their own time as and when they find it necessary). That said it's great to see all the various # campaigns designed to raise awareness of this important issue.  Do check out if you get the chance, contribute if you can find the time or the inclination...and most importantly of all, if I ever randomly come up with 6 numbers between 1 and 49 write them down and play them in the lottery around 10 years seemingly I'm quite good at predicting the future ;-)

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Another Closing, Another Show

Last night another new British musical opened in the West End, whilst ironically, on the same day, the news broke that Stage Entertainment were axing their UK Production department.  Cue a load of people tweeting woefully about the demise of new UK musicals before they've even got started.  

This is just so frustrating though isn't it? Now I might call myself a composer and a lyricist hell <drop that link> MMD even made me a feature of their latest Spotlight feature, which I have to say I'm really grateful for as it's nice to remind people that I have a day job which runs alongside being the Principal of The MTA. However I live under no pretence that I'm ever likely to write a West End mega hit.  More than that, I've never even attempted to.  I'm much more 'functional' than that - I simply write to demand. So I write whatever somebody asks (and indeeds pays) me to write.  I hope that I've always delivered a really good piece of writing that I can look back on with pride.  So far so good.

However I still don't think that the UK is getting it right with new writing.  I'm sorry to be negative, but I really don't.  I think that we try  really hard, but at the end of the day, the Americans seem to be really storming it.  The reason, I believe is rather simple (disclaimer right here...of course, what would I know?).  

Many moons ago there was the inaugural Musical Theatre conference run, back then, by MDM (which morphed into MTN a while later).  It felt like the dawning of a new age - a whole group of writers/directors/producers, sat upstairs in the Old Vic discussing Musical Theatre in the UK. However the bit that really stuck in my mind was a line said by one of the American guests that day. So I'm clearly paraphrasing now, but it was something along the lines of, you have to put on 100 crap musicals to find that special show.  This concept blew my mind, because in that moment I knew that we were fighting a real uphill battle, as there just weren't those opportunities to produce (to stage) that many new shows.

It's just so bloody expensive to put on a musical, and therefore nobody was going to take a punt when funds are stretched already.  We workshop shows really well over here, we spend years developing them...but we always fail at that last hurdle of getting them into production. There are literally a handful of provincial producing houses, and the West End is blocked by the long runners, so we haven't got the physical space let alone the inclination.

Then the poor shows that actually do make it into production have the weight and the expectations of the world on their shoulders, as immediately everybody's waiting, hoping for that next great British 'hit'. Seemingly though the playing field has also changed as to what constitutes a hit. A point made beautifully I thought by Howard Goodall the other day.  Nowadays you have to have been running for at least a decade before people consider the show successful.  It's like a musical maternity ward....some of them come out a bit, well, ugly and under developed, but you can't say it, so you smile sweetly and congratulate the writers on its birth anyway. You might even say a slight fib to help them on their way, and even compliment the new born, whilst walking off, thinking something very different.

When the new show closes, everybody gets annoyed that 'we didn't support our own', and then moan once more in a typically British way about how it's not fair and things needed to be given a chance. Yet the Americans were saying that a closed show isn't a just get up, brush yourself down and put on another new show...and so it goes on, until you find the one that's perfectly formed, and bingo...THEN you have you mega musical, ready to be franchised out around the world (if indeed, that is the definition of a 'hit').

Over the years I've seen some UK shows that have closed early and genuinely been amazed (and indeed disappointed for the writers) that they've never taken off.  Really well crafted pieces that for some reason, didn't spark the public's imagination enough to support it.  Similarly I've seen some bloody awful shows that everybody else seemed to be raving about, running for far longer than I would have put money on.  I guess I'm saying that there's a bit of luck involved here too isn't there? The show has to hit the public's imagination at exactly the right time e.g. the happy go lucky musical in the middle of a depression, the musical that has enough star power to raise the Titanic, and that alone can keep a bad show afloat for longer than its craft might really dictate.

In spite of Stage Entertainment's news, we are really trying.  The upcoming BEAM event is definitely a new departure for the UK, and it will be really interesting to see how quickly the successful pitches get their shows actually up on their feet and produced at a theatre.  

It's not the lack of material that's holding us back, nor the lack of writers, however it might be the lack of good material.  Plus the chemistry has to be just right doesn't it? That lethal cocktail of a storming book that holds up to scrutiny, lyrics that are clever but not too clever leaving an audience fully understanding the reason for the song,  a kick ass score well arranged,  a cast and a creative team that do the work justice and finally a society that is ready to 'tune in' to your show at the exact same moment that it's produced.  

When you think of it like that, then there's little wonder why shows close. I think that my gripe really is the fact that we don't jump up and write another one, we throw all our toys out of the pram and sulk for a few years before trying again.  Performers are the worse for this on twitter, moaning about people not supporting new musicals and therefore what else could we have expected.  Of course within a few months they're onto their next show, and whilst they might still be cross about the closure of the 'amazing new piece of UK writing that they championed', they are fundamentally over it, living 'the dream' on the next piece, whereas the poor writer has another few years of purgatory ahead of them as they 'start again', and this time it's even harder as the royalty cheques have dried up and they're having to 'earn a living' too.   

I go to see an American transfer, and I instantly seem to get why it's a success (even if I don't personally like it). Before your eyes you see all the components fit smugly together like a well oiled machine. I seldom get that vibe from a new British of the ingredients just didn't work out, but we just can't admit it as that's like musical blasphemy; or it's the other extreme and the writers have been so clever that those of us that that love this art form seem to just adore it, but you know instantly that there's no real commercial future for the show.  It's the show that's too clever for it's own good (at which point everybody talks about the writers in terms of 'Sondheim'...they are always 'the next Sondheim', as opposed to the 'first them')

The answer is, that we need to produce more shows, and get that turnaround of new material out there. It's getting better for sure, and if there were a road to follow, it seems obvious that we've gone the right way....however, we're playing catch up, and I suspect that it'll be another few years before some of the amazing writers out there really get the break that they so richly deserve.  In the meantime though let's keep it real - we're all capable of writing a turkey (they're seemingly much easier to write than a hit), and if it so happens that our turkey gets produced with none of the right components to turn it into a hit, why don't we just quietly acknowledge the truth that you can't polish a turd...and just go straight back to our computers and attempt to write another one. Meanwhile the performers can 'act out' their annoyance that nobody supported the show (when in reality they're cross that their contracts have ended sooner than their landlords needed them to)

So with this most insightful of realisations, feel free to go to the Pheasantry this Sunday to hear Jordan Langford singing Romantic Notions from Dangerous Daughters, courtesy of Snappy Title who are producing the evening.  See whether from that snippet I should be buying some polish in an attempt to keep that song and show alive.