Just read the article below. My initial thought was to defend musicals (I think Avenue Q is great personally, and what’s wrong with ‘lightweight’ anyway?), although I have said for ages now that I’m sick of these jukebox musicals that seem to dominate the West End at the moment. At least the Yanks’ trend of adapting a film into a musical is a bit more creative than stringing together some pop songs with a really flimsy story. One of the main problems is the lack of new talent in terms of composers and lyricists; Broadway seems to have a few, but the UK hasn’t seen anyone really since Andrew Lloyd Webber. Thing is, the new composers are probably out there somewhere, in grotty flats, writing their masterpieces but having no where to put them on. Billington’s comments about writers/producers with ‘small scale ideas’ are partly the blame of the production houses, telling new writers that they only want small scale plays. I mean, companies don’t seem to have the resources (or more likely aren’t willing to take the risk) on a play with special effects and a cast of more than six. Writers have it drilled into them at an early stage that they need to write plays that don’t cost any money. So much for imagination running free then.
Personally, I’d rather go and see a really brilliantly written play than see a Hollywood actor in something dire. And I don’t (and can’t afford) to pay more than £30 for a ticket. If the theatres want to charge people £50-60 for a ticket, then, yes, the audience is going to want it’s money’s worth. People see a cast of four relatively unknown actors, on a set with minimal dressing, no changes, no visual effects, actors wearing contemporary clothes, etc. and think, this isn’t worth £50. At least with a musical you can see where your money is going (scene changes, costumes, set, musicians, large cast, lighting, sound, etc). And I think marketing has got lazy, and instead of trying to find interesting ways of promoting a really good play no-one has heard of and getting the crowds in that way, they just stick Madonna in it and hope that will work instead.
We are heavily reliant on the US theatre scene, and I think part of that is that there’s a lack of resources here, for example theatres and theatre-related companies offer these new writing schemes but then don’t have the resources to do anything with these new people. TWP hasn’t taken on a new writer since the first year it did the Momentum Festival, so, cynically one might ask, why do they bother running the workshops? Royal Court has been showcasing international talent this season, Soho seems to do more one-man/two-man ‘comical’ showcases or contemporary dance pieces than ‘real’ theatre, well according to their e-newsletter promoting what’s on they do. And whatever London is doing, the regional theatres seem to copy, like geeky kids trying to join the most popular clique at school. Sigh. Maybe that’s why amateur theatre/fringe theatre is better, because they put on stuff that is actually interesting, and aren’t run by a load of idiots who are so concerned with what everyone else is doing in London that they’re not afraid to take a chance on something new or a bit different.
Crisis in the West End
Theatreland is in dire straits. Second-rate musicals rule, new drama is dying, and the venues are falling apart. The time has come for a revolution, writes Michael Billington
Thursday August 2, 2007The Guardian
We have cried wolf once too often. Over the years, whenever a handful of commercial theatres has been closed, newspapers have prophesied gloom and doom. This, we are told, is the end of West End civilisation as we know it. But today the crisis is real. Never in my lifetime has London's West End theatre looked so narrow in its range of choices or so out of touch with contemporary reality. And it is high time the crisis was confronted and a debate launched about what we expect of commercial theatre.
"What crisis?" some may ask. The Society of London Theatre last year announced record attendances of more than 12 million visitors. They also pointed to the West End's contribution to the wider economy: the commercial theatre regularly generates more than £200m in tax and produces an estimated £400m of ancillary spending on restaurants, bars and transport. Stroll around the West End any evening and the place seems to be seething with visitors, many of them heading towards a theatre. But numbers alone cannot disguise the truth: that the West End lacks any dynamic creative initiative and is living on borrowed time, in that many of its buildings are barely fit for purpose.
Look, for a start, at what is actually on offer. At this moment, there are 26 musicals in the West End but only seven straight plays and three comedies. "The drama's laws, the drama's patrons give," said Dr Johnson, and it would be absurd to deny the public hunger for tune-and-toe shows that offer fantasy and escape. Economic factors also shape public taste: if people are paying up to £50 for a West End stall, at least with a musical they feel they are getting visible value for money in terms of sets, costumes and number of people on stage. I have nothing against musicals. Doubts only begin to arise when you examine the provenance of the shows currently playing.
Of the 26 musicals now showing, 12 derive either from films or TV programmes or are compilation shows drawn from back catalogues. That leaves 14 shows that might loosely be described as "original", even if many of them are adapted from novels. And of those 14, only four hail from the current decade: Wicked (closely based on The Wizard of Oz), The Drowsy Chaperone (due to close after mysteriously ecstatic notices), Avenue Q (a lightweight American import) and The Lord of the Rings. In defiance of my critical colleagues, I happened to like the last. But the melancholy truth is that the musical as a living creative force seems to be in decline. In Britain we have seen no popular, native commercial composer emerge since Andrew Lloyd Webber in the early 1970s: even AR Rahman, chiefly responsible for Bombay Dreams and The Lord of the Rings, has been dubbed by Time magazine the "Mozart of Madras". A genre that in Britain once produced estimable figures such as Ivor Novello, Lionel Bart, Sandy Wilson, Julian Slade and David Heneker is now heavily dependent on a single composer who, at the age of 59, cannot be expected to last for ever.
Also, I wouldn't say the list of musicals opening late this year or early next sound like models of innovation: Desperately Seeking Susan, enhanced by the greatest hits of Blondie, is yet another movie-based musical, while Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. And does the pulse race any faster at the prospect of a second musical version of Gone With the Wind?
But, if the West End musical relies parasitically on American imports, the straight play as a commercial proposition seems to be in an even more parlous state. When I started as a critic in 1971, I lamented the fact that virtually all the best plays in the West End stemmed from the subsidised sector: they included John Osborne's West of Suez, Peter Nichols' Forget-Me-Not-Lane, Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves and Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist.
From today's vantage point, however, that seems to have been a time of enviable riches. Of the seven straight plays in the West End today, five are thrillers ranging from The Mousetrap to The Last Confession. The other two are Elling, adapted from a cult Norwegian movie, and David Storey's In Celebration, which is a revival of a fine 1969 Royal Court play. But, however good these two are, their commercial viability clearly rests on the presence, respectively, of John Simm and Orlando Bloom. What we have in London is a clear and potentially damaging trend. The audience for plays basically goes to subsidised theatres. They will only pay West End prices if offered a bona fide star. The most one can say is that there is still a market for comedy as shown by the success of Boeing Boeing, The 39 Steps and The Reduced Shakespeare Company.
At the risk of sounding like a critical Thersites, I would add that the fabric of the bricks and mortar also raises cause for alarm. Cameron Mackintosh is the prime example of a West End theatre-owner who has taken serious steps to improve his properties and plough his profits back into the buildings. Under his stewardship, the Prince of Wales and the Prince Edward have been magnificently restored, and the Novello has acquired something of its pristine splendour. The Theatre Royal Haymarket is also a delight to enter. But too many West End theatres are crumbling, decaying edifices. In 2003, the Theatres Trust produced a report confirming that 60% of West End theatres had seats from which the stage was not fully visible, and that 48% had inadequate foyers and bars. They estimated that at least £250m would have to be spent over the next 15 years to make the theatres safe, usable and attractive. But where is the money to come from? There is a clear case for rewriting lottery rules to enable public funds to be spent on modernising our theatres. Otherwise, visitors to London for the 2012 Olympics will be confronted by a bizarre mixture of spanking new sports stadia and theatrical slums.
But what can be done to improve the West End artistically as well as structurally? The most urgent need is for dynamic young producers to succeed the senior generation of Michael Codron, Robert Fox, Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt. Only two have made their mark in recent years: the admirable Sonia Friedman and Matthew Byam Shaw. The latter was the beneficiary of a bursary called Stage One, in which money from the Theatre Investment Fund is used to kick-start individual careers. I sit on its selection panel, and twice a year we meet to interview a dozen young hopefuls. It is an intriguing process and a valuable scheme. But what strikes me, and some of the other panellists, is the relative scarcity of applicants who think in broad commercial terms: reared in the ethos of Fringe theatre, they largely come armed with small-scale projects.
My belief is that the really imaginative producers of today are to be found not in the commercial sector but among the directors of subsidised theatres. People like Nicholas Hytner at the National, Michael Grandage at the Donmar, Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone at the National Theatre of Scotland, Jonathan Church at Chichester and Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon at Liverpool are the real Diaghilevs of modern British theatre. They may be partially protected by subsidy but they still have to think in terms of filling theatres and of devising a dozen or more productions a year that will combine quality with audience appeal. Without wishing to denude the non-profit sector of its talent, it seems vital that the commercial theatre benefits from the wisdom and shared experience of people with a proven track record.
To some extent, it happens already with subsidised transfers. Rupert Goold's Macbeth and the Jonathan Church-Philip Franks Nicholas Nickleby are scheduled to move from Chichester into the Gielgud Theatre this autumn. Mackintosh's theatres also have a tie-in with the RSC. And it would be madness if Peter Hall's revelatory production of Pygmalion at Bath, which captures both the pain and the ecstasy of Shaw's original play, did not move into the West End.
Jonathan Kent's impending season at the Haymarket is clearly an attempt to capitalise on his experience at the Almeida. And, although I've urged it before, I repeat that this should be a working model for the future. Why not give Richard Eyre or Stephen Daldry the freedom to create a West End company? Or why not turn over a West End venue to Emma Rice's Kneehigh troupe for a year in order to woo the audience for visual theatre?
What the West End needs is a radical makeover, even a minor revolution, in the interests of both quality and variety. I'd like to see Sunday openings, lottery money for the rotting fabric, more imaginative use of the buildings themselves: in particular, pre-show talks, jazz and poetry recitals, stand-up comics in the dead hours before the 7.30pm opening. If the commercial theatre can't beat the subsidised sector, it should, in effect, join it: not only by adopting its practices but by employing its personnel. In the old days, the West End theatre relied on actor-managers to give it body and substance. Now what it needs are director-managers, or even dramatist-impresarios, of proven vision. Otherwise it is destined to become little more than a gaudy musical fairground based on sinking land and of scant relevance to the art of theatre or to life.