Can I still be an Artist and be in musical theatre?

Convener(s): Nigel Richards

Participants: Roisin Stimpson, Michele Frankel, Nick Coupe, Amy Ip, Sophie Larsmon, Andrea Kantor, Leo Ward, and others

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

There seemed no argument in whether one can be an artist in Musical theatre. The responsibility, whatever the art form, was with the performer and our innate sense of the need and search for quality/ integrity and truth even in the face of the Accountants and Producers who run the ‘product’. In the mega-musical it should be a given that the artist surrenders him/herself to the ‘magnificent machine’ of a large or long-running production- but does this not deny the special-ness of the Artist? A ballet dancer is expected to fill the template with exactitude- why not the musical theatre performer?

The problem arises because Musical Theatre is the most debased of all the art forms for cultural and financial reasons. The Americans lay claim to inventing two art forms: the Musical and Jazz. Conversely, England considers the written word (through poem, novel and play) as its major cultural legacy. The United states revere both musical theatre writers and performers, and look after the future of the art form by inviting innovation in such buildings as the York Theatre, Playrights’ Horizons and the Lincoln Centre. There is heavy subsidy for the American Musical, whereas here, the Arts Council largely ignored the musical because it was deemed a commercial endeavour, whilst NESTA gave up it final ‘a’ for Arts!

So expensive are the big musicals that there is a poisonous trend to replicate what was a success (Les Miserable spawning the through sung form, Mama Mia gving birth to many ugly ‘back catalogue’ musicals.) What we forget is that Mama Mia and Les Miserables, even Cats, were innovative and ground-breaking in their time, not a perpetuation of an already existing template.

We have no such buildings here in which failure and innovation are encouraged. The play has The Bush, The Royal Court, National and Soho theatres- where is the Musicals’ home? Musical theatre is perceived in the UK as a popularist and commercial form, an arena of the emotion and not of ideas (as in say the work of Sondheim.) If the costs of mounting the big musicals are prohibitive and the producers seek a return on their huge investment (which make the producers have the final artistic power), where are the smaller pieces, the chamber musicals? It seems that these are being sold as plays in which the musical content is ignored in the publicity so as not to wrong-foot an audience with a certain preconception of scale when it comes to The Musical (eg. Enron, Serious Money etc). To perpetuate any art form there has to be allowed an environment of risk, innovation, and failure. When artists/ writers are out of their comfort zone they create something new, vibrant and specific to the times in which they are written.

In the end the new musical has to both have a building (Andrew Lloyd Webber has long promised a theatre specifically for new musical writing but this has not materialized in 10 years) or be borne from the artists themselves (eg Shockheaded Peter).Then we might truly have an Art-form in which the Musical Theatre performer is at last considered an Artist.