Why do people look down on musical theatre?

Convener(s):    Simon Pollard (@simonwithaz)

Participants: Jennifer Tan, Jamie Rocha Allan, Malcolm Rippeth, Andrew Scullin, Sam Pallis, Bill Bankes-Jones, Johanna Mulholland, Chris Grady, Maddy Costa, Sam Hoyle, Dan Baker & more!

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

General Thoughts & Questions: 

- Frequently (and even at #DandD6), people have turned their noses up at those who say they work in musical theatre – why?

- As a director, some of the best and worst experiences have been working in musical theatre.

- When MT is great, it’s really great – when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

- Where to draw the line between opera & musical theatre?

- Should be a huge amount of respect for MT artists as a triple threat.

- An issue of labeling ‘MT’ covers so many different sub-genres.

- What is MT?! How can we define such a broad genre in one term? Musicals are like books – there’s a whole range!

- The West End is seen as a ‘closed shop’.

- Is the ‘manipulation of emotions’ of MT a positive or negative thing?

- The USA seem to nurture MT more than UK – is this because they are more open emotionally?

- Is ‘cheese’ a bad thing?!



  • ‘Mainstream’ audiences can feel let down by bad experiences (e.g. Dirty Dancing ‘cheating’ the audience)
  • General assumption made that just because one show is ‘bad’, then they all are (e.g. Dirty Dancing & Legally Blonde – the latter is actually very well written, directed etc!)
  • Division set out from training point onwards inside drama schools. Sense of ‘us vs. them’ between ‘serious actors’ and MT performers.
  • Idea of MT being cheap/lazy. Take a film and add ‘The Musical’ after it, or jukebox musicals.
  • MT seen as ‘soulless’ – if someone is ‘too MT’ they are a polished performer but lacking in honesty.
  • No drama schools are churning people out as true triple threats – acting training plays a poor third to singing and dancing. Australian Academy of Dramatic Arts trains all first years in acting before splitting off for MT specialisation in 2nd Why not in UK?
  • There is a stigma attached to jukebox musicals (eg We Will Rock You – bad book, but good songs. Lack of consistency)
  • MT is only seen as ‘successful’ if it hits the West End. We don’t see it like that with other theatre genres.
  • There is no venue (like the Royal Court does for new writing) which creates an environment to foster audiences and creators for new MT.
  • Plays advertised on the name of the writer, MT more often advertised by actor or producer (eg ‘Cameron Mackintosh’s Betty Blue Eyes’) –the writers are nameless & faceless. Element of press responsibility.
  • New stars aren’t being nurtured. In the case of long running shows, the names of performers are no longer advertised (eg Phantom, Les Mis)
  • Spring Awakening = great success in Lyric Hammersmith, but flopped in West End – why? Inappropriate venues being used?
  • MT seen as ‘jazz hands’ etc but a lot of new musical theatre doesn’t require actors to dance. However, lots require dancing to a very high standard – difficult to train an ‘all round’ performer in 3 years.
  • Some of the best pieces of MT last year were deliberately not billed as such (eg Earthquakes in London @ NT, Posh @ Royal Court) – theatremakers admitting that music pulls an audience in and helps take them on a journey but refusing to take the stigma of being a piece of musical theatre. But this is also a positive thing!
  • By the sheer amount of people it needs to involve, and rehearsal time required, it is more expensive to produce MT so is not happening enough on the fringe.
  • Influence of USA very prevalent. 4 musicals based on films on Drury Lane – only 1 = British film. Recent British successful musicals ‘Billy Elliott’ – basd on a film, and ‘Jerry Springer’ based on US culture.
  • Cameron Macintosh has an obligation to close Les Mis in the West End – it’s now stale and soulless and a poor representation of what was once a brilliant show.
  • People are stuck in a rut of seeing MT in the model of the American Book musical – not enough working towards finding a British MT voice.



  • Tete a tete run a festival for new operas and MT
  • The Arts Council is gradually beginning to accept Musical Theatre as an art form in its own right.
  • There are over 400 festivals in the UK – Glastonbury, Latitude, Secret garden Party etc Showing a huge desire for live music – the cast of Hair performed at Latitude – let’s build on this!
  • Musical Theatre is a way in to theatre for many young people. May see ‘Wicked’ or siilar, then see DV8/Improbable etc on the back of a positive experience (like drugs, once you’ve had your first hit, you’re hooked, and ready to experiment!)
  • Menier Chocolate Factory aim for small shows rather than big ones, giving a sense of intimacy.
  • Arts Council London – MT went on the agenda, and on the back of this, Perfect Pitch and Mercury Musical Development have been funded – this has developed into Portfolio pitches from musical theatre creators.
  • Regional repertory theatres tend to have at least one MT piece each season eg Dundee Rep, Traverse etc.
  • Very strong Musical theatre societies within the UK – as in Australia.
  • Arts Ed shifted tutors from acting course over to MT course to ensure an equal training, and to change actors’ perceptions of MT performers.
  • LAMDA doesn’t run a separate MT course but trains actors in MT and commissions a new musical every year.
  • Music being increasingly used in theatre (eg Earthquakes @ NT) – almost tricking the audience into seeing a piece of MT by coming in ‘under the wire’ – but this is also a problem! (See above)
  • Collaboration! Music = very important to composers, Text = very important to playwrights. The two together creates something very special.
  • Brockley Jack had never had a new musical before, and when it did, audiences responded very positively.
  • There are ways of doing MT on a smaller, more cost effective scale e.g. youth musical theatre.
  • Small scale intimate productions created specifically for smaller venues can be a far more rwarding experience for audience and creatives than those for big houses & audiences (eg Off Broadway vs. Broadway ‘The Wild Party)

Possible solutions:

  • Popular musical artists (eg Plan B, The Streets) are increasingly creating narrative driven concept albums. Perhaps if these can be harnessed theatrically, it could be another way in for new audiences?
  • Let it be what it will be! Create shows which are specifically for a space, or time period, and remove the idea that they are only successful if they transfer or extend.
  • Fin d a way of nurturing young musical theatre creatives by giving them platforms to explore by experimentation – in a similar model to Old Vic New Voices.
  • Establish a venue following the Royal Court model, fostering new audiences and creatives working within the industry of new musical theatre.
  • Begin to see and celebrate the diversity within the genre of MT!