Stage’s Mark Shenton casts light on why there aren’t more successful new musicals

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, new musicals are made, not born.

They never arrive fully formed on the stage without a long preparation process. And even then there are endless pitfalls for failure. Last year, in an interview with the Observer, Tori Amos quoted Nick Hytner telling her, “The hardest form to achieve on stage is a good musical. There are more failed musicals than any type of art.”

 Mark shenton

Indeed, that quote is so apposite I’ve used it before. Twice. 

Given the attendant difficulties, it’s no surprise that producers are now cutting audiences in on the process more. It not only helps to get valuable feedback from the people who will actually buy tickets (and you may even sell them tickets for the opportunity to critique where you’ve got so far), but it also lets the show work out its kinks in front of a living, breathing audience, who are more than just investors or other professionals (the agents, theatre owners, ad agency staff and marketing representatives who may have a vested interest in wanting it to proceed further, as their very livelihoods depend on it doing so).

In the last week I have seen two tiny musicals taking their first, far from tentative steps out of the starting blocks, both in public spaces. I also witnessed a third, bigger show do an invited industry run-through of a production I saw on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a few years ago.

It’s certainly interesting to compare the two processes: putting the first two shows in front of a paying public made both those producers step up their game, while the workshop approach of the third meant that more allowances had to be made, even though it had previously had a full production.

I won’t be drawn to comment on (or even name) this piece, as it was a purely private invitation and I wasn’t there to review it. But I’m impressed by the resilience and efforts of its authors and creative team: five years in the making, and they are still trying to realise the (entirely rewritten) show’s potential.

It’s a painful process to try to unlock that potential, but I could see they were working hard to do so. And it’s interesting to observe the process from the outside, looking in.

It’s interesting to observe the process from the outside, looking in

Fortunately that wasn’t the case with the two other shows, the ones that played to a paying audience. At the St James Studio last Sunday, two sold-out performances were given of Stuart Matthew Price and Timothy Knapman’s elegant two-hander Before After. Directed by Simon Greiff, it had an immediacy and clarity that made it always apparent which half of the story we were in, and thanks to the radiant luxury casting of Hadley Fraser and Caroline Sheen, it also came to thrilling vocal and acting life.

Stuart Matthew Price, a singer-actor who is about to play Riff-Raff in an European tour of The Rocky Horror Show, reveals himself to be a major new composing voice, too. In an interview last year, he explained his new album was taking time because he didn’t “want to put anything bad into the world.”

He’s certainly not put anything bad into the world with Before After.

Neither has the extraordinary Nathalie Carrington, who has brought herself to Highgate’s Jackson’s Lane Theatre in The Liberation of Colette Simple.

Intriguingly based on a play by Tennessee Williams, eight lyricists (including playwrights Robert Holman and Amy Rosenthal) have collaborated with composer Vincent Guilbert in creating a rousing, Kurt Weill-style musical cabaret.

At the moment it runs to just an hour but there’s a quirky gem here, and Carrington, who has also produced the show, has provided a full production that features five live musicians (including the composer on piano), sets and costumes by James Cotterill and direction by Matt Peover.

It deserves support – and a further life.