With homegrown musicals such as Matilda and London Road wowing audiences and critics alike, some are saying it’s a golden age for British musicals. But any creative industry needs to invest in training for the future, and Britain lags well behind the United States in opportunities for budding writers of musicals to learn their craft. Here Julian Woolford, a successful writer and director of musicals, lecturer in writing musicals at the University of London and author of How Musicals Work (and How To Write Your Own), argues that it’s time for a change.
When I was in my early twenties I drove one of those ultimate student cars, the 2CV. It felt like a souped-up shopping trolley crossed with a deck-chair, and had an engine that sounded like a squealing hair-dryer. It got me around, and really came into its own for the three days of British summer when, with its soft roof rolled back, it felt like you were living in the south of France.
My dad was a design engineer for Ford and was always happiest tampering around with a car, so when the under-chassis of my 2CV was rusting through, he told me that it would be a simple job to strip the car off and rebuild it on a new one. For months the car sat in pieces in my parents’ garage as he took it all apart and put it back together again. He was determined that I should learn how the car worked so that I could maintain it in the future; accordingly, he would only work on it if I was with him. It was his mission to show me how the clutch worked, how the electrics all fitted together, and how the engine actually made the wheels go round.
My dad’s fascination with how things work must have been passed on genetically. When I began to study (and write) musicals I began to wonder why some musicals were the equivalent of a Jaguar XJS, purring their way into the audience’s heart, while others were clapped-out bangers that couldn’t get out of the garage. Of course musicals are an art-form and not a mechanical construction; but just as Alan Ayckbourn calls playwriting a ‘crafty art’, the writing of musical plays is both a craft and an art.
Musical theatre in the UK is big business and one of our major exports. The Phantom of the Opera, a British musical, is the most commercially successful single piece of entertainment ever created. Over the past thirty years, British writers have proven that West End musicals can dominate on Broadway as well as at home. However, exclude the shows written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John and the British productions (by Cameron Mackintosh) of works by Boublil and Schönberg, and the list of hits is depressingly short. What’s more, these men are all in their sixties, and coming to the ends of their careers.
At present the West End is dominated by their works and by compilation shows of varying quality (from the still appealing Mamma Mia! to the still appalling We Will Rock You) and the two most notable new musicals of the last year have been written by teams who are new to the form: Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda and Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road.
What is painfully obvious is that, with the sole exception of the Cameron Mackintosh supported team of Stiles and Drewe (Betty Blue Eyes, Mary Poppins), the UK is not producing new writing teams who are both committed to musical theatre and of sufficient calibre to sustain the industry in the future.
There was massive investment by the Arts Council in the 1990s and 2000s in new playwriting in the UK, and it seemed then that every producing theatre in the country had to have a new writing department. But very little of this money found its way into new musicals, which were seen as too commercial to benefit in this way. Recently, there has been a partial about-turn in the Arts Council’s thinking, and last year they came up with a modest amount of money to invest in the long-running writers organisation Mercury Musical Developments (MMD), and the fairly new Musical Theatre Network (MTN), which aims to be the UK equivalent to the influential National Alliance for Musical Theatre in the US (although it remains to be seen if it will be more than a talking-shop).
But consider the size of the industry. As far back as 1997, the Wyndham Report, an economic impact study on musical theatre by the eminent economist Tony Travers, found that the total economic impact of the West End was £1.075 billion per annum and that West End theatregoers spent £433 million on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise in addition to the £250 million they spent on tickets. The West End theatre contributed a £225 million surplus to the UK’s balance of payments in 1997 and, as net currency earner for the UK, West End theatre is similar in size to the entire UK advertising, accounting and management consultancy industries, and far larger than the UK film and television industry. By 2011, when a much smaller study was carried out, West End musicals saw combined ticket sales of £400 million per annum (which brings in around £70 million to the Treasury in VAT alone). Using the same multiplier as Tony Travers we can therefore estimate that musical theatregoers are now spending something in the region of £692 million on restaurants, hotels etc and that the industry is now worth nearer £1.85 billion. This figure does not take into account the huge amount of touring product of all scales, nor the regional producing houses (who have a slender record in developing new musicals), nor the thriving London Fringe scene, nor the busy amateur and schools scene.
Yet no industry can sustain itself in the long run without providing training and inspiration for the creative minds that will take it forward.
In the UK, excellent training in musical theatre for performers is now provided by drama schools and conservatoires, and in the last twenty years there has been an explosion of courses for producers, directors, choreographers and musical directors. But there is precious little training for those who spark the creative process: the writers of musicals.
Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and General Motors didn’t establish their positions in the motor trade by waiting for great design engineers to suddenly appear from thin air. They trained the best minds in the necessary skills and crafts, and then let them deploy their own creativity and inspiration. More obviously, the fashion industry is awash with courses for aspiring designers, along with mentoring schemes and apprenticeships. The musical theatre industry, by not offering training to those who can create the international hits of tomorrow, is jeopardising its own future.
The increase in funding for new playwriting in theatres led to a number of playwriting courses being founded within established educational institutions, such as the one set up by David Edgar at Birmingham University. These, however, have not yet included musical theatre writing. There is a school of thought within the industry that successful new musicals will be written by those with no knowledge of the form, and that the successes of Minchin, Kelly, Cork and Blythe prove this to be true. But without training, the work of many young writers who aspire to write musicals is simply derivative; trying to emulate Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Jason Robert Brown. In addition, the bookwriting in many of their works often ignores the basic principles of drama, and is lacking in structure and impact. Another shortcoming of the ‘let’s-find-someone-who-has-never-written-a-musical’ school of thought is that it wilfully ignores the way in which other writers new to the form have failed so miserably, among them Dave Stewart whose score for Ghost is the weakest element of that musical. No other industry would be so careless as to leave its future to the lottery of those rare and elusive ‘diamonds in the rough’.
There is currently only one place that musical theatre writers can learn their craft in a formal setting, and that is at Goldsmiths College as part of the MA in Musical Theatre. But that is a module in an academic course, and the students have only a small amount of teaching in this creative component. We urgently need a writing course in a conservatoire setting, where the best young creative minds can learn about and experiment with the form.
American writers, by contrast, have more options in their universities, and have benefited from more than fifty years of the legendary BMI Lehman Engel Workshop, the pre-eminent training ground for musical theatre writers. It offers a dynamic programme in which writers learn the basics of musical theatre dramaturgy and how to apply it to their own style. What is more, writers are invited to take part in the two-year course free of charge. Alumni from this course have created some of the biggest hits on Broadway, including A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, Once On This Island, Ragtime, Avenue Q, Next To Normal, and the current smash The Book of Mormon.
If we are going to secure a future for the British musical we need to train writers for the future and do so quickly. We must not only train them in songwriting, but more importantly, in theatre and storytelling, all the while encouraging them to find their own distinctive voices.
I am not necessarily proposing that universities and conservatoires are uniquely placed to provide this training. My dad never went to university; he was educated at a time when the sons of bus drivers didn’t do such things, and certainly couldn’t afford them. He began as an apprentice at 14 years of age and had a series of mentors who educated him and encouraged him to think for himself. What I learned about cars from my father was a form of apprenticeship, and whilst I didn’t devote my life to vehicles I still have no qualms about changing a spark plug or swapping a tyre. It is no accident that the greatest living musical theatre writer, Stephen Sondheim, undertook an apprenticeship with the greatest musical dramatist of all time, Oscar Hammerstein II. How wonderful it would be if the older generation of British-based writers – Lloyd Webber, Elton John, Don Black, Tim Rice, Boublil and Schönberg – would mentor younger writers and help them to improve their work. American writers can already benefit from this as a good deal of the Advanced course of the BMI Workshop is moderated by established members of the Broadway community.
Having taught the Goldsmiths course for the past four years, I wanted to write How Musicals Work as a guide for those young writers, to be a kind of Haynes manual for the musical. It includes more than fifty exercises that I have set my students in class. Do them all and it is as close to doing the course as you can get without enrolling. But it is not a substitute for the courses, mentoring schemes and apprenticeships that we so urgently need. I learned a lot from my dad because of his passion for cars, and my 2CV was a much better runner after we had stripped it down; I am hopeful that we might yet get some vintage musicals from the readers of How Musicals Work!
Julian is appearing alongside Ruthie Henshall and Tom Chambers at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 14th October 2012.