‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’: Engineering the Future of British Musicals

Julian Woolford 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). 2CV Haynes Manual

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.

How Musicals Work by Julian Woolford

How Musicals Work (£12.99)

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!

NHB are thrilled to publish Julian Woolford’s How Musicals Work. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

‘Goldsmiths Festival of New Musicals’, the showings of the final projects for the Goldsmiths MA in Musical Theatre, is at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Tower Street, London from 12th–15th September.

Julian is appearing alongside Ruthie Henshall and Tom Chambers at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 14th October 2012.

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Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim , 1930–

In the fifth and final part of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim’s shows include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd,Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. I interviewed him in a hotel room in New York. He had a show in workshop—Wise Guys, later renamed Road Show [currently receiving its European premiere in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory]—so he was writing at night and rehearsing by day, but his energy seemed undimmed.

You met Oscar Hammerstein when you were around thirteen?
I was thirteen exactly. When I was fifteen he took me to the first night of Carousel in New Haven. He took me and his son Jimmy, who was a year younger than I, and it was during our spring vacation at school so we were able to do it. I don’t even remember when I saw Oklahoma!: it certainly wasn’t on the first night, and I’m not sure how close I was to the family by the time Oklahoma! opened. I was close but not as close as I was in Carousel, because I remember that one of the high points of my childhood was being asked for advice on Carousel, when he and Rodgers were writing it. They wanted the opening of the second act to be this treasure hunt on the island, and I was into treasure hunts, so I was the treasure hunt consultant.

He’d give you brilliant advice subsequently.
Yes, he—that dreadful word—he critiqued my work. I showed him everything I wrote from the age of fifteen on, and he treated it absolutely on a level with professional work. He never pretended for one second that I was a child: he just treated it seriously, and I learned a great deal very quickly. I’ve said before: as a result of Oscar I think I probably knew more about writing musicals at the age of nineteen than most people do at the age of ninety.

What was he like?
He was exactly the reverse of the image of his lyrics. He was a very sharp city boy, as opposed to somebody who sat on a porch with a stick of hay in his teeth and looked at the cattle. Which he also did. But he was a very good critic and very sharp-tongued. Not mean but sharp. He was in fact a sophisticated man. I once asked him why he didn’t write sophisticated musicals, and he said: you mean musicals that take place in penthouses with people smoking with cigarette holders? I said: well, yes, if you want to put it that way. He said: because it really doesn’t interest me. And in fact it didn’t: what interested him was quite the reverse of what his life was like. Not that he was a partygoer or anything like that, but he was a sophisticate. He was enormously kind and generous, and a true idealist and a true optimist. What he writes about often in his lyrics, that did fit him: he was an optimist. I won’t say he always looked on the lighter side, but he believed in the better part of mankind not in the worse. And he did not die a disillusioned man.

Did the book musical come into being as a result mostly of Oscar Hammerstein’s work?
Prior to Showboat, musicals were essentially collections of jokes and songs, and even after Showboat most of them were. Hammerstein virtually alone pioneered the idea of trying to tell a story through music, trying to meld the European operetta influence and the American freewheeling jazz musical-comedy influence—I shouldn’t say influence, but, he melded those two streams of presentation into one. Which resulted in a kind of American operetta. From Showboat to Music in the Air and through the 1930s, his star rose and fell, and he resuscitated it with Oklahoma! when he teamed up with Richard Rodgers, who brought a different kind of sensibility. Jerome Kern, with whom he did most of the shows, was very much a European composer. Rodgers was much more a kind of American vernacular composer. And the result of that was Oklahoma! And Oklahoma!, though today it seems very naive as a story and rather naive in terms of the depth of the characters, nevertheless, because of its enormous success, influenced musicals ever since. Innovative musicals mean nothing if they aren’t successful, because nobody pays attention to them. If, for example, Threepenny Opera had been a success in this country, musicals might have matured much more quickly. It was only when it was done off-Broadway in the early fifties that the Brechtian musical came into being. But the book musical really can almost solely be attributed to Hammerstein’s efforts.

Is it a question that can be answered with the book musical whether the music or the book comes first?
No, I think the book always comes first in this kind of musical. It has to be the story and the characters that propel both the song aspect and the need for song. Why should they sing? It has to be a group of characters and a story that you’re not just enhancing by adding songs but in which musical expression becomes intrinsic. I think any good musical starts with the book, the libretto, the idea, the story, the characters. I can’t work on anything until I’ve discussed for weeks and sometimes months with my collaborator what the story is, why is music needed, why is music intrinsic as opposed to decorative, and what will music do to the story. When I was writing Sunday in the Park with George, I was really frightened that the music would tear the delicate fabric of what James Lapine was trying to get at in terms of the creation of a painting. You must start with libretto, all the strong musicals have strong stories. One of the reasons that West Side Story attained its popularity—apart from the success of the movie, because it was not all that popular when it was done on the stage on Broadway—is that the story is such a good story. Something happens all the time.

With the exception of you taking the musical in a different direction, why did the book musical die?
Oh, it hasn’t died it’s merely gotten swollen. The so-called sung-through musicals… Les Mis is a book musical. If you’re talking about the musical in which there’s speech and song, speech and song, it didn’t die so much as become subsumed by the success of the sung-through musicals, mainly stemming from Britain. And audiences now are very used to the sung-through musical. But whatever you think of the book, the Disney musicals have books. And Ragtime is a book. It’s not dead: in fact, more likely, the sung-through musical is on the way to either being transformed or being dropped for a while.

It got disconnected from popular culture with the coming of rock ’n’ roll.
The effect of rock ’n’ roll on musicals is the equivalent of the effect of television on theatre or movies on theatre. It’s made both musicals and theatre in general—I don’t say a cottage industry, but you know, it’s no longer the only game in town, it’s not even the major game in town, theatre. It’s a—I want to avoid the word ‘elitist’—but it does appeal to and attract fewer people, at least in this country [USA] than it used to. I mean, what’s deplorable about the American theatre on Broadway is: you look at the list and it’s twenty-four musicals and two plays. And in London the last time I counted it was fourteen musicals and eight plays. That’s not good. Now the off-Broadway theatre and the fringe theatre is very much alive, and people are writing plays, but not an awful lot of people can fit into a two-hundred-and-fifty-seat house—two hundred and fifty people can fit in—for six weeks, which is what you have in London in the fringe theatres. So how many people are gonna get to see that play? Unless it transfers to the West End, which few of them do. And the same thing is true here. So I fear it’s not so much the death of the book musical as the gradual fade of theatre and musical theatre. I don’t think that we’ll ever fade entirely, because I think there’s always a hunger for live storytelling. But it’s never going to be kind of the central entertainment again, it just isn’t.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is the final instalment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre’ special, featuring edited extracts from Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People. The full interview with Stephen Sondheim is published in the new paperback edition of the book. To order your copy at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.