With the West End unwilling to gamble on untried productions, New Musicals Network is a lifeline for developing musicals
Last night I saw the future of musical theatre. Some of it was genius and some of it was ho-hum, but given the domination of film adaptations and jukebox musicals in the West End, it was bloody exciting to see it at all.
Snappy Title, a cabaret of songs from new musicals to launch the New Musicals Network, was a showcase to support composers and lyricists who might otherwise disappear under the pressure of not being Lloyd Webber or an 80s pop star. NMN is a bit likes Mumsnet for musical writers – a lively forum for ideas, tips, networking, and yes, songs.
Compered by Mary Poppins composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, last night's new songs were performed by West End cast members giving their time for free – an indication of dire straits if ever there was one.
It seems more people than ever are going to see musicals, but with an expectation of comforting familiarity that doesn't apply to the rest of theatre; nobody wants to be challenged, it seems, when they're forking out £50 per ticket. But without new blood being pumped into the genre, we'll end up trapped in a theatrical Twilight Zone populated entirely by drag queens, film adaptations, and greatest hits CDs.
Even the Edinburgh fringe, an invaluable platform for new material, seems to treat musicals with vague embarrassment and a lack of critical seriousness. You're unlikely to see a musical transferring south with the fanfare of Black Watch.
There was one Edinburgh show last night that demands to be seen. Three superb songs came from 2008's Only The Brave, a second world war love story following a family and a platoon in the lead-up to D-Day. Another three songs made me wish I'd caught Landor Theatre's production of Austentatious, a 2007 musical about a regional production of Pride & Prejudice.
And remember the critical clawing given to Menopause: The Musical? Olly Ashmore's middle-age break-up musical Hot Flush 2 wiped the slate clean with Wake Up TV, this year's Stiles and Drewe award-winner for best song.
I'd also like to see more from Gregory & Kim's Korean musical Falling, whose gender-bending reincarnation love story sounded bizarrely like Miss Saigon meets Hedwig. Their song wasn't the best, but the idea was just bonkers enough to work.
Musical theatre needs new schemes like this because while there's nothing as unfashionably creepy as a bad musical, there's nothing as life-affirmingly wonderful as a good one. I'm still trying to wipe the screeching monstrosity of 2004's The Woman In White from my mind, but Che Walker's musical update of his play Been So Long made my 2009.
Simply, we need a Royal Court Theatre for musicals, developing new shows without West End pressure. The closest thing so far is Perfect Pitch, an annual showcase of new work at the Trafalgar Studios. But while the Royal Court's runs give new plays a month or so to breathe, here you get two shows a day from 3-7 November – stress, much?
British musical theatre can't, and shouldn't, lean on past and borrowed glories in the way it does now. Let's hope NMN gives new talent a chance to shine because, God knows, the West End needs it.