Arts feature

How the British musical conquered the world

A new musical history is being written for Britain, says Nicola Christie

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

What do Henry VIII’s wives, a Rastafarian musical icon and a drag queen have in common? They are all the subjects of new stage shows that are heralding a golden age of the British musical.

Let’s start with the court of Henry VIII. A pair of friends at Cambridge University, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, decided to write their own musical four years ago because the student theatre society couldn’t afford to pay the royalties for an existing one. They based it on the life stories of the six women who were unfortunate enough to marry Henry VIII. Six, as this debut effort came to be known, opens on Broadway this week, with huge advance ticket sales already achieved.

There are various reasons for Six’s cataclysmic flight to fame: it’s the ultimate feminist power piece — six women righting their wrongs, a natural product of the #MeToo movement (though it was penned before #MeToo); the story is delivered — not unlike Hamilton’s use of hiphop — through street-sharp lyrics and patter that dazzle; and the production had a meticulously calculated route to the West End. ‘The journey on which you take your show is as important as what you write on the page,’ explains Sixproducer, Kenny Wax. ‘You can write a work of wonder but if you choose the wrong journey for that show, it won’t necessarily work. Having seen Sixas a student show in Cambridge, I decided to book it at London’s Arts Theatre for four Monday nights in a row to test it out. It could have been an absolute catastrophe — you spend £350,000 to get it on, and £50,000 a week to run, so it’s a huge gamble.’ It paid off and the next step was a run at a regional theatre, Norwich Playhouse. ‘Then we took it to the Edinburgh Festival — to get international bookers in, and young people.’ A hit, again, so then there was the recording of a studio album. ‘We got 250 million streams. It’s second, in musicals, only to Hamilton. That’s extraordinary for a show that had not even opened in the West End or on Broadway. When we did open in the West End, I decided not to hold a press night — Six was never going to meet with the approval of critics, it’s a pop musical with no narrative — I just left things to social media.’

It’s a 21st-century success story and has only been kicked out of court at the Lyric Theatre because a new musical about the life of Bob Marley, Get Up, Stand Up!, has moved in (Six is now at the Vaudeville). Though the term ‘jukebox musical’ has negative connotations, perhaps, Get Up, Stand Up!, due to open next month, is a very exciting proposition indeed. ‘There’s a cast of 24. We’ve a band who’ve got the sound of Bob and the Wailers right down. The I Threes (backing singers, but much more) will make you melt.’ Clint Dyer, recently appointed as the National Theatre’s deputy artistic director, is directing the production. I ask if this is one of the first all-black British musicals (perhaps twinned with another jukebox musical about the Drifters, which is opening down the road at the Garrick)? ‘It’s not all black.’ He pauses. ‘It’s mainly black. And, yes, it’s a very big thing. Perhaps because it’s speaking to a black-British experience — even though a lot of it is set in Jamaica — as opposed to the more usually presented black-American experience.’

Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall has woven Bob Marley’s songs into the story of Marley’s life when he fled Jamaica for London, having been shot during the civil war. ‘It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a story,’ Dyer says. ‘Some of Bob’s most famous songs were written and recorded during this time — “Jamming”, “One Love”, “Waiting in Vain”….’ The acclaimed writer, director and actor Arinzé Kene has been cast as Marley. ‘He’s got the essence of Bob down, his humility. When you listen to him singing these songs… Bob had the ability to harness in a lyric the fragility of man, and the need for acceptance. The songs are so meaningful — there’s an intellectualism and emotionalism to them. You know, I grew up with him. I’m a black-British man of Jamaican descent, and he was such an influential person to me. He contributed so much to my understanding of the world and how I can move in it without feeling traumatised. He gave me a self-confidence to exist in Britain. He gave that to a lot of poor people — a morality that we had to meet to feel whole.’

Where has this resurgence in the British musical come from? I talk to Neil Marcus, who for many years ran Mercury Musical Developments, an organisation set up in 1992 by Cameron Mackintosh and Stephen Sondheim to nurture new musical-theatre writers in the UK. ‘Historically, Britain was a place of Shakespeare, and new plays. America was a place of musicals. While new playwriting was always well funded here — think the Royal Court, Soho Theatre — musicals were not.’ In 2009, along with Andy and Wendy Barnes of musical-writing organisation Perfect Pitch, Marcus went to the Arts Council to ask them to put money into their organisations. They did. It’s allowed perceptions to shift and musical-writing prizes, and festivals like Signal, and Beam, to proliferate. ‘It’s rare that a show created somewhere like this makes it to the West End,’ explains Marcus. ‘But what it does is allow makers to improve their craft. The past ten years have seen an exponential growth in the UK in the musical-writing community. And we are seeing, now, the fruits of a decade of investment in new musical writing.’

A musical that is the product of this momentum is 2017’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, now showing at a cinema near you in a new film adaptation. The real-life story of a 16-year-old northern boy who realises his dream to become a drag queen, against all odds, the show started life at the Sheffield Crucible. ‘I saw a documentary about this boy and I knew it would make a great story,’ says the film’s director Jonathan Butterell, who also directed the theatre production and originated the project. ‘It’s such a lovely, gentle tale about a young person’s courage. It’s universal.’ It certainly is — the theatre production has been booked into Los Angeles, Sydney, Seoul and Tokyo. It’s also, still, a very timely story, packed with questions exploring identity, such as why can’t a boy dress as a girl at his school prom and why should a girl in a hijab (Jamie’s best friend, Pritti) have to wear make-up to be considered beautiful.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is the sort of niche project that could never have started life in the West End; it needed a regional theatre to give it the time and space to be developed. ‘It took courage for Sheffield Theatres to take it on,’ Butterell admits. ‘They took a huge financial risk.’ Risk-taking is in the DNA of many British theatres: Leicester Curve, Stratford East, Northampton Theatres, Southwark Playhouse… not to mention the RSC, which produced Matilda and, before that, Les Misérables, and the National, which produced the brilliant London Road and, some years earlier, Jerry Springer — The Opera, developed at Battersea Arts Centre. ‘It’s a more vibrant musicals scene than it’s ever been before, and there’s no guessing which venue is going to come up with the hit,’ says Marcus. ‘It could be the Almeida, the Royal Court…’

And so a new musical history is being written for Britain. Finally, something for the theatre industry to cheer about.

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Six: The Musical is at the Vaudeville Theatre, booking to 1 May 2022. Get Up, Stand Up! opens at the Lyric Theatre on 1 October and is booking to 3 April 2022. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is in cinemas nationwide and on Amazon Prime.

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