Are We Losing British Theatre?

Following a question recently posed by The Musical Theatre Appreciation Society as to whether the West End 2019 is turning into Broadway and if we are losing British theatre, I thought I’d have a quick research on it.

I think this is likely one of those debates that will never reach a definite answer either way and everyone is entitled to their opinion.

2018 was brilliant for British theatre, with the West End bringing out shows such as Six, Eugenius, Sylvia, and existing British shows such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie continuing to succeed. However, I can see a decrease of this in 2019.

With the West End Transfer of Eugenius  being cancelled and at least three major shows coming over from Broadway, why does Broadway have such a lead on the West End for its homegrown shows and will it eventually take over?

An article in The Stage explained that American creatives are given more time and money to take bigger risks when developing and producing musicals. Director and Choreographer Drew McOnie explained that “There’s a lot more money passing through [the American theatre industry], so Americans can take a lot bigger risks”.

Theatre workshops in the UK aren’t given as much time to develop and grow as they are in the States. Creatives who are not instantly successful in the UK are dismissed quickly, rather than being given the chance to learn from their mistakes, whereas creators in America are given a bigger opportunity to develop work.

This is one huge reason as to why Broadway might be taking over the West End, and the fact is simply that the UK isn’t given a big enough chance to produce theatre and rather than venues closing their doors, they accept shows from America.

In a rather harsh article slamming British theatre against Broadway, writer David Cote claims that “the British lack the cultural DNA to produce exciting, innovative musical theatre”. While I think this statement is untrue, there must be some part of it that stands uncorrected. If British theatre could produce its own content that continually attracts audience and excites the US, in the same way that Broadway excites Brits, we wouldn’t need Broadway shows to head to the West End to bring in the crowds.

And David Cote isn’t alone. Andrew Lloyd Webber has said the West End is falling behind Broadway in terms of creating original musicals and Matt Trueman also claimed that British theatre is “lagging a long way behind”, comparing Broadway’s original, experimental musicals such as Fun Home, Lazarus, and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 to the lack of new and innovative British theatre. A poignant excerpt of this article says:

“With one or two notable exceptions, new British musicals struggled through the noughties. When producer Andy Barnes was scouting around for material…he came away empty-handed: ‘I couldn’t find anything that was necessary, contemporary and good enough to produce…The pipeline dried up.’ With jukebox hits and long runners in the West End, and a copycat commercial culture, ‘people weren’t writing musicals because there was no chance of getting them on'”.

The Guardian

And here lies the problem.

Andy Barnes – Theatre Producer

Writers of British theatres are, furthermore, shut down because revivals and adaptations have tended to dominate; there isn’t the chance to write original work because everyone is looking for something to adapt.

And if given the chance to write a new British musical, there is a lot of risk and money in it. Rufus Norris, National Theatre’s artistic director, says that developing new musicals takes on average three to four years and is a matter of “getting several elements – book, score, lyrics – to cohere. That’s an expensive process, three or four times what a new play costs.” The risk of creating a new British musical has been demonstrated by some previous British shows that didn’t even last a year: Made in Dagenham and Bend it Like Beckham to name a few.

It’s as McOnie said originally: we need to be supporting British writers and creatives, giving them not only the confidence, but also the time in workshops and development, to write and produce something that will wow everyone from London to the other side of the Atlantic.

So maybe we are decreasing the amount British theatre in the West End but it’s also important that we remember are not losing it wholeheartedly. It’s very easy to think about the West End and focus on “big name” shows, such as the Dear Evan Hansen, Waitress and Come From Away which all transfer to the West End from Broadway this year, and forget British shows that are also successful on the West End, but lacking hype and recognition.

The play Nine Night, currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios in London, for example, is the first play to be on the West End written by a black British Woman. Here we have a British-written play in London and just because it doesn’t produce the audiences or income that Les Misérables does for example, this doesn’t exclude its value in contributing to British Theatre.

Let’s also not forget that the West End has made its appearances on Broadway in recent times too. Plays such as Angels in America and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Ferryman that originated in the UK have since transferred to Broadway and made big names for themselves in the US.

Instead of shunning Broadway shows for dominating the West End, we should be celebrating and supporting the British theatre that is breaking through and being successful to inspire new writers to try their hand at West End productions.

It is only with this support in all forms that new Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, for example, are born. “He or she is probably right here in London or Manchester, probably about 15. It’s up to us to make room for them to develop as an artist.”, says Matt Trueman. “It’s only when someone breaks the rules that you get something extraordinary” and we need to encourage new British theatre in every way.

Therefore, while we may be taking a dip this year in homegrown British theatre – with 81.74% of people voting that the West End is indeed falling behind Broadway in creating original musicals in a 2018 poll – this isn’t the end of the West End and British theatre, because we can definitely come back fighting.

In the 1980s, British shows such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables did take over Broadway and are still huge hits today, which can surely happen again with new shows. Traditional British theatre is not one to be easily disregarded and can produce great work, given the right support. So, maybe yes, this year we might be losing an essence of British theatre to our older sibling Broadway, but we aren’t losing it for good: give us a few years and hopefully we’ll surely see some new theatre that puts the ball back in our court.


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