James Haddrell speaks on the survival of musical theatre after lockdown

A topic I come back to year after year, and a subject that remains close to our hearts at Greenwich Theatre, is the likely origin of the next big musical.

James Haddrell, artistic director of Greenwich Theatre

For a long time, it seemed that the high cost of producing musicals (the generally large casts, the addition of a band, the increased size of creative teams all raise costs very rapidly) meant that producers were opting repeatedly for the immediately recognisable in a bid to attract ticket buyers.

Jukebox musicals dominated, with shows like Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You or Jersey Boys hanging a story on a string of well-known hits.

Adaptations of known stories also appeared like Matilda or From Here to Eternity, and Lloyd Webber even had a go at a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

In some cases the story was new, in others the songs were, but time and again theatre programmes were populated with musicals which relied on some kind of audience recognition as a hook. The new work was missing.

Then, sometime before the pandemic, things started to change.

Dear Evan Hansen, the original tale of a high school student struggling to fit in, moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway before opening in the West End, with a film version and novelisation to follow.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was inspired by the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, but you couldn’t claim it relied on recognition of that source for audiences.

And then of course there was Six, the small-cast pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII that started life at the Edinburgh Fringe and has just taken the Tony Awards by storm.

It is surely no coincidence, in parallel with this increased producer ambition to bring genuinely new shows to the stage, that The Greatest Showman and La La Land hit the cinemas. It felt like we were seeing a new era in musical theatre.

The pandemic threatened that, with producers struggling to survive a two-year hit (don’t forget, most producers are small companies or individuals whose future depends on the success of each project – the independently wealthy or massively successful producers that can ride out a few flops are in the minority) but I can only hope that the vision and ambition that brought about that crucial change in musical theatre production, that began to take risks and champion new stories, can survive.

It is too early to predict which way the industry will end up leaning over the decades ahead, but there are certainly positive signs of originality and we are proud to be offering one of the glimmers of optimism at Greenwich this autumn, with the work of one determined musical theatre writer who has remained committed throughout Covid.

We were in the final stages of preparation for Simon Spencer’s new musical Are You As Nervous As I Am when the pandemic hit but now, having rescheduled countless times, worked through recasting, rethinking and regrouping but never contemplating cancellation, the show will now finally open this October.

This strong female-driven story of empowerment is one of the first new musicals to emerge after lockdown, and for me, I hope it is the first of many.


Pictured: Sam Tutty as Evan Hansen, Rupert Young as Larry Murphy, Lauren Ward as Cynthia Murphy, Lucy Anderson as Zoe Murphy – Picture: Matthew Murphy

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