Across the Pond: American Writers in the UK

Truth be told, the presence of new American writing on the UK musical theatre scene is a fairly scarce one. Although the West End is currently loaded to capacity with American imports, the grassroots material, or at least small-scale and less commercial, seems to hardly get a look in.

Although I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, there seems to be a near-total eclipse of the kind of work which I’m sure most regular readers of this blog will imagine when I mention the words ‘contemporary musical theatre.’

Now I’m not going to throw around wild theories about why I think this might be, other than the obvious geographical and cultural distance, but it does seem odd that nothing post-Jason Robert Brown seems to have crossed the Atlantic quite yet – or at least not caused enough impact to make its way into the canon. To be clear, from here out I’m referring to the works of young New York composers and not the big earth-shaking musicals; nothing which has been produced for Broadway or the West End.

The Platform LDN, produced by the fantastic TwentySomething Productions.

The Platform LDN, produced by the fantastic TwentySomething Productions.

There are obviously certain shows which have gained almost cult status amongst British theatre students – Pasek and Paul’s Edges is the one show which every other person seems to select audition material from. This, for me, seems to be the biggest contribution of new American writing to British musical theatre: audition rep.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with that, but I do find it interesting that there is a whole generation of young performers choosing a specific type of material which they believe best shows their talent, but that material isn’t widely produced in the UK. I realise that it isn’t widely produced in the US either, but my assumption is that the New York contemporary musical theatre scene has broader reaching influence than it does here.

To think logically, it makes sense that so many young actors choose to use 32 bars from shows like Edges. It’s vibrant, the themes are universal, the songs work brilliantly as stand-alone pieces, and perhaps most importantly; the sheet music is readily available (of course we have to thank for that!).

This generation turns to the internet for everything from the life-changing to the completely trivial, and when we have YouTube channels which make the material easily accessible with a direct link to a download of the score conveniently in the description box, who would look for audition songs anywhere else?

This is something that America seems to do very well: create an infrastructure for people to access new work. I think it’s something we need to work on here in the UK, and later in this series I’ll be discussing some of the organisations which are working towards this common goal.

But don’t be sad about what I may have painted as a barren-wasteland of contemporary American musical theatre across the pond. There are actually some very reassuring developments, granted mainly in London, but nevertheless they point towards a light at the end of the tunnel.

Jodie Jacobs, Lauren Samuels, and the full cast perform "Holding On" at Kerrigan-Lowdermilk's February 9 concert.

Jodie Jacobs, Lauren Samuels, and the full cast perform “Holding On” at Kerrigan-Lowdermilk’s February 9 concert.

Kerrigan-Lowdermilk’s recent concert at The St James Studio has undoubtedly created a buzz, but an honourable mention has to go to the work of TwentySomething Productions, who are the team behind the The Platform LDN. In association with Drew Gasparini, they’ve created a UK equivalent of the very popular series of concerts which showcase new musical theatre in New York.

I am of the opinion that it’s completely essential for us to nurture this kind of venture, or we risk falling behind. Without companies like TwentySomething exposing British audiences to this new breed of musical, we would be on course for an irreversible diaspora between the London and New York new writing scenes, and as I mentioned in the first post of the series, the strength of the art form is that it is a British and American collaborative effort.

TwentySomething is currently crowd-funding the UK premiere of 6 by Zack Zadek, which they are taking to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. You can check out the company and how you can help their extremely worthy cause here.

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