New is Different Than Good

The end of last month brought London the glitz, glamour and ennui that is the Olivier Awards. It’s always a long, trying evening, and this year’s lather, step and repeat culminated in Kevin Spacey (!) singing (!!) Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!!!) with Beverley Knight (!!!!) and Kev on harmonica (?).

Anyway, winding back a bit, when the nominations were announced, there was a bit of a brouhaha from certain quarters that one particular musical (it was Made in Dagenham, sue me) was ‘overlooked’ and ‘neglected’ and – my favourite – ‘snubbed.’ The show, with music by David Arnold, lyrics by Richard Thomas and book by the ubiquitous Richard Bean, received only two nominations: one for leading lady Gemma Arterton’s performance and one for Bunny Christie’s set design.

For some members of the theatre community, this recognition was insufficient, with other, apparently less deserving shows getting undue precedence. Indeed, composer David Arnold took to Twitter to air some of his thoughts:

As reported in the Telegraph, the show’s producers lamented that new British musicals are “few and far between,” and cast members including Arterton and Scott Garnham weighed in on social media and in interviews about the lack of support for new musicals.

Which is all very well. But here’s the thing, guys – I thought the show was not very good. Obviously art is subjective, there are no wrong opinions, etc. etc., and if you loved it, great, I’m thrilled for you, but I just felt it was a badly written, over-produced bloater. The score was serviceable at best, somnolent at worst, the book messy and unfocused and, for my money, the design was baffling.

But am I not allowed to hold forth with that opinion? Should the Olivier voters be criticised for failing to nurture, cradle, coddle new writing? “If we don’t welcome new work,” these plaintive voices moan, “how can writers be expected to carry on? If we only praise jukebox musicals/revivals/adaptations of existing properties, what incentive is there for creators of original work to create?” These are the people who blamed harsh critics for Loserville‘s rapid departure from the West End, the people who moan about Sunny Afternoon and Beautiful running while Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown closes.

What if, however, the new writing is just a bit rubbish? It seems obvious when I spell it out explicitly, but ‘new’ is not the same as ‘good.’ Yes, by all means encourage and foster creativity and originality (and great organisations like Mercury Musical Developments, Perfect Pitch and TwentySomething in the UK and NYMF in the US are doing just this) but don’t artificially lower the bar in a way that gives these writers a false positive and sets them up for ultimate disappointment when the production fails. If we start accepting worse and worse content simply because it’s new, we are precipitating a steady decline into an entitled free-for-all, where criticism becomes impossible because it’s not fair to say negative things because hey now they’re giving it a go at least.

Of course part of the problem is wrong-headed producers rushing projects into town that are underdeveloped or simply unsuited to a West End audience; more discrimination is clearly needed instead of a no-holds-barred sprint for the finish line that is Shaftesbury Avenue.

That said, when new writing is good, it works and it can even run. Look at Matilda, The Book of Mormon, Wicked even. They were new once, and they survived. Equally, look at Too Close to the Sun, By Jeeves and Bernadette. They were too problematic for their own good and didn’t pass muster – and are we any the worse off for not having Oscar still running in the West End? I VENTURE NOT.

So if you take one thing away from all this, it should be this: criticise new writing. Scrutinise it, analyse it, hold it up to the light and give it a rigorous once-over. If the work is sound, it will earn its place; if not, move on and get excited about the next new thing – because it could be the next big thing.

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