Enter stage right: the new wave of musicals taking on the West End adaptations

Name a popular TV show or movie from the past few decades and there is a good chance that it’s recently been razzmatazzed into a musical. Bake Off? It’s a musical. Back to the Future? A musical. Groundhog Day? Returning as a musical. The Time Traveler’s Wife? Soon to be a musical. Pretty Woman? A musical, titled Pretty Woman: The Musical. In a sector so jam-packed with safe-bet adaptations of existing media, how can a new, original musical possibly hope to compete?

At Southwark Playhouse’s new theatre, the Elephant, in south London, a new, homegrown musical is aiming to prove that an original, sung-through story can hold its own against the endless adaptations. In rehearsal, Silvio Berlusconi grimaces into an imaginary news camera. Grin wide, eyes wild. Vladimir Putin stands off stage, munching on a banana as he watches the former Italian PM sing. Developed over the past five years, Berlusconi is not a straightforward biopic. Instead, this new production is an analysis of its titular character’s reign and the way his misuse of power laid the groundwork for other populist leaders.

“It seems to me that Berlusconi wrote the playbook that was then studied by Trump, Bolsonaro and, to an extent, Boris Johnson,” says the show’s director, James Grieve, who takes a seat as the cast – which includes performers playing Berlusconi’s famous “bunga bunga” girls – traipse off to lunch.

That the Italian PM started out as a cruise ship singer is, Grieve says, “a gift”. Berlusconi’s father’s dismay pulled his son away from a life of singing in cabaret clubs and – via a meteoric rise in the world of business – into a different kind of performance: politics. “He’s ever the showman,” Grieve says. “Of course he should be a lead character in a musical. He’s basically in the show of his own life.”

For a decade, Grieve was joint artistic director of Paines Plough, a brilliant touring company for new writing. He recently directed the hit musical Fisherman’s Friends (yes, he acknowledges, another film adaptation). Even for him, Berlusconi is a big, bold project; a brand new musical takes years of development, hundreds of thousands of pounds in investment and a heart-racing amount of risk.

For a commercial producer to say, ‘I believe in this, I’m going to raise the money to pay for it’, it’s so rare

“It is phenomenally difficult to produce a new musical of any scale from scratch,” he says, “but we’re trying to do something really ambitious. We’ve got 10 in the cast, five in the band, and a significant creative team.” The cost of a new musical of this size, Grieve says, is dizzying. “For a commercial producer to come on board and say: ‘I believe in this, I’m going to raise the money to pay for it,’” he shakes his head, “it’s so rare.”

The desire for more new musicals over adaptations is not to take the same stance as playwright David Hare, who recently caused a stir as he bemoaned the current profusion of musicals overall. In a joyless column for the Spectator, he wrote: “Musicals have become the leylandii of theatre, strangling everything in their path.” (Google tells me leylandii are fast-growing hedges). Hare’s disdain for the genre clearly sees musicals as inferior to plays, as he writes: “Is it our fault? Are dramatists not writing enough good plays which can attract 800 people a night?” But Andrew Lloyd Webber hit back at his comments, suggesting that Hare’s scorn stems from his own failure to write a successful musical, naming Hare’s 1987 opera-musical The Knife “one of the greatest musical disasters in history”. Rather than quenching the desire to nurture new musicals, Hare’s lashing out serves only to emphasise the challenges of securing a long and successful run on a major stage.

After several years of multiple workshops and ripped-apart rewrites, a musical’s hopes rest on a single presentation to influential figures who might possibly fund it: 60 minutes of material, a piano, and standup microphones. “It’s a critical moment,” says Grieve of showcasing new work like that; either the show gets picked up by a producer or a theatre, or you put it back in a drawer and achingly think about what it could have been.”

Most new musicals struggle to get even that far. “It’s an expensive game and a hard genre to get right,” says Paul Taylor-Mills, artistic director of The Other Palace, an off-West End springboard for mostly original musicals, and the Turbine theatre, a small space for new work at Battersea Power Station. “In terms of opportunities available to new writers and to new musicals, they’re few and far between.” He explains that while there is no singular route to a production for a musical, new shows tend to require small stages on which to start out, and then slightly larger ones to grow their visibility and confidence. Such stepping-stone stages are hard to come by. “In the UK you’ve got 200 seats here and there, and then almost nothing mid-size until the West End. We don’t have those 500-seater houses like they do in New York.”

Where the UK might pinpoint the 1980s as the heyday for its musicals, with seemingly endless hits by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, in New York, commercial success is bright and current. Broadway transfers to the West End are far more common than the other way around, and there is a vast difference in the way musicals are developed in the UK and the US.

I also think that the biggest British musical in the last decade has been a completely unknown title

“There’s such amazing talent in this country and it’s bursting at the seams,” says Katy Lipson, the director of Aria Entertainment and producer of more than 80 shows in the past decade. “But there’s an infrastructure problem with allowing work to develop and grow. Musical theatre requires investment, guidance, developmental readings, showcases, commissions, grants. And we don’t have that in abundance in this country.”

The problem is historic: because this area has been underdeveloped for years, the UK doesn’t have a strong path for shows to follow, and that leads to a lack of desire for risk-taking among audiences and investors alike. Hence the plethora of adaptations taking over West End stages. “People think: ‘There’s a movie there, there’s a book there,’” Lipson says, “so I can attract money, I can attract casting and I can get a theatre or build a UK tour off the back of the catalogue of that musical star. Absolutely, it’s a risk-averse thing.” She pauses. “But I also think that the biggest British musical in the last decade has been a completely unknown title.”

She is talking about Six, the musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, which tells the story of Henry VIII’s wives. Created by students from Cambridge University, the show skyrocketed from the Edinburgh fringe in 2017 to the West End two years later. It went on a UK tour, then shot straight to Broadway, an extraordinary trajectory that few other British musicals have followed in the past decade.

Lipson is one of a handful of producers attempting to tackle the obstacles for new musicals head on. For six years, she ran From Page to Stage, a festival to showcase new musicals, and during the pandemic she co-launched The Chamber Musical Project, commissioning two new musicals. “The more talent we have, and the more choice of development, the more we can create amazing shows,” she says.

This is also what Taylor-Mills is aiming for at the Turbine, the 94-seat space he founded just before the pandemic. “It shouldn’t work,” he says with a smile. “It’s lean and we do it by the seat of our pants, but you walk into the building and it’s got a beautiful energy.” He describes the theatre as being like a lab, a place for experimentation and new beginnings. It has just finished presenting MT Fest, which gave eight new musicals a first breath of life.

Small commercial spaces like the Turbine, or the 310-seater Elephant, can serve as the springboard for new shows. Taylor-Mills talks to me just after Rob Madge’s My Son’s a Queer (But What Can You Do?), a show that started at the Turbine, has been nominated for an Olivier award. “It’s a beautiful moment for Rob,” Taylor-Mills says proudly, “for this theatre, and for the underdog.”

At his second musicals-focused theatre, the Other Palace, Heathers is playing; a musical Taylor-Mills redeveloped after its New York run, and which transferred to the West End last year. While this is, of course, a film adaptation, the production’s following allows him to support the exciting new work brewing in the theatre’s smaller studio space, as well as giving him the freedom to continue nurturing emerging work at the Turbine. “The ambition with the Turbine is to do what I’ve done with Rob’s show,” he says, “which is to start something here that can go and have a further life somewhere, with a view to pumping any profits back into the venue to support new writers.”

Change is coming. We are seeing a trickle of homegrown musicals enter subsidised spaces then go on to have big commercial success. Chris Bush’s extraordinary Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which started in Sheffield, regularly sold out the Olivier at the National Theatre when it was staged there last month. “Things are so much better than they were 10 years ago,” Lipson says, “but we’re always going to be playing catchup because we’re only really seeing change now. We need theatres to carry on programming brave musicals, and continue developing audience expectations. We’ve had the jukebox-musical era. We’re now in the adaptation age. I hope, now, we will get to more original stories.”

Grieve hopes Berlusconi will be a leading light in that regard. “If I do my job right,” he says, “I hope it illustrates that a new musical of this scale is not a complete pipe dream. That a couple of people might come to see it and say: ‘OK, I’ll try and do that.’”

Berlusconi is at the Southwark Playhouse: Elephant, London, to 29 April.