Friday, 21 December 2012

This review by Keith Garebian recently appeared in Stage and Page.

            A self-styled “manifesto with an agenda,” rather than a comprehensive history or an academic study, Mel Atkey’s third book (following When We Both Got to Heaven and Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre) is very much a generalist fan’s book. As he relates, Atkey grew up in Vancouver, B.C., where his early experience with musical theatre was with local amateur productions, movies, and the odd touring show. Because he saw musical theatre at a distance of 3,000 miles from New York, Broadway might as well have been a million miles from where he dwelled. This fact did not deter him from writing musicals in high school, going on to be finalist for the Musical of the Year competition in Aarhus, Denmark, short-listed for the Vivian Ellis Prize, the Ken Hill Prize, and others. His first musical, Shikara, was produced on Canadian radio, and he spent two years as a theatre critic in Vancouver, before moving to Toronto to pursue his career as a musical theatre writer. He won commissions from the CBC, became a member of the Guild of Canadian Musical Theatre Writers, created an off-off-Broadway musical showcase, and went on to more prestigious things in New York and Chicago. He also continued to lecture internationally on musical theatre, so his credentials are impressive and help bolster his attempts to puncture several myths about musical theatre. Atkey’s manifesto-agenda takes to heart Alan Jay Lerner’s dictum: “Broadway cannot live without musical theatre, but the musical theatre can live without Broadway.” And Atkey also seems to subscribe to playwright Steven Berkoff’s view that the contemporary musical knocks spots off modern drama.

To help the reader understand his fervour for the musical genre, he divides his book into two acts with an intermission or entr’acte, the first being a quick survey of The Parents, i.e. Europe, showing how vaudeville started to sing with Mozart’s anonymous contributions to Emanuel Schikaneder’s productions and thereby raise standards of popular taste. Mozart eventually created a full-scale opera with The Magic Flute, but Europe had other musical geniuses in addition to him: Offenbach, Bizet, Johan Strauss, jr., Franz Lehar, Gilbert and Sullivan, Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, etc, who all enriched the musical theatre repertoire, changing its contours and textures with their distinctive styles. Useful as this information is, it is not exactly new, and Atkey’s piecemeal menu approach dilutes the material. And yet, this section is useful as a potted summary, with some interesting sidelights on Spain’s Zarzuela and Stalinist Russia’s incongruous musical comedies. Cabaret, of course, makes a strong entrance in Act 1, especially with a survey of German and French manifestations, though the preponderance of names without substantial analyses of their contributions is once again a flaw.

As for the central argument, Atkey contends that the American musical is not a separate art form from its European parent, any more than American English is a separate language from British English (whatever this is!). He argues that the Broadway sound established by Jewish and Irish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century (Cohan, Herbert, Kern, etc) was different from the European operetta sound of Friml and Romberg. True enough, but it would take a scholar to distinguish between these sounds more profitably than Atkey does.

However, my criticisms (encompassing the lack of editorial supervision and guidance that result in spelling and punctuation errors, as well as a lack of literary finesse) do not preclude my admiration for his enthusiasm and purpose. Of course, Atkey is enlightening on various topics with a Broadway connection—such as why The King and I, while a landmark in musical theatre, is a travesty as a representation of history; how Grease turned from an ensemble piece into a romance about Sandy and Danny; how The Sound of Music radically altered the facts about Maria von Trapp; and how The Drowsy Chaperone, a modest little offbeat Canadian musical morphed into a big Broadway hit. But these sections are but part of an overall structure aimed beyond Broadway. A Million Miles from Broadway is not for scholars or academics; it is for musical theatre fans (which is to say Broadway enthusiasts), those who should know something of international musical theatre. In this regard, Atkey does yeoman service. Beyond offering evidence that disputes other critics’ complaints about the “emptiness” in French musical theatre, Atkey is particularly informative about musical theatre in South Africa, Latin America, Australia, and Asia, introducing us to many shows and creative figures who are undoubtedly unfamiliar to most readers. And there are interesting tidbits, such as the absence of any great Irish musical; why Evita has never been staged professionally in Buenos Aires; how Argentina suffered a loss of artistic momentum under Fascism; why Sarafina! was heavily criticized in South Africa; how musicals are big business in Korea in Japan; or how Singaporean librettists are able to escape censorship.

Atkey’s agenda is pointed. It is aimed squarely at the middle-aged “dinosaurs” in universities and the theatre profession who keep resisting change and evolution in the arts and who think of musical theatre as being rather frivolous or empty in contrast, no doubt, to the mediocre documentary plays or tarted-up soap operas they so frequently present with generous arts funding. As a Canadian, he is on firm ground, for I cannot think of a first-rate or even second-rate Canadian university that offers a specialist’s degree in musical theatre. In fact, most artistic directors (certainly in Toronto, the mausoleum of nationalist theatre) cringe at the very mention of musical theatre, thereby showing themselves to be out of step, artistically and commercially, with one of the greatest art forms of their profession. I have to date produced six production histories of classic Broadway musicals—many of which have won accolades from American scholars and theatre professionals (including Hal Prince, whose international reputation far exceeds that of any Canadian’s)—but only two or three of these books have ever earned serious reviews in my country. So I appreciate the mountain of indifference and ignorance that stands in the way of anyone attempting to create Canadian musical theatre or advance Canadian musical theatre scholarship. While Canada is still deciding what it is culturally, the rest of the civilized world—especially Asia—is miles ahead of us in musical theatre. The Shaw Festival, under Jackie Maxwell, is a valuable exception to the rule—with interesting, though flawed, new work by Jay Turvey and Morwyn Brebner in particular, but generally speaking, Canadian fans of musical theatre can draw little musical theatre inspiration or exhilaration from their national librettists and composers. I, therefore, salute Atkey for this book that attempt to open eyes and minds in Canada and elsewhere to one of the greatest art-forms in theatre.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

I just received this message from Dick Lee, Singapore's pre-eminent musical writer:
"Congratulations on your new book, which I just read, and thoroughly enjoyed. The passion and dedication you tirelessly put into it has resulted in an engaging and informative account on the state of musicals in the world. I am proud to have been included!";jsessionid=616AF3A28A1E7B3CFE1F233160226099

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Peter Filichia's Review

Here is the full text of Peter Filichia's review of A Million Miles from Broadway as it appeared on on 16 November 2012:

Peter Filichia Review

On page 143 of Mel Atkey’s A Million Miles from Broadway, there’s the sentence that encapsulates the thrust of the book: “The Drowsy Chaperone was a love letter to the American musical, but as one Japanese director observed, that letter was definitely postmarked Toronto.” By lumping the United States, Japan and Canada in a comment about one musical, Atkey’s premise is well-substantiated: there is much musical theater beyond Broadway and London.

The author points out that once – but not now -- many countries had inferiority complexes about their musicals; if shows weren’t American, they couldn’t be worthy. “But we just weren’t good at it,” admits Australian Tony (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) Sheldon, when speaking of decades ago. He cites a ‘50s musical of Lola Montez that suffered because the creators were much too much influenced by Paint Your Wagon.

Times change. All right, Manning Clark’s History of Australia: The Musical doesn’t sound like a hit – and it wasn’t – but Atkey points out the merits of The Hatpin and laments its just-missed status. He points out why the Australian The Boy from Oz was a much darker and better show than what we got here. On the other hand, there was that Kookaburra production of Company in which the actress playing June (sorry – April) fell ill and had no understudy. As a result, the director dropped “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Barcelona.” Learn what happened when Sondheim heard about it.

See what Michael Kunze, co-author of Dance of the Vampires, really thought of the Broadway version. Why Mame inspired Anne of Green Gables to change two songs before its London premiere. How a Baker Street writer’s knowledge trickled down to help The Drowsy Chaperone.

If you thought that Evita was forbidden in Argentina, Atkey clarifies the real reason why B.A. has yet to see it. He does tell why Sarafina! was heavily criticized in South Africa and why the The King and I is banned in Thailand. (Did you know that Anna’s original surname was actually Owens, but she added the Leon to the front of it because it was husband Tom’s middle name? Atkey does.)

Who’d expect that former rocker Cat Stevens was a groupie for the 1961 British musical King Kong? Or that the first American musical produced in Buenos Aires was retitled Simple y Maravilloso. (Can you translate or at least infer the title that it had had on Broadway?) As for that all-female Japanese Takarazuka troupe that does American musicals as unlikely as Kean and Ernest in Love, Atkey points out that no two women ever kiss for real on stage. In short, there’s never been a better book for the armchair-traveler-theatergoer.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Now vailable on Amazon

My book A Million Miles from Broadway – Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London has been available in both print and e-book formats from for about three weeks now.  It recently also became available through Amazon.  Within the next month or so it will also be available through other outlets, both online and “bricks and mortar”.  Dress Circle in London is already accepting orders for it.

Advance copies have been sent to various media who specialise in musical theatre.  This book is unique in that it is of local interest in several countries, including Canada, Australia, Singapore, South Africa and Argentina.  There is very little promotional budget for this, but I have sent posters to all the West End and Broadway musical houses, as well as to theatres in Toronto and Melbourne.  There will be an ad in the academic journal Studies in Musical Theatre beginning next month.  I’m on the lookout for opportunities to appear on radio (both internet and over-the-air) to feature songs from other-worldly musicals.  I’m particularly anxious to get the book into libraries and schools.  I know of a university in Philadelphia that has already ordered it for their library – let’s hope there are many more.

I haven’t read any reviews yet, but will be in touch when they’re out.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Finally available -- A Million Miles from Broadway

My exciting news is that my book A Million Miles from Broadway: Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London is finally available from

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

To self-publish or not to self-publish?

Further to my recent email update, this is to let you know the options I’m considering for A Million Miles from Broadway.

Last month, shortly before I completed the manuscript, I sent out proposal packages to a number of trade publishers.  This package included an audio CD with musical excerpts from some of the shows covered by the book, as well as clips of my appearances on two radio programmes.  I have not received any responses.

A number of people have made various suggestions to me, including that I publish the book myself, either as an e-book or as print on demand.  I am holding both of those options as a fall-back in case I am unable to secure a trade publisher (or in any case one who will publish the book as I have intended it, with its international focus intact.)  I have received a lot of support, and it is clear that interest in this book is quite high within the musical theatre community.

There are a couple of ideas that may help see this project through – whichever option I end up taking.  One would be testimonials that I could quote in my approaches to publishers.  (I have already received ones from Tony Castro, John Sparks and David Overton).  The other thing is that it would be very valuable to me if some of the schools with musical theatre studies programmes could give me a written expression of their intent to use the book – either by purchasing it or placing it on reading lists.  If anybody is willing to consider this, I can send them a perusal copy of the manuscript.

I still have great reservations about self-publishing, as in the past I have always found the support that a recognised trade publisher provides – both in editorial and marketing – to be invaluable.  However, I must accept that this book may be a little too “specialised” or “niche market” for that – although I am still convinced that there is a large enough market for a publisher who knows how to reach it.

I appreciate all of the support that this project has enjoyed from many corners, and hope to be able to announce some progress soon.

Mel Atkey
To join a facebook group for A Million Miles from Broadway, click here

Friday, 4 May 2012

An update on my last update

I’m afraid that the news since I finally completed the manuscript for A Million Miles from Broadway just a few days ago is not encouraging.  Having already been turned down by the Canada Council, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation informed me today of their decision not to support me.  Further to this, the only publisher that was actively considering the book has now decided to pass, saying: “A hearty congratulations on bringing this large project to completion.  Seeing the full manuscript gives me a much better sense of the book this will become than earlier exchanges we’ve had.  I wish you all the best with it, but I can say with confidence now that it’s not a project that would be well-served by our Press – it’s simply too far outside of our core mandate for scholarly books.  It will, however, be a book that will be read enthusiastically by fans of musical theatre, so I suggest finding a trade press that is adept at reaching that audience.”  Would that he were right.  Information packs on the book were sent out last month to about twenty trade publishers.  Not a single one has responded. (Three years ago, one trade publisher responded saying, “we probably couldn’t publish a book about fringe theatre or where too much space was devoted to one country (e.g. Canada) and that your book would need thoroughly to address the influence of Broadway on the musical theatre of other nations to make it a truly international overview of the subject.”  I’m not interested in writing a book about how Broadway has conquered the world – and I’m certainly not going to leave my own country out of it.) For the first time I am beginning to doubt that this book will ever be released.

On the other hand, there has been lots of support in both the theatrical and educational communities.  Some have urged me to consider self publishing. I have already gone several thousand pounds into debt over this and have absolutely no money left.  Also, I don’t believe a self-published book would be accepted as authoritative. If one of those trade publishers doesn’t come forward, I’m afraid I may have to abandon this project.

I hope I’ll have better news next time.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Moment of Truth

Now is the moment of truth.  I have completed the manuscript for A Million Miles from Broadway – Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London and have submitted it to a couple of prospective publishers.  I have also sent out information packs – including an audio CD of two radio programs I was on – to a few others.

I admit that it’s a difficult sell.  Although it has a greater potential appeal than Broadway North, its readership are also more widely dispersed.  Also, it’s not an academic text, but neither is it mass-market.  I need to target a specific niche, which is the professional musical theatre community, the die-hard aficionados, and educational institutions.

I’ll let you know what happens.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Home Stretch

I am now entering the home stretch.  Barring any last minute funding from either Access Copyright Foundation or the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, my research is virtually complete, and I am now polishing a draft ready to send to potential publishers.  I have changed the full title of the book: it is now called A Million Miles from Broadway: Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London.

Instead of giving you another excerpt, this time I am sending you the address that I delivered at the 2010 Lyric Canada conference.  This paper is about to be published in the Brock Review – the first time I’ve ever had anything in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

A Million Miles from Broadway
A paper delivered at the Lyric Canada Conference
Brock University, October 2010
To be published in the Brock Review, 2012

It may come as a surprise to the people in this room to be told that we may as well all go home, because apparently no musical theatre exists outside of New York City.   At least, that was the assertion made a couple of decades back by the late Peter Stone, a Tony award-winning librettist and former president of the Dramatists Guild.  Since I write musicals and am not a New Yorker, that statement put a bee in my bonnet, and that bee has never escaped.  (I know, because I have been stung numerous times.)

A little while ago I was talking to an American in London who was about to teach a master class for librettists.  A veteran of the Lehman Engel workshops, he was lamenting the lack of craftsmanship in British musicals, saying that great playwrights do not necessarily make great book writers.  This I agreed with, but then he said that because the musical was an American form, only American writers understood certain things, such as that the central character in a musical has to be proactive, not passive.  I began to wonder about this. I have always stressed the need for craft and for a firm knowledge of the work that has gone before us, but I questioned whether he was confusing universal principles of drama with more culturally specific conventions. America is more of a maverick, individualistic society than Britain is.  Some of the brassier American musicals such as Guys and Dolls and A Chorus Line have never achieved the same success in Britain as they did at home.  The English tend to bristle at any in-your-face aggression.  On the other hand, Fiddler on the Roof enjoyed a long run in London, but it features a central character who is passive; i.e. things happen to him and around him, without him making them happen.

I envisage musical theatre as an international art form, just as cinema is.  In order for that to happen, it has to be liberated from the idea that it is the exclusive property of one nation or ethnic group.  When I talk about “universality” in the musical theatre, I bear in mind that nothing is entirely universal.  Everything works slightly differently in each place you do it. When a Japanese producer asked Joseph Stein how American audiences could understand Fiddler on the Roof when it was “so Japanese” , he had a good point: what do Americans know of arranged marriages?

It’s possible, I believe, to have a paradigm so firmly fixed in our minds that we reject anything that does not conform to it.  I say this because the “craft” argument seems to hit a snag when shows such as Spring Awakening that defy these “rules”, appear to be outperforming their more conventional rivals.  I’m not defending these shows, but they do seem to satisfy a demand that the “well-made” shows do not.  Is there a median to be found between preserving and developing the craft on the one hand, and allowing the musical to be tailored to other cultures and circumstances?  It would require teachers and artists with a firm grounding in the disciplines of musical theatre who also have a profound respect for other cultures and forms.  For example, at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East, they have a commitment to nurture so-called Urban Musicals that make use of rap and hip-hop, among other forms, and for a time they managed to bring over teachers from the Tisch School to work with their young writers. 

My aim is not to detract, in any way, from the colossal achievements of Broadway.  My aim is to learn from them, but to always bear in mind that we are not like them. It is indisputable that, for the second half of the twentieth century, the Americans were the masters.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that New York is the musical’s end destination. The American musical is a branch of the tree – albeit the most successful one – but it is not the root.  Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist behind My Fair Lady said, “Broadway cannot live without the musical theatre, but the musical theatre can live without Broadway.  After all, its first home was Paris and then Vienna and then London and then New York.  So changes of address are not uncommon.”   In spite of claims that the “golden age” of the musical is over, I think we should remain open to the possibility that the best is yet to come.

I’m not looking for a fait-accomplis.  I’m looking for seeds that can be watered.  As a non-American, I’ve always found the assertion that one nation held the lock and keys to the form to be at best intimidating, and at worst, stifling.  After all, it’s not just the Italians who write opera.

In fact, difficult though it may be to believe, Americans have had their own inferiority complex to contend with: the fear that they may be Rome to Britain’s Greece.  This has made them into vociferous defenders of what they believe to be “their” art form – and all power to them.  If others want to make it their own, they will have to find their own way, just as the Americans did. It was early in the twentieth century, when the American musical was in its infancy, that people like Jerome Kern looked for ways to make what was then still a very European form into a distinctly American one. In her biography of Leonard Bernstein, Meryle Secrest writes, “The role of American composers in building a brave new world was to create a uniquely American contribution, based on the New England heritage of hymns, dances and folk songs and on the rich and exploitable vein of Negro rhythmic patterns and tone colors.”  New Hampshire based composer and educator John Warthen Struble writes, “The imagination of America was turned inward during the Depression, toward things American, and foreign musical influences held less power than at any previous time in our history”  .  In other words, they were playing to the home audience.

Others would be wise to learn that same lesson.  Lionel Bart did.  British musicals had difficulty travelling abroad until Bart found that, with Oliver!, he could combine the Broadway principles of integrated story-telling with English music hall forms.  Just as American popular song had adopted – and in some cases invented – a slang vernacular, Bart’s East Enders were heard as they actually spoke. “It’s hard now to realise how thoroughly he transformed the British musical”, wrote Michael Coveney in London’s The Independent.  “He mined an entire semi-submerged territory of music hall, parlour songs and cockney anthems and filtered them through an idiosyncratic gift for rhythm, phrase-making and song construction.”   Before Bart, British musicals were for the most part twee and slight.  Even Ivor Novello’s shows never worked Stateside.  Their continental counterparts had a better excuse.  They were murdered in cold blood.

However, let’s consider the implications of any potential “change of address”.  Up until the late 1940s, the American popular music industry was based in New York’s Tin Pan Alley.  They supplied the songs not only for the music charts but for Broadway and Hollywood as well, and over a period of fifty years or so, had evolved a high level of craftsmanship and sophistication.  Then a combination of technological change, economics and the baby boom brought an end to New York’s hegemony. Songwriters from outside of New York (and Hollywood) had a look-in for the first time.  Sadly, the tidal wave that was the rock and roll generation swept away much that came before it, including the craftsmanship.

At its peak, the American musical educated its audience, advancing a more sophisticated art form without forsaking its populist roots.  Leonard Bernstein did this.  So did Kurt Weill.  For that matter, so did Mozart.  Now, we’re more polarised between the relative “high brow” of Sondheim and the “low brow” of juke-box musicals, and we’ve lost some of the middle ground.  We’re not appealing to the popular audience where they are, then raising them to something higher.

One of the things that I’ve discovered in my historical research is that the birth of modern musical theatre coincided with the birth of democracy.  Mozart wrote The Magic Flute with a mass audience in mind, not the elite.  Offenbach began to prosper when France’s theatres were deregulated.  Just as the American Revolution can be seen in a broader context as an extension of the English Civil War, the development of the American musical comedy was a continuation of a process that had begun in Europe.

Keeping this in mind, it makes sense to me that the form should be localised, and speak to the audience at hand.  After all, it is through attention to the specific that we become universal. The Irish playwright John Coulter, who immigrated to Canada in 1936 said, “What virtue is there in becoming specifically Canadian?  Why not aim at the idea of internationalism in the theatre at least?  I should reply that in my belief the way to internationalism in the theatre as in all else lies through the prior achievement of the greatest degree of nationalism.  It is an organic growth outward from a core which is the individual himself, in this case, the individual playwright.”

Film is an example of internationalised form that, although dominated by Hollywood, retains an alternative “World Cinema” view.  The French “New Wave” directors, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard, idolised the Hollywood films of Hitchcock and others, yet they created a form of their own, as did Fellini and Bergman.  I would like to see a “World Musical Theatre” movement develop.  The lesson, I believe, is to try to find ways of combining the craft of Broadway with the indigenous local forms.

I have spent the past few years on a quest to discover some of those musicals that Mr. Stone thinks don’t exist in other countries. I began, of course, in my own back yard here in Canada.  Inspired by Mavor Moore and Norman Campbell, I sought out what I believed were indigenous roots in my own country, tracing from the first pastiche operettas – HMS Parliament, Ptarmigan – through Spring Thaw and the beginnings of the Charlottetown Festival.  I also looked at the collective creations of the alternate theatre movement, such as Paper Wheat and Ten Lost Years.  The result of that research was a book called Broadway North – The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre.   

I was pleasantly surprised by its reception outside of Canada.  In fact, several Australians told me that, if you changed the names, it could be their story.  Both countries are former British colonies with a small population spread over a huge, largely uninhabitable expanse.  Both embraced a policy of official multiculturalism.  Where we have the inferiority complex, they have the “cultural cringe”.  Both developed traditions of collective, alternate theatre, and Sydney’s Phillip Street Revue, which gave us Dame Edna Everage, occupies a similar place in their history to Spring Thaw, which gave us Charlie Farquarson. (In fact, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in was largely created and written by veterans of both.)

I emerged from my research with a basic principle.  We study the craftsmanship of the great works, but we also study our own environment, and the works that have emerged in our own back yard.  That way, we learn to address our own audience and to recognise our own voice. In order to do so, we also study how other people in other environments have adapted.

The arguments about the origin of the musical are heavily reliant on the semantics of the term.  Is a musical a different species than an operetta?  Does A Little Night Music somehow have more in common with No No Nanette than with The Merry Widow? In Europe, musical theatre was treated as an off-shoot of opera, even when some of the so-called operettas veered a great deal in style from the operatic form.  For instance, in many cases Gilbert and Sullivan employed comic actors who could carry a tune, rather than operatic voices. The Viennese “operettas” of Ralph Benatzky were hardly operatic at all. Just as Broadway was influenced by vaudeville and burlesque, European shows were affected by cabaret and music hall.  Stephen Sondheim maintains that, if it’s in a theatre, it’s a musical; if it’s in an opera house, it’s an opera.  But in Paris in the nineteenth century, it was less clear-cut.  The Opéra-Comique, where Carmen was first played, catered to a more middlebrow audience than the more elitist Opéra Garnier.  It was only when Carmen’s spoken dialogue was replaced by recitative (after Bizet’s death) that it was deemed acceptable as a “grand opera”.

But, most histories of the musical talk about European operetta only up to the point where it gave birth to the American musical.  In truth, the Americans and Europeans continued to cross-fertilise each other for at least half a century – right up until a fellow named Adolph brought the whole European enterprise to a premature conclusion.  (After the war, the Viennese were so determined to put their past behind them that they demolished most of their celebrated operetta houses.)  While Show Boat is rightly feted as the show that nudged the American musical in a more serious direction, nobody talks about Carmen in those terms because it is, of course, an opera and not a musical – even though, in its original version as conceived by Bizet, it had spoken dialogue, interrupted by songs in a form that was so close to that of Oklahoma that Oscar Hammerstein found it easily adaptable to the Broadway stage.  It’s purely speculative to suggest that, had it not been for Hitler, Kurt Weill and Max Reinhardt may have continued their theatrical revolutions in Europe and the world may have been a very different place.  We will never know.

However, my mission is not, strictly speaking, to be a historian.  I want to water that neglected garden, and see what grows.  As a composer and lyricist myself, it is the future that interests me.  I study the works of the past in order to learn from both their triumphs and mistakes, and to maintain some sense of continuity.  I am looking for foundations that can be built on – even if it hasn’t happened yet.  For instance, Ireland has yet to create a world-class musical, even though it is noted for its great drama, poetry, music and dance.  But it could happen, and there are traditions that could be built on.  This is far from reactionary – only by studying history do you learn how not to repeat it.  Only by acquainting ourselves with the work that has gone before do we find out what hasn’t been tried.

Nor am I expounding my own theories of dramaturgy.  I leave that to others.  I merely want to point people in a certain direction, and trust that they will make their own discoveries.  I want to show that the musical theatre form can be adapted to different cultural environments, but I am not going to dictate – or limit – how these adaptations will occur.

Some will question, why follow any other examples besides the successful Broadway ones?  Because we are not in New York, and even if we were, anything we create is going to have an outsider’s perspective. When Japanese director Amon Miyamoto staged The Drowsy Chaperone in Tokyo, he said, “I love this Canadian focus.  This is how they loved musicals long distance… This is a Canadian viewpoint.  That’s what made me very excited when I saw it on Broadway… Japanese people looking at Broadway and Canadian people looking at Broadway, the distance is similar.”  If we simply try to imitate the American form, it will easily be detected as bogus.

It is important to understand what it is that is influencing you.  Then you can decide whether to accept or reject it.  As a western Canadian Anglo-Saxon Protestant, it would probably be silly for me to write a show that uses Klesmer music just because I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof a few dozen times, and think that’s what a Broadway musical is supposed to sound like.

The normal course of study, as laid down by Lehman Engel and others, would be the works of the Broadway greats.  I have prescribed something a little broader.  For me, anybody in Canada who wants to learn how to create work that is distinctly Canadian will want to study the Canadian shows that went before them – Anne of Green Gables, Billy Bishop Goes to War.  They may also want to consider how people in Australia write shows that are distinctly Australian.  Or South African.  Or Argentinean. Not in place of the “greats”, but in addition to them.

Can the discipline and craft of the Broadway musical be exported?  John Sparks, a pupil of Lehman Engel and the artistic director of the Academy of New Musical Theatre in Los Angeles, thinks it can.  “I think that the Lehman Engel style workshop could work in any cultural setting, because it emphasises how the craft of the writing affects the communication in the theatre.”  He explains, “In other words, whatever one is trying to communicate, at whatever level of theatrical abstraction, a writer must remember that the words and music are a means to an end – therefore, the music and lyrics must work together in a way that clearly communicates to the audience at which the piece is aimed… How any particular audience hears and simultaneously understands songs in the context of their culture is certainly a factor in shaping the craft of song writing for that culture… In the theatre, regardless of cultural differences, one thing remains the same – it is not like listening to music in other forms because there are competing elements.  Sets, costumes, movement, aspects of character, linguistic anomalies... the song in the theatre must cut through all the competition and communicate directly to the audience with no need to process the information.  The audience must be able to understand it without thinking about it.” 

In Australia, writers have tried to find ways of infusing their work with their irreverent, self-deprecating “larrikin” humour.  In Canada, Gratien Gélinas conceived the notion, which Spring Thaw developed, of “putting the audience on stage”.  In Singapore, writers are struggling to incorporate their distinctive Singlish dialect into musicals.  In South Africa, they burst into song at the drop of a hat in real life.  The tango was introduced to the world on the musical stages of Buenos Aires.  All of these are lessons in how countries can make the musical their own.

Let’s begin by looking at one of the countries whose contribution to the musical theatre is generally acknowledged, if sometimes belittled.  We like to talk of Paris as the place where musicals go to die, when in fact it should be celebrated as the form’s birthplace.  It was at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiennes that Jacques Offenbach first had audiences dancing the can-can in the aisles with Orpheus in the Underworld in 1858.  This was the beginning of the democratisation of opera, and we haven’t looked back since.  Musicals were being written for the commoners, not the elite. According to musicologist Wilfred Mellers, “Musical comedy – a Plain Man’s popular art – had its origins in the impact of democracy on opera, which had been initially an aristocratic art” .  However, little work has travelled successfully in either direction between Paris and the other theatre centres since then, with two notable exceptions.  The best known is Les Misérables, but I’m going to talk about the other one.

Irma la Douce succeeded in the English-speaking world, not because it was the first decent French musical since Tales of Hoffman (it wasn’t, there have been others), but because somehow the people who adapted it got it right.  To begin with, they trusted their material.  Unlike most of the other attempts to “anglicise” French musicals, they didn’t try to tone down its sauciness.  Nor did they interpolate the works of other composers into it.  After all, as the composer of the lion’s share of Edith Piaf’s hits, Marguerite Monnot knew how to write a good tune.  What they did do was search for a way to make librettist Alexandre Breffort’s argot slang work for an English speaking audience.  Rather than having the characters speak in, say, a cockney dialect, the adapters – Monty Norman, Julian More and David Henneker – introduced actual argot words into the dialogue, allowing their context to explain the meaning.  For example, “grisbi” was slang for money, and “mec” for pimp.  Thus, the love story of a prostitute and her “mec” was given at least the illusion of being in its proper “milieu”.

Irma la Douce built not so much on the operetta tradition as that of cabaret and chanson, some of which is also evident in Les Misérables.   Sadly, it was a bit of a last gasp for the French. It didn’t help that, after the war, some of the once distinguished writers of Parisian musical comedy were accused of being collaborators (and I don’t mean in the words and music sense).

Still, it shows that there are other voices to be heard.  South Africa has exported musicals, both during and after the apartheid era.  The first was called King Kong, and contrary to what you might think, neither Fay Wray nor the Empire State Building was involved.  In fact, it was the story of a boxer, and the cast and creative team brought together both black and white artists.  An all black team brought us Sarafina!, while a mixed-race team created Kat and the Kings, making sure that each of the country’s splintered ethnic groups have been represented.  Some of these works follow the Western conventions more than do others.  After all, the Zulus have a centuries old tradition of narrating stories through song. I asked John Sparks how the craft of musical writing, as taught by Lehman Engel, might be adapted to suit this environment.  “If… you are in a culture where the music and words are not part of the drama, but more of a decoration, more like scenery than content, then of course, that craft would not be so important.”  

In Australia, the development of indigenous musicals was hampered by the fact that J.C. Williamson, the country’s predominant impresario, had early on determined that Australians were not interested in hearing their own voices.  This was a by-product of the post-Colonial “cringe factor” mindset which, like Canada’s inferiority complex, is very hard to unseat. Australians have been writing musicals ever since Oscar Asche had an international hit with Chu Chin Chow in 1916, but it was several decades before any show emerged that felt Australian.  An early attempt was an operetta called Collitts Inn by composer Varney Monk in 1932, which even attempted an aboriginal “corroboree”.  However, they had more success with developing performers than writers.  Phillip Quast. Anthony Warlow, Caroline O’Connor and Hugh Jackman have all become international stars.  In recent years, The Boy from Oz and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, both jukebox musicals, have enjoyed both domestic and international success.  On the home front, they seem to have developed their own brand of cabaret musicals with the recent successes of Shane Warne: The Musical about a cricket legend, and Keating, about a former Labor Prime Minister.

My book will go into far more detail on these shows and others.  I will look at how Japan has developed its own traditions with the all-female Takarazuka Revue and how Korea has been adapting its films into stage musicals.  Even Argentina has produced at least one international musical star with Elena Roger.

Of course, the American musical has been a ubiquitous influence.  John Sparks says, “The American musical does have impact in other cultures, first by being performed in translation, and ultimately by imitation.  But as other cultures adopt and adapt the form, it changes and becomes suitable to the culture borrowing the style.  This is how European operetta morphed into the American musical in the first place, being infused with jazz and variety, taking bits from African American music styles, from vaudeville and other influences that were at the time rather uniquely American.”

In many of the places I have been studying, workshops and showcases have grown up to foster indigenous work.  Here in Canada we have Script Lab.  In Australia, the Pratt Prize is given out every two years for the best new Australian musical, and OzMade Musicals produces an annual showcase of new works in development.  The Danish Musical Theatre Academy’s “Uterus” program accepts work from both Danish and international writers.  In Singapore, Musical Theatre Limited are trying to nurture musicals in a country where little tradition in the performing arts exists.  In London, I am a member of Mercury Musical Developments, where they are struggling to encourage new work in spite of there being little financial support from either the government or the entertainment industry.  I believe we would all benefit from some sort of network linking all these disparate activities. 

Let’s become as aware of the international community in musical theatre as we are in cinema and world music.  Let’s reclaim that middle ground by reaching out to a populist audience and then raising their aspirations (as Mozart did with The Magic Flute). That way, we can re-invigorate the musical.  Who know?  We may even make it cool again.

By the way, you can watch a short video of my work as a musical theatre writer at

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Funding update

The news I had been waiting for this past six months finally came, but I’m afraid it was not the answer I was hoping for.  The Canada Council for the Arts has turned down my request for $14,000 to cover travelling costs to Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Korea and Japan.  I had hoped to do this in order to deepen my research into international musical theatre.  Somebody had suggested that I make a proposal to, but I learned that only US residents/taxpayers are eligible.  The Arts Council England had also previously turned me down.

To date, I have spent over £4,000 of my own money on this project.  This includes a trip to Australia and Singapore, as well as to a conference in Canada, as well as purchasing research materials.  To complete the project in the way I would like, I would need another £6,000.  This is money that I simply don’t have. 

I’ve always had a “Plan B”, which is to deliver the manuscript more or less as it stands at present, writing about these places without actually going there.  (Even with Australia, most of my actual research was done from London.)  It’s not my first preference, but it is a reasonable, practical consideration. 

I have applied to Access Copyright Foundation for a grant of $7,500 which would cover Argentina, Brazil and South Africa only.  I should hear from them in about three months.  I am also going to approach the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation as well.  However, realistically, I am now aiming towards Plan B.  I have held off on approaching a publisher because I was unsure of the scale of project I would be able to deliver. I can’t hold off much longer.  Therefore, I’m going to give it until the end of June.  If I haven’t raised the extra money by that time, I will then consider my research to be completed and deliver a final draft.

Of course, if I go with Plan B, that will make me even more reliant on the support of my colleagues in the places in question – for which I am extremely grateful.  Also, the growing network of educational institutions that have shown interest in using the finished product will be vital in persuading a publisher to come on board.

I’m not giving up – far from it.  I’ll let you know what happens.