Matthew Eames is no stranger to musicals. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music and performed in West End and touring musicals for over 10 years. These included Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Rent, Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors.
Now his role as programmer and producer at The Lowry finds him championing the very best in upcoming musical theatre talent. But in an age of increasing budget cuts, presenting new work can be difficult.
“The problem with musical theatre is that it’s viewed as mostly commercial and isn’t always respected for its artistic integrity which is a shame.” says Eames. “There is perhaps less of a support network for making new musicals than there is for new plays. It stems from the fact that generally more people are involved in making a musical which makes it more expensive.”
Add to that the risk taken to get an audience in for an unknown name and you can see why the UK is underperforming in the new musical theatre department by comparison to its counterparts in the US. But making new musical theatre doesn’t have to be expensive or rely on the generosity of wealthy ‘angel’ benefactors as Matthew explains, “What many traditional musical makers do not realise is that there is support in place both in terms of resources and hard cash. They need not beg or borrow or go without. Funding bodies, especially Arts Council England, do support the making of new musicals and individuals are able to apply for funding through Grants for the Arts like anybody else.
“Also, there is a definite appetite for small scale or chamber musicals from venues across the country. You need not and perhaps should not limit your creativity to making a musical for a large cast. Keep the cast, band and creative team realistic and you will find that you can both fund a project and find a network of venues to tour to at an affordable cost. Your Les Mis can wait! “
In 2017 The Lowry hosted its first ever new musical theatre festival ‘Musical Rewrites. “I’d been looking at opportunities to showcase small-scale musicals, particularly those that have a less traditional approach and I felt that with The Letter Room’s ‘No Miracles Here’ and Fat Rascals ‘Buzz’ I had a couple of good headliners. Developing audiences for new musicals (like with any new work) can be a challenge so I was equally keen to give audiences a few tasters of musicals in gestation too.”
As part of Musical Rewrites, The Lowry hosted a panel discussion with James Hadley from the ACE funded NPO Musical Theatre Network. He used to work for ACE himself and is now charged with trying to set out a clear path for new musicals being produced. Joining him on the panel was Joseph Houston from Hope Mill Theatre who are showing how the fringe can support new ideas and growth particularly in musicals. And members of Sheep Soup who are making a new musical at Leicester Curve to be seen at The Lowry in May 2017.
“The panel discussion was really positive and proved that the future of new musicals in the UK looks bright.” He goes on to say that, “The Other Palace in London is doing great work to put new musicals on the map. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie or Flowers for Mrs Harris at Sheffield and Adrian Mole at Leicester Curve are great examples too of the how this genre is moving forward, and New Wolsey in Ipswich are masters. There is also the biennial BEAM Showcase run by Musical Theatre Network and Mercury Musical Developments which is a great initiative.”
“We are not a producing house in the conventional sense” explains Eames, “though we do support new shows through the artist development programme and our Week 53 festival. What we can do is offer good terms and the right conditions for opening a new musical on one of our three stages. We can offer audiences who enjoy musical storytelling and an acquired knowledge and expertise in developing audiences for new work.”