Hannah Elsy met Julian Eaves to discuss why she set up The Lowdown, the only public scratch night exclusively for new musical theatre in London.
JE Hannah, why do we need The Lowdown?
HE It takes time and patience to develop a good musical. Hamilton famously took Lin-Manuel Miranda six years to write, and Tim Minchin was chasing the stage rights for Matilda ten years before Matthew Warchus approached him to write music and lyrics for the RSC.
In Matt Trueman’s recent Guardian article on searching for a new British musical to rival Hamilton, he argues that ‘Britain is lagging a long way behind’ the US for producing good, experimental, new musical theatre. Perhaps cultural snobbery is the reason why a scratch night for musical theatre doesn’t already exist in London. The UK’s theatrical history is deeply rooted in straight drama and comedy – a handful of West End sites such as Theatre Royal Dury Lane, Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Opera House have been churning out drama for longer than the US has been declared an independent nation. Musical theatre is still generally perceived to be new, glossy and less culturally valid. Something (like bagels or superhero movies) that is done better by our younger relatives across the pond.
JE Fair enough. Since we first met at Shoreditch’s arts hub, Rich Mix, two years ago, you’ve gone from strength to strength in developing new, adventurous musical theatre for the stage.
HE I’ve been to many scratch nights for straight plays: notably Miranda Harrison’s Page To Stage at the Horse and Stables and endless new writing nights at Theatre 503, but noticed that there was nothing else in town of a similar experimental level for new musical theatre. From Page To Stage, with Aria Entertainment, gives new musicals a fully funded showcase production, but this is with material that is performance-ready.
I’m therefore filling a key gap in the market for the development of new British musicals by opening the only public scratch night for new musical theatre in London. Called The Lowdown, it bridges the gap between having an idea that could make a brilliant musical, and putting together a workshop production. A workshop production without any previous testing of the idea is potentially a sizeable financial loss if the show is subsequently abandoned and never goes into full production. I drew inspiration from the 4×15 evenings at the Musical Theatre Factory in New York for the structure The Lowdown. It’s a platform for a handful of musicals to interrogate how make the ideas work harder, or whether to just bin that idea move onto another – which in itself is progress! I have created a space where musical theatre can ‘fail’ (as theatre makers are so encouraged to do in other artforms), develop and improve.
JE And who are the new writers you are developing?
HE I am working closely with musical theatre writer Henry Carpenter on two new shows: rock musical The Quentin Dentin Show (think The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Doctor Faustus), and Summer Nights In Space, a new science fiction cult musical for VAULT Festival 2017. Performing the material at all stages of development has undoubtedly helped us to produce the best draft for performance, enhancing what works and pruning away the elements that don’t quite fit.
JE Yes, I’ve seen Quentin grow a lot over the last year and more. And Summer Nights is a great advance on it. But how have audiences and the industry at large been reacting to your initiative?
HE I’m pleased that The Lowdown formula is working. The 22nd November will be the third scratch night of 2016, and many of the shows that have already performed at The Lowdown have gone on to successful full productions at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Underbelly at the Edinburgh Fringe, The Phoenix Artists Club and VAULT Festival.
JE And how does that compare with what’s happening in the States?
HE With the experimental Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet making waves in New York, it seems that the US keep on scoring the points for brilliant original musicals. However, this scratch night is part of Matt Trueman’s observation that infrastructure for a new musical theatre sector in the UK is ‘falling into place’. Alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber’s renovation of the St James, the Park Theatre utilising its studio space for musicals, and influencers such as Mark Shenton and director Adam Lenson mulling over exactly what it means to create a successful new British musical, The Lowdown scratch night is part of these green shoots of change.
JE Good to hear. So, when’s the next gig, and how can I get to be there?
HE The Lowdown scratch night is at Rich Mix on 22nd November 2016 from 7.30pm. Tickets are £5 and can be purchased here: BOOK TICKETS NOW
Hannah Elsy is an independent theatre producer. She is currently producing two new musicals and runs The Lowdown scratch night. Hannah also works for BOOK Music & Lyrics, a charity dedicated to the development of musical theatre writing and related skills.