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Incubating New Musicals


Incubating New Musicals

by Kenneth Lyen

Opera, both Western and Chinese, has been in decline over the past century. The average age of the audience has increased inexorably, while audience size has dwindled. It was replaced by musical theater. And during the half century stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s, musical theater has had its heyday. But in the past few decades, it too is suffering the same fate as opera.

The demise of musical theater is a combination of factors. The total cost of production has escalated because of the increase in rental costs, the rise in salaries, the high cost of sets, costumes, sound and lighting. The upshot is that ticket prices have skyrocketed out of control, and the young can no longer afford to watch musical theater. The audience has therefore grown progressively older. Look at the rise of musicals like Abba’s "Mama Mia", Billy Joel’s "Movin’ Out", Queen’s "We Will Rock You", and the Beach Boys’ "Good Vibrations". All these target the Baby Boomers who are now in their 50s. Worse still, sometimes the average age of the Broadway audience is even older. Stephen Sondheim quipped during an interview that he, in his 70s, was probably one of the younger members of the audience.

The second reason why the young no longer watch musical theater, is that the music styles have lagged behind contemporary pop music. Stephen Sondheim has only managed to attract an eclectic intellectual following, and Andrew Lloyd Webber is now considered old hat. His last few musicals have closed after only a few months. Claude Schonberg and Michel Boublil have not managed to replicate their success of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. In the last couple of decades, both Broadway and the West End have been reviving old musicals, which are safer commercial propositions. This has further widened the generation gap.

The third reason for the decline in musical theater is that live performances cannot match cinema in terms of excitement. The special effects of musical theater cannot come close to matching the pizzazz of blockbuster movies. I often hear my friends say, "I'd rather watch a movie than a musical." Then, as a give-away, they would add, "For the price of one musical, I can watch ten movies". Films are like weeds choking the flowering of new musicals.

Then quite suddenly last year, New York suddenly burst into the limelight with its Festival of New Musicals 2004, which featured 31 new musicals. This year Cardiff is hosting its second international festival of new musicals. Chicago’s Theatre Building has also been developing new musicals.

Let’s look at the Chicago example a little bit more closely. They have a multi-stage approach:

1. The Pitch: A 10-15 minute excerpt of a musical performed with narration. The cast size, scenes, etc. are mentioned during this presentation.

2. The Sit-Down Reading: The full cast reads from the book (= play) and score. This enables one to have a preliminary assessment of the structure and feel of the piece.

3. The Staged Reading: The cast reads, sings and dances the musical, holding the script and score in one’s hand.

4. The Skeletal Production: This is a fully staged and choreographed presentation, in which the cast has memorized the book and score. There are no sets or costumes.

5. The Full-Scale Production: The last stage is the full production with sets, costumes, props, etc.

There is a sort of natural selection process going on, in which only the fittest musical will survive to the bitter end.

Singapore has had a dearth of new musicals in the past few years. Perhaps it is time to adopt a strategy of incubating new musicals. These infant musicals can then be given a no-frills raw reading with singing, but without sets or costumes. The advantage of this guerilla tactic is that it is cheap, and one can sample the musical before investing in a high-risk full-scale production.

Come, let’s hatch some new musicals! Hopefully this will rejuvenate our dormant musicals scene.

25 January 2005