Playwright Chris Bush grew up watching old musicals on VHS tapes with her mum and the very first piece she wrote as a student was a musical. “What’s not to like about the musical?” she asks when we talk as her own Olivier-winning musical, Standing At The Sky’s Edge—written with singer-songwriter Richard Hawley—prepares to open at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.
“There is such snobbery around the musical because it’s a popular form, and so some people want to see it as a bad thing simply because it is popular. But I love musicals, and if it’s the music that’s the thing that's pulling people in, why isn’t that seen as a good thing? I’m really up for making work that has broad appeal, and musicals definitely have that. I think you can convey more emotion in four bars of the right music than you can through 4,000 words of dialogue.”
Isn’t that a bit dispiriting if—like Bush—you are the person supplying the words?
“Not if you are a playwright who loves musicals,” comes the riposte. “The music and the words need to work in harmony. The music is just another tool in your arsenal as a writer, another way to tell the story, show another side of a character, or make an emotional connection. So many serious playwrights see the musical as somehow a less intellectually rigorous form. But that’s complete nonsense.” Bush points to the fact that Shakespeare’s characters frequently speak directly to the audience and that often a song in a musical operates in exactly the same way. “They are both devices that, as a writer, you can use to really good effect. So why not use them?”
Standing At The Sky’s Edge rather proves the point. First premiering in Sheffield in 2019, it’s a remarkable, uplifting show brimming with heart, warmth, and emotion, but it is also a canny and thoughtful state-of-the-nation piece that charts the UK’s journey from the optimism of the early 1960s through industrial decline to more recent times, cleverly filtered through the stories of the occupants of a single flat on Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill Estate, which was built in the 1960s to provide social housing, slumped into decline, and is now gentrified. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is that very rare beast—a show that makes you feel and think in equal measure.
“Park Hill is the main character in the show; it’s the antagonist,” explains Bush, who argues that one of the reasons for the success of the piece is its absolute specificity to Sheffield, which you might think would be limiting but which has the effect of making the story feel genuinely universal in its scope. “It’s a story about home and belonging, shelter and sanctuary, wanting something that you can call yours and feel rooted in, and finding a community,” says Bush. “And everyone wants that; it’s a universal story wherever you are in the world. So, it can land anywhere, and people will respond.”
That’s particularly the case, I suspect, in London, where rising rents and mortgages, a cost-of-living crisis, and increasing precarity mean that many feel that somewhere they can call their own and put down roots is a remote pipedream. Standing At The Sky’s Edge grapples with those big social questions, and Bush reckons that they have only grown in relevance over the last couple of years as the housing crisis has grown.
Standing At The Sky’s Edge arrives in the West End trailing a string of awards, including an Olivier for Best Musical, but it also comes stamped with a unique accolade: a Made in Sheffield key registered trademark, something that has long been part of the city’s industrial heritage and which denotes quality and craftsmanship. It’s normally applied to the city’s steel and manufacturing output.
The stamp is a recognition of how much the success of this musical has achieved in putting Sheffield on the map and increasing awareness of this proud city, something that makes Bush, whose hometown it is, very proud.
“Manchester has never had any issues about telling the world how great it is, and that’s fine. But Sheffield has always been one of those cities that lets people figure it out for themselves, so to get something that recognises that this musical was something made by a local team of people with real deep knowledge and understanding of the city and who did it with care and attention feels like a really gorgeous thing. “
She also likes the way that the award recognises the craft element of playwriting.
“I’ve always thought that playwrights are far closer to people who make physical stuff than we are to poets or novelists. Making theatre is an act of assembly. The script isn’t the art; it’s an instruction manual to build something together, and that’s what we’ve done with Standing At The Sky’s Edge. It’s been quite a journey."