Producer Paul Taylor-Mills, artistic director of The Other Palace and the Turbine Theatre, reckons that the musical is getting cool again. “I think musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Six and &Juliet are attracting younger audiences, and those audiences are moving away from the obvious choices and wanting something different. It makes it an exciting time for producing musicals. But it is such a hard form to get it right. When you do it’s magical. But when you don’t…” he trails off despondently.
Taylor-Mills should know. He has produced some significant musical hits, ranging from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights at the King’s Cross Theatre to Heathers and Rob Madge’s My Son’s a Queer (But What Can You Do?) in the West End. He will be hoping to help midwife some more musical hits over the next couple of weeks as this year’s new musical festival, MTFestUK, now in its fifth iteration, takes over the Turbine Theatre and The Other Palace stages.
The range of shows is mind-boggling, ranging from musical versions of Hollywood movies including Romy and Michele and Bling to the punk gig musical Tit Swingers about the queer pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Or how about A Jaffa Cake Musical, inspired by the 1991 tribunal which determined whether an orange chocolate snack was a cake or a biscuit? Or The Garden, an afro-electric-folk musical about social housing? If you reckon they sound like improbable subjects for a musical, you would probably say the same about the source material for Operation Mincemeat and Everybody's Talking About Jamie, both of which have gone on to become significant cult hits in the West End. Or Gwyneth Paltrow’s skiing accident, which has inspired no less than two shows in recent months. But Taylor-Mills warns that the point about a cult hit is that you can’t predict it in advance.
“Producers say ‘this is going to be the next cult hit, but you never really know. Cults don’t often spring fully formed; they evolve.” Taylor-Mills should know: Heathers, which ran in the West End (with breaks for the pandemic) between 2018 and 2023, was a show that found itself a loyal audience, many of them still teenagers. “Some of them saw it hundreds of times; it was wild," says Taylor-Mills. “Parents told me about their daughters getting themselves Saturday jobs so they could fund their visits, and those teenagers found themselves a community through the show. They’d arrive, get their Slush Puppies, and talk to each other. They called themselves the Corn Nuts." The latter is a snack that Veronica eats and which features in the lyrics of the show.
But while Taylor-Mills has had the joy of major hits, he’s also aware that nurturing a musical into life is a long, slow, and sometimes painful business. The RSC’s Matilda was workshopped over many years; Operation Mincemeat came in many iterations and played many different venues of differing scales before it hit the West End. The Edinburgh Fringe is increasingly the place where musicals try out: Six](https://stagedoor.com/vaudeville-theatre/six?p=15640) began on the fringe, as indeed did the production of Cruel Intentions and Unfortunate, the wickedly funny Little Mermaid parody, which is currently selling out at the Southwark Playhouse.
Taylor-Mills’ own project, Cake, a musical written by Emilia writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and inspired by the infamous words “let them eat cake!” which Marie Antoinette actually never uttered, has been worked on and toured over the last five years, developing and being refined all the time. “Letting an audience in is crucial because the danger is that otherwise you spend too much time in the room with the material and each other and lose sight of what works and what doesn’t.” In Cake’s case, Taylor-Mills feels it has paid off. “We are now trying to find our forever home.”
The cast of Everybody's Talking About Jamie, photo by Matt Crockett
Many of the musicals in the MTFestUK are still in an early stage of that journey, but will be hoping that they are eventually in a position to do the same. Since the festival’s inception, at least ten have gone on to have further life, with the festival offering the opportunity to try out material in front of an audience and hopefully start to create a buzz around it—both in real life and online. “I often think that the offer to the audience is like a chocolate box; they can dip in, and many do; they will see four or six shows over the festival. We are always looking for the widest range of artists, and it is truly an international festival.”
There has been much comment over recent weeks about the fact that new smaller-scale musicals appear to be having their moment, and the announcement that the Kiln hit Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) and the return of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie to the West End next month suggest this isn't just media hype. Taylor-Mills reckons there is definitely a post-pandemic shift taking place about the work that makes it into the West End and who the audience is for that work. But he also cautions that at a time when the cost-of-living crisis has substantially increased the investment needed to make a hit show and also created audience resistance to rising ticket prices, producers are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place.
“It is a tricky time. There is so much potential, but there are also so many risks that it can be nerve-wracking for producers.” The solution? “We have to remain brave and bold. It’s the only way."