Since the early days of the S&S Award – given to the best new unproduced musical of the year – its founders, literary agent Caroline Underwood and writer Warner Brown, have longed to encourage links between the UK musical writing scene and that of the US. Now, with the Award becoming S&S Theatre Productions, Caroline and Warner will have the opportunity to do just that, presenting co-productions of new, radical musical theatre both Off-West End and Off-Broadway.
Joining forces with London-based, multiple Offie-nominated Mercurius Theatre (and the company’s artistic director Jenny Eastop) plus Kent Nicholson, doyen of new musical theatre writing in the States, S&S Theatre Productions has already hit the ground running with the live-streaming of the award-winning Stay Awake, Jake from Southwark Playhouse.
Below Caroline and Warner chat to My Theatre Mates about how the transformation from Award to production company came about and express their dedication to presenting innovative radical musical theatre that pushes the boundaries of the genre on both sides of the Pond.
The successful S&S Award has morphed into a brand new production company ready to nurture radically new musical theatre. Can you describe how this development has come about?
Warner Brown (WB): We were absolutely thrilled with the progress of the S&S Award but in a way we were a victim of our own success. It simply got too big for us to handle. For a start, we had nearly 50 UK and international judges – all pretty top rank theatre people – and it was getting to the point where we needed an administrative team not only here but in the US too if we were to succeed with our ambition of making the prize truly global. There was also a sudden proliferation of other awards coming on to the scene, though none, we felt, that quite catered to the more radical type of musical theatre writing we were aiming to promote. So we took some time out to try and work out where to go next. Eventually the only logical step seemed to be to produce new musicals ourselves. Of course, we wondered if we might be crazy doing this in a post-pandemic climate, but since the launch we’ve actually been reassured by the industry itself because we’ve had such an outpouring of encouragement, offers of help and just general loveliness from everybody.
How would you define radically new musical theatre writing?
WB: A definition in theatre terms is one of the hardest things to pin down, so forgive me if I come at it from a bit of a tangent. One of the things we learned from the S&S Award is that people who attempt to write a musical often bog themselves down with what they think a musical ought to be. Somehow playwrights don’t seem to burden themselves with this problem. If you want to write a play about, say, neuroscience – fine. But is that a subject for a musical? Of course it is! Musical theatre shouldn’t be a breed set apart.
This is why I loathe the question: “Do you think this story would make a musical?” If the story would make a play or a movie or a TV drama, then it would make a musical. And often the musical theatre form can take you to places those other disciplines can’t reach. So, regarding subject matter, all I would say is let’s try and get away from yet another show about Rasputin or yet another version of a Dickens novel or yet another adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale. In general, a play doesn’t need to be an adaptation of another form, so why should a musical? For “radical” here, read “original”. Let’s open ourselves up to new possibilities.
Telling a story, or creating a world, is no different in a musical from any other form of theatre writing – other than, as I’ve said above, there are more tools at our disposal in the musical theatre form. We can “go inside people’s heads” better; we can punctuate with more dramatic effect; we can sway emotion more easily. So “radical” here means setting ourselves free from these binding chains, these stultifying rules.
Caroline Underwood (CU): For me, radical new musical theatre writing is doing something that pushes the boundaries. It could be any number of things – the subject matter of the show, the structure of the piece, the nature of the score, the actual production techniques used to present it, even the venue it’s presented in. But the point is that you’re attempting to do something different. Back in the days of the Vivian Ellis Prize, Vivian always used to say to the writers then, know the rules but then break them. I love traditional musical theatre, but I want to push the form and see what the possibilities are.
What are your ambitions for S&S Theatre Productions? What kind of projects will you be looking to present to audiences?
WB: Even before we launched the company, we actually co-produced the live-streaming of Tim Gilvin’s Stay Awake, Jake with Pearson Theatre Productions and Damien Tracey. Now we want to kind of set the template for the Anglo-American aspect of the company so, for our second show, we’ve managed to get the amazing composer composer Joshua Schmidt on board. He’s American and I’m the English guy writing book and lyrics to his score. We’ve formed co-producing partnerships with Jenny Eastop and her adventurous Mercurius Theatre company in London and Kent Nicholson, doyen of new musical theatre writing in New York, and we’ve raised about 95% of the finance. We have big dreams but that doesn’t mean we’re not treading carefully with this ambitious production.
You have enjoyed success on both sides of the pond. Has that made you even more enthusiastic about making connections with new musical theatre writing in the US? Is that an important part of S&S Theatre Productions as it launches?
WB: Absolutely, yes. When I first went to America – at quite an early age – I sensed an almost tangible “something” in the air that was an understanding of and a sensibility for pushing the boundaries of musical theatre writing. It was the same kind of innate feel we have in the UK for play writing. Yet, at the same time, I also sensed it was a two-way street. I believe passionately that musical theatre can attempt anything straight theatre can – and more – and the dramatic legacy that has been our British heritage since Shakespeare and before is as essential a part of the equation as the American yearning for new horizons. What I think we in this country need to do, if I may say, is allow ourselves a touch more freedom. Come with our traditions in our pockets, but also be open to New World possibilities. Be unafraid, as the Americans often are, of broadening our range of subject matter; of expanding our breadth of writing styles; of going to places that haven’t been gone to before. I spend my time now between America and the UK. But for me, as far as writing is concerned, it’s just one single territory – one territory with two precious, and merging, traditions.
CU: We very much want to establish relationships in the US so that the work that we do can move between the two countries. As an agent, the US market is, of course, a very important one, not just in New York but across the whole of the US. And as a producer, the same applies. There is a huge demand for new musical theatre work in the US and we want to do our best to plug into that and feed that desire.
Can you tell us very much about this second musical S&S Theatre Productions is presenting?
WB: We’re going to announce the second show just as soon as we have somewhere for it to go on and, hopefully, an audience who are prepared to come and see it. I’m not being deliberately mysterious, it’s just that you get one shot at announcing things and, for obvious reasons, this is not quite the time for that yet. I will say, though, that, following the precepts of the new company, the show has a very unusual subject matter. It could be said it asks the big questions. It also is a five-hander and has an electronica score.
Are there any other creatives involved with the launch that you can introduce us to?
WB: We have an incredible team on board – and I’m thrilled to say a large percentage of these are women. As well as Caroline and Jenny co-producing, Jenny is also directing. She has huge experience, both off-West End, in the West End itself, on Broadway and in Los Angeles, working with Michael Blakemore and actors such as Angela Lansbury, Kristen Scott Thomas and Jeremy Irons. She’s the kind of director writers are desperate to meet – passionate, detailed, original and fun.
And our orchestrator is the astonishing Jen Green, who is making the most intriguing electronic tapestry of Joshua Schmidt’s mindbending score. Josh is a standout in the American musical theatre scene. Beginning with his multi-award-winning Adding Machin3, he has ploughed his own unique post-post-Sondheim furrow with a series of musicals that expand the form. We have working sessions both here and in the States that leave me tingling with excitement. And frustration. And bewilderment. But mostly excitement.
The Drama Desk-nominated Benjamin Cox makes up the team so far as musical director. He scored a huge success with his work on the pie shop revival of Sweeney Todd, both in London and New York and on Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre. He’s a talent to watch out for for the future.
Both of you have had the experience of being part of a huge range of theatrical productions. You have probably been witness to disappointment and triumph. What elements of your experience will you bring to S&S Theatre Productions?
WB: Yes, it is a business of triumphs and disappointments but I don’t think either are really what being in the business is all about. If would-be actors or writers say to me “Do you think I should go into the theatre?”, my immediate answer is an unequivocal “No!” Not because there’s anything wrong with being in the theatre but, if you need to ask the question in the first place, then the theatre is not for you. To misquote Sondheim: “Acting/writing is not a choice, it’s who I am.” And, if that is who you are, you work at it from as early an age as you can remember. You work at your craft. You work at growing into this you.
So – what do I bring to this? Well, from the statements above, obviously a touch of cynicism. But I have to say – with me it’s about 5% cynicism and 95% enthusiasm…passion…call it what you will,
I’d like to give you two examples: one of triumph and one of disappointment. Each carries a good lesson with it in its own way. The triumph first, and it’s nothing to do with musical theatre writing, for which, I guess, I’m most known. A few years ago, I was approached by the BBC to write the script for what was going to be an animatronic arena show based on the TV documentary Walking With Dinosaurs. My immediate reaction was to turn it down. Why? Because I was being very grand. I was a Man of the Theatre. What did I want with a Barnum & Bailey-type glorified puppet show? But it seemed like a gig I ought to be doing so, cynical again, I did it. And boy am I glad I did!
“Telling a story, or creating a world, is no different in a musical from any other form of theatre writing – other than there are more tools at our disposal in the musical theatre form”
That “glorified puppet show” enabled me to become part of the creation of a whole new genre of theatrical presentation. It allowed me to be a member of a team that produced “the biggest family show of all time”. It has empowered me to entertain – and educate – over 9 million people worldwide in two companies of a $40,000,000 spectacle. And, incidentally, it has taken me around the globe. Yes, there’s a lesson here. Recognise your opportunities.
And the disappointment? I was involved in a show as recently as 18 months ago, the producers of which defaulted on their payments with no real penalty resulting. It was an outrage and the lesson here is that we need to stand up for what is right in our profession. So often we let things go. We mustn’t. Both for our sakes and for others.
CU: One thing you get used to with new musicals is that there are some great highs but also some real lows, The only thing you can do is to keep going and persevere. You have to believe in the show you are promoting, whether that’s as an agent or as a producer, and you just have to keep thinking of ways to get the show out there and just keep knocking on those doors. It’s either that or throw in the towel and that’s not something I like doing if I can help it!
Post a global pandemic could be regarded as an unusual time to launch a theatre production company. Why now?
WB: There are two answers to this question. The first – and hopefully more inspiring one – is to share the optimism we have for the future of theatre.
The second one is more anecdotal. My agent – who happens to be Caroline Underwood – was approached by a director who wanted to revive my first musical, The Biograph Girl. I thought a revival of this was a bad idea because I felt the show would come across as old fashioned and not the kind of thing I’m writing now or have been for some time. But I told Caroline I’d meet with the director to state these views in person. The director happened to be Jenny Eastop. We were supposed to meet for half an hour but I came out three hours later having given her full permission to do whatever she wanted to do with the show wherever she wanted to do it! Her vision was so inspiring and she went on to deliver a fantastic production which got great national reviews. I think we knew from the first moment that we wanted to work together again and this new venture seemed to be the best opportunity to do it.
CU: I think it’s good to show that new things are being planned and that we are looking to the future and being optimistic. It feels like people are very open to positive news at the moment and we hope that the launch of the company is a positive thing.
Several winners of the S&S Award have gone on to great things. Can you tell us a little bit about those writers? What do you think the legacy of The S&S Award will be?
WB: I hope S&S Theatre Productions will be one of the many legacies of the S&S Award. But, of course, our other predominant legacies are our writers. Caroline answers this question pretty fully below – and I don’t want to pick out any as “favourites” from our great S&S family – so I’ll just briefly mention the winner of the Award who has most recently had a new show announced, the talented Tim Gilvin. Tim is an astonishingly gifted writer, especially of lyrics. You know when you get that tingle when you hear something surprisingly good, surprisingly original? Well, I get that from Tim. I sometimes wish I’d written some of his lyrics myself. But don’t tell him.
CU: We’re really proud of what the S&S winners have done over the last few years. Chris Burgess was pretty well established when he and Denise Wright won the first year with Emerald (the award was actually called The Sidney Brown Memorial Award then) and Chris is regularly commissioned, particularly by the great Katy Lipson. Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour won with Forest Boy and have gone on to great things in the US, particularly at Goodspeed, as well as working regularly here. Tim Gilvin has got a number of exciting commissions underway at the moment – I know because I’ve represented him since he won with Stay Awake, Jake. These include Cable Street and Random Acts Of Kindness, both commissioned by 10 To 4 Productions. And an album of Stay Awake, Jake has just been recorded with release due in the next month or so and there are plans for live performances to follow.
Alex Young and Kate Marlais, who won with the musical Here, present their work regularly at Adam Lenson’s Signal and have a couple of new shows in development; and Kate was selected as the Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composer in 2018, being placed at the Lyric Hammersmith. I hope that the legacy of the Award will be the work these writers have created, are creating and will continue to create and that they will all have successful careers in this industry. We’re just so pleased that the Award might have helped them to promote their writing.What do you think makes you such a great team?
WB: For a start, Caroline thinks she’s cautious and I’m the reckless one. Reckless I may be, but cautious she isn’t. It’s just the picture she has of herself, but sometimes she’ll suggest things that I think are utterly out-of-left field but immediately desirable. And she has great ideas… solutions to problems in a script or the way I should approach something in a piece of writing. Caroline also has this huge knowledge of musical theatre of the past. She’s worked with all the great estates from Irving Berlin’s to Cole Porter’s, but an incredible thirst for musical theatre writing that is new and far-reaching. This second quality appeals to me greatly but, of course, you also need that background, that grounding, in the previous traditions before you set about amending or breaking them. And she’s also brilliant at negotiating contracts. In fact, I say the best in the business. Don’t dismiss this as a quality. In our profession, it’s vital.
CU: I think we complement each other really well. Warner is a glass half-full person and I’m more of a glass half-empty one, or actually, I describe myself as more of a realist! But it means he can pull me up if I’m being a bit pessimistic and I can calm him down if he’s being a bit over-enthusiastic. He’s also a great ideas person and likes thinking outside the box. He comes up with fantastic ideas and I look for ways to make them work. We also have similar tastes in musical theatre and have both always wanted to push the boundaries of what musical theatre can do.
What other projects do you have on the boil at the moment?
WB: I have a number of other projects on the boil. I’m working on new musicals with the American composer Jenny Giering and the British composer Michael Reed. I have a new play I’m just completing about the magician Chung Ling Soo called Triple Life and I’m outlining a proposal for a television drama series called The Disguiser.
CU: Well, I’m pleased to say that, even in lockdown, a number of my clients were developing commissioned projects for theatre and film or using the time to work on ideas and concepts. It’s been so hard for everyone but I think all you can do is plough on in the knowledge that theatre is opening up again and, when it does, you want to have projects which are ready to move forward.