London Fringe: Great Reckonings in Little Rooms
Each season, musical theatre revivals are mounted on both sides of the Atlantic, drawing from the vast canon of shows-gone-by to allow contemporary audiences to assess them in a fresh light. In some cases this works better than in others, but the best revivals find new resonance, thanks to political or social changes, while others allow favourite stars or celebrities to take on beloved roles in a relatively risk-free environment.
In London, however, the Fringe, arguably more than the West End, is now internationally regarded as a hub for both new work and revivals. True, plays continue to dominate pub theatres, black boxes and smaller spaces (mainly due to lower costs in the face of notoriously difficult profit margins), but for musical revivals and UK premieres, many Fringe venues are now a “go-to.” As the commercial West End continues to soul search for that most elusive theatrical beast, the original, financially successful British musical, Fringe has become a playground not only for emerging talent as always, but for some of the industry’s most prominent figures.
The word “Fringe” gets used so frequently in London that sometimes it can be hard to decipher the different levels of available theatrical spaces. Unlike New York, where Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway are official terms tied less to location and more to the number of seats in a venue and the contracts and codes sanctioned by Actors’ Equity Association, London tends to categorise all venues outside the traditional West End boundaries as “Fringe.” This means The Hampstead Theatre, The Almeida and the Menier Chocolate Factory — venues all now offering fast-tracks to the West End and Broadway for their productions — can be classified alongside more rustic venues, from rooms above pubs and bars to shared spaces in old warehouses, factories or just about any building deemed suitable.
Just as Fringe physical spaces vary, so too can the type, style and quality of Fringe performance. Each week, countless new production companies spring up, armed with mission statements or philosophies that aim to stick out above the noise: reinventing classic plays; providing roles for different genders, and so on. There is such saturation in the market for performers and creatives that more and more are creating their own work, thus enlarging the Fringe and leading to a wide mix of standards.
When it comes to reinventing musical theatre, The Southwark Playhouse has become the destination of choice for creative teams, cast members and audience members alike. Since opening in its former venue in 1993 with a mission to provide “high quality accessible theatre which would provide opportunities for the best emerging companies and practitioners,” the venue has gone from strength to strength; it won the Peter Brook Empty Space Award in 2011 for its work as a venue and for the productions it programs, just one of many points of industry recognition. As a receiving house and producing venue, it has welcomed a number of high-profile productions, including the UK premieres of musicals such as Xanadu, The Toxic Avenger, Dogfight and In The Heights. Seating around 250 people, the flexible venue allows producers and creative teams to test material on concentrated audiences rather than confront the wider pressures of the West End. Shows that enjoyed Broadway success have been reinvented in this unique and highly accessible space.
For producers, of course, the Fringe benefits are clear to see. Titles that have previously resistes a London transfer, for example, have been afforded opportunities to find audiences and, in a few cases, to springboard forward. Case in point: the London premiere of In the Heights, which was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning show (co-written with Quiara Alegría Hudes) before Hamilton incited a global mania. In the Heights won three Olivier Awards at the 2016 ceremony, but by arriving in London in a much-reduced form, it first built word of mouth and then grew a solid audience base.
Finances are helped by Fringe producing, but so is the art. By stripping material back to its most basic form and re-evaluating shows from the inside out, creatives are given not only a second look at their musical, but can rein in aspects which, under Broadway pressures, likely ran away with themselves in their original form. Speaking recently to composer Maury Yeston, whose 1997 Tony-winning Titanic was gloriously reinvented at the Southwark, he confirmed that the intimacy of the surroundings allowed for a creative ingenuity and control that tends to be lost when creating a show for Broadway. Stripping the orchestra down to a band of six, reevaluating the dramaturgical needs of each character, relying more on audience imagination to draw out new aspects — these changes helped to transform Titanic yet keep it feeling as powerful as the original production, if not more so.
Producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland were responsible for this new, seemingly unsinkable Titanic, which later transferred to Toronto and Asia. And now, ironically, there is talk of a Broadway transfer, which is why the pair have become synonymous with the phrase “great reckonings in little rooms.” Together they have created some of the most incredible rediscoveries of musical theatre seen in London, from “flops” such as Parade and Mack and Mabel to the UK premiere of Grey Gardens and, currently, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. Truly masters of their craft, the pair embrace the challenges, constraints and complexities of Fringe, and in doing so have raised the game and audience expectations away from the commercial West End.
Allegro has received solid critical praise. Whilst some critics (as consistent throughout history) have poked holes in one of Hammerstein’s weaker books and Rodgers’ less celebrated scores, all have lauded how this revival gives the material the best possible chance to succeed. I spoke to Southerland during his rehearsal period, and he commented that the 1947 musical was ahead of its time then and probably is still ahead of its time in 2016. Seven decades on, he hopes his production highlights Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ability to challenge audiences expectations of what a musical is, and what it can still be.
The original Allegro was the Hamilton of its day — before the curtain opened. After the success of Oklahoma! and Carousel, the musical boasted the largest box-office advance of its day, with audiences and critics desperate to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first-ever take on a truly original story. The piece, however, famously divided critics down the middle, Some found fault in the fundamentals of the score and production, whilst others recognized how groundbreaking the team aimed to be.
Knowing this, Tarento and Southerland could fear the odds stacked against them. They know they do not have a bankable title. The cast is exceptional in its delivery but the marquee lacks a headlining star. But in reinventing the show for the Southwark Playhouse, they know that the intimacy of Fringe helps to enhance the execution of the score, book and performances. Indeed, unlike the original production, Allegro has been liberated from audience expectations. True, expectations of any Tarento-Southerland effort are high, but Fringe audiences are a world away from those waiting outside the Majestic Theatre on Broadway back in 1947.
This is not to say that audiences entering intimate Fringe spaces instantly reduce their expectations — quite the opposite. The creative team, freed from the scale of a Broadway-level production, have to work harder. The simple lack of budget breeds original thinking, and problem-solving becomes more creative than practical, which can only help elevate the material. Audiences expect reinvention, and by challenging the traditional theatre model with, for example, eschewing a traditional proscenium arch, the mind can grow broader and the imagination can be unleashed.
Scaling down in musical theatre terms has a proven track record of success on the London Fringe, and it’s success will only continue. The courage, determination and risks taken by producers is paying off creatively, even if the financial numbers don’t always add up, and so the West End needs to sit up and take note. I think it already is.