In a church hall somewhere in Dalston an astonishing sound is being created. Eight unaccompanied voices are uniting in a series of intricate harmonies - maybe not unusual on a Sunday in some of the more ambitious churches around the capital, but this is a Monday morning, and the story being told through these delicate, sophisticated a cappella songs is not a religious tale.
Listen closely and you will hear a fairy tale unfolding about a young orphan girl who finds herself defending her town against a deadly foe, a sinister group of shadowy figures whose mission is to steal the time of all who live there. This is the story of Momo, by author of The Neverending Story Michael Ende, and the company using the Dalston church to rehearse its UK premiere stage adaptation is Filament Theatre.
Now I have to declare an interest in writing this, as Greenwich Theatre is Filament's producer in bringing Momo to the stage, but what is exciting is the journey that this unusual piece of a cappella music theatre has taken to reach this point - and more importantly, the fact that it is far from alone.
For years the UK theatre industry has abounded with playwriting initiatives, but opportunities to develop and showcase a new musical have been few and far between. Over the last decade the Musical Futures festival at Greenwich Theatre, the Perfect Pitch festival, or initiatives led by Mercury Musical Developments or Musical Theatre Matters have all worked to create those opportunities, but rarely at the same time - exceptions to prove the rule of absence, rather than an indicator of a meaningful presence in the industry.
However, in the past fortnight I have seen a musical in a pub that started life at the Fauconberg Arms in North Yorkshire, a trio of new musicals in abridged form showcased as part of the From Page To Stage festival at the Landor Theatre, a full length musical reading at the Leicester Square Theatre as part of their six week New Musical Project, and now I am half way through rehearsals for Momo, having hosted a showcase of the piece in Greenwich two years ago.
I get the impression that something is shifting in the industry.
In part that has to be credited with a shift in focus from Arts Council England. The pub tour, the a cappella family musical and From Page To Stage are all the beneficiaries of ACE funding, as is the ongoing work of Musical Theatre Network and Mercury Musical Developments. A commitment to new music theatre is emerging as an ACE priority, something I have championed for years, but initiatives like LST's New Musical Project are as yet unfunded and are running in parallel, making the scene even richer, so it can't be all about the Arts Council.
Another major shift is surely the recognition that the face of music theatre is likely to change over the next generation in ways that we can't possibly anticipate. We can only guess at how, where (and through which media) musicals are going to be produced, financed, located, consumed or interacted with. The answer to the perennial question about where the next wave of British musicals is going to come from, where tomorrow's The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables are going to emerge from, can't be answered by a search for another Phantom or another Les Mis. The future could lie in folk bands in pubs turning their gigs into theatre like The Flanagan Collective's Babylon, into an explosion of cult genre musicals like the electro-rock Beowulf in Soho showcased by From Page To Stage, into a rise of intimate chamber musicals in smaller venues like the New Musical Project's Reception, or into wholly or partially participatory experiences like Momo which has a different children's choir singing as part of every performance of its London tour. Each show would require a different economic structure to enable its production, a different method of engaging with audiences and venues, and any of all these could yield a model for future music theatre success.This kind of broad approach to development is essential if we are to aspire to a continued international status as a producer of new musicals. In October of this year a new piece of cabaret music theatre, One Georgie Orwell, which was developed here at Greenwich Theatre by a musician and a journalist, transfers to New York. The piece falls somewhere between a play, a cabaret evening and a song cycle, and uses original music and lyrics alongside text by Orwell himself. Clearly the exploration of new forms is not unique to this country, and may yet lead to work which is every bit as valuable as a cultural export as the musicals of the past decades currently playing around the world.
We may not know where the future of British music theatre lies or what it looks like, but in order for there to be a meaningful future this kind of broad exploration is essential. The rising commitment to it from funders, producers and supporters is long overdue, but with that commitment now becoming more evident across the industry, I feel more optimistic about the future of British music theatre than I have done for a long time.