Thursday, 30 April 2020

REVIEW: A Million Miles from Broadway: Revised and Expanded Edition, by Mel Atkey

Composer, writer and lecturer Mel Atkey’s tome is a look at musical theatre around the world, from birth to the present day. Not for the faint-hearted, this book introduces the reader to new practitioners left, right and centre, from all around the globe. From (operetta’s) The Magic Flute to Come From Away and Hamilton, no stone is left unturned.

Whilst exploring where musical theatre originated (writer Peter Stone believed that musicals did not exist outside of New York City) during the prologue, Atkey mentions that one rarely leaves a show “humming the tunes” unless it were a jukebox musical. This is a bold statement, especially when you consider the global success of Dear Evan Hansen and Six, both original scores with phenomenal album sales. Atkey moves on to acknowledge that musicals have evolved through various forms, and that writers are constantly re-examining what audiences want to see and hear; “perhaps in the future, there will be another element that musicals will require that we are not now fulfilling”.

The New Musicals chapter is especially brilliant, providing endless food for thought as Atkey shines a light on the lack of a “major hit”. Of course, it is difficult to know how long Six will be around, but it has definitely taken the world by storm. What is missing, is the nurturing of new composers, to the point that they are able to become the next Lloyd Webber. True, there are producers like Paul Taylor-Mills and Katy Lipson who give airtime to new work, but not much happens beyond that. Aktey also notes that unless composers come from a very fortunate financial background, the chances of getting a show off the ground are very slim. It’s interesting to read a quote from Cameron Mackintosh that says of the many musicals he receives from unknown writers, “ninety percent are terrible. They’re untalented and shouldn’t write musicals… There’s also a group of people out there who are talented… but only rarely do you find people who can write a good musical”. What, I wonder, is Mackintosh doing to nurture and encourage the next generation of writers? Even Sondheim acknowledges the difficulty new writers have nowadays; “the terrible thing is that young people don’t get a chance to be heard, and therefore they get discouraged and they try and start a rock group. A terrible shame.” Atkey is consistent in supplying both positive and negative examples throughout his work, whilst also providing his own views.

The take-home lesson here is that we often think of the West End or Broadway as the epitome of musical theatre, but in fact there is so much more to be experienced. Some of the best work in the UK comes from regional theatres (Leeds Playhouse, Sheffield Crucible, for example) and do not transfer for a number of reasons. Some shows even lose their magic when they do. As Atkey says, “sometimes, we have to dim those bright lights of Broadway so that we can see (hear) ourselves think.”

I would not be surprised to see this book appearing on drama school reading lists, for students and artists with a pre-existing base knowledge. This book is too advanced, and spreads too far and wide for those who are complete beginners. Overall, it is a welcome addition to the musical theatre library.

Review by Ian Marshall 

Rating: ★★★★
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