Panto season is upon us once again. For the jobbing muso it’s a sign of another year passing$$s$$ for many performers it’s a time for guaranteed work. Nearly every theatre in the country will have the seasonal dose of dames, ghost gags and, if you’re lucky, a locally made celebrity courtesy of some reality TV programme. For soap stars and pseudo-celebrities, a good panto produced by one of the mega-companies like QDOS or First Family Entertainment can effectively pay you enough to live on for the rest of the year, with salaries in excess of £5000 a week being de rigueur. With theatres also relying on this uniquely British institution for their piggybanks to buoy up the more ‘worthy’ productions that don’t guarantee bums on seats, the panto season is an essential investment for producing and receiving houses throughout the UK.
A good pantomime is written like a well-structured musical, incorporating the almighty 11 o’clock number, plenty of toe-tapping, feel-good songs, and the customary love duet and soulful ballad sung by the leading lady (or, depending on celebrity, mimed to a much-improved click track). There is a formula and you stray from the path at your own peril.
Where the British panto is sadly lacking at the moment, however, is in its use of original songs for this institution. Of all the hundreds of pantomimes about to open, only a handful will contain original music$$s$$ most will use a collection of hit songs shoe horned into the story. With every venue holding a PRS license, enabling producers to add in a selection of songs for no extra cost, this becomes the cheapest way of producing a musical pantomime. Whilst Musical Theatre aficionados are angered by the latest craze for jukebox musicals, the jukebox pantomime is the norm.
Probably the biggest venue to buck the trend this year has to be the opening of the new Curve up in Leicester, where they’ve commissioned Grant Olding and Toby Davies to write a ‘musical’ pantomime: Simply Cinderella. Last year I did an interview for MusicalTalk (a podcast site) where I publicly asked why the larger production companies were not taking this unique opportunity to facilitate new writing in the UK. Imagine if QDOS or FFE commissioned book writers, lyricists and composers to write just half of their productions? Looking through the usefully named itsbehindyou.com site I spotted only 4 productions using original music in their pantos. Obviously this is not a comprehensive list as many theatres haven’t submitted, however it’s fair to say that we’re not exploiting the opportunity to give new musical writers a fair chance at the Christmas pot.
Personally I’m up in the beautifully refurbished Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds, where in keeping with their Regency heritage, pantomime Bury-style is a traditional affair. Last year they took the brave decision to break with their own tradition by commissioning original songs for the show. Imagine my surprise when it was pointed out to me that there was a section of the theatre-going public that were really against the decision$$s$$ some were actually mourning the lack of pop songs! To be honest, up until that point I didn’t think people actually cared about what was contained in this traditional fayre – how wrong I was. Fortunately the ‘Bury’ experiment turned out well, with the same sceptics being quick to come up after seeing the show to say that they were wrong, and in fact the songs actually written for the show worked really well (there was even a call for a cast album).
So my point is this: why don’t the production companies and producers take a risk to educate their audience during panto season? Surely a good song is a good song whether it’s an original for the panto or a chart-topping meg-hit? Wouldn’t the traditional pantomime benefit from songs that actually move the story on as opposed to any old song that vaguely fits the bill? Why not make the artistic balance sheet add up as favourably as the regular cashflow?
We have once again wasted the opportunity to establish new Musical Theatre writing in the UK. It will be interesting to read the reviews of Simply Cinderella – or maybe the Leicester audiences are already geared for the shift. After all, they have just accepted with open arms one of the most innovative theatre spaces the UK has seen for quite some time. What a lovely circularity that the newest and one of the oldest UK theatres are both actively supporting the future blood of the industry.