New Young Vic chief Kwame Kwei-Armah sings praises of British musicals

David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent

April 18 2018

British musicals need to step out of the shadow of their American counterparts, the new artistic director of the Young Vic said yesterday.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, who revealed that his first production would be a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, said Britain had a “magnificently musical culture”.

He added, however, that there was an assumption that America imported British plays while Britain imported American musicals. He said that he wanted to “play with that, mess with that”.

US musicals do dominate the British scene while a much smaller number of British productions have been successful on both sides of the Atlantic.

The National Theatre has attempted through working groups to instigate a pipeline of musicals, which are invariably more expensive and complex to produce than plays. Kwei-Armah, 51, who was previously the artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, said he wanted to challenge the assumption that Britain would always import American musicals.

He credited his mother, Theresa, who held three jobs to help put him through stage school and who died in 2005, with instilling in him his love for the genre.

“I love musical theatre, it is the thing that makes my mother most happy and the thing that makes my mother most happy is of course the thing that drives me.

“I think we are a magnificently musical culture that can create dynamic and brilliant work in a form that is primarily for us and then for everyone,” he said.

He said he had chosen Twelfth Night as the opening production of his tenure at the south London theatre to “start off by sending love and joy into the ether”.

“Everybody knows what kind of playwright I am, state of the nation, political, ‘let’s dive in deep’ kind of guy,” he said.

“But I really love joy, I love energy. The music in this adaptation is funky and fun and modern and I felt that would be the right way to go out, to adapt Shakespeare in our image and to inflate the community . . . then I can get low down dirty and deep with some other stuff.”

Kwei-Armah also said that British theatre had failed to engage with European artists.

“I think British theatre has practised Brexit for the last 20 years,” he said. “We have privileged the English artist, we have not really danced with international and in particular European artists.”

His second production will be The Convert, written by the actress Danai Gurira, which “explores the impact of colonialism and Catholicism on black identity”. The third will be Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which is set in Rikers Island prison, New York, and was originally directed in 2000 by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Here and there

American musicals in London

The Lion King
42nd Street
Kinky Boots

British musicals in New York

Billy Elliot
School of Rock
The Phantom of the Opera

Kwame Kwei-Armah says he wants to create joy