Serious fun

Want to destroy the musical? Or reinvent it? Clare Bayley previews the 6th Birmingham Theatre Conference
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The Independent Culture
If you wanted to eradicate the British musical from the face of the earth, David Edgar's Sixth Birmingham Theatre Conference on 7-9 April could present the opportunity. All the musical-makers will be there: Alain Boublil (Les Misrables) and John Caird, Charles Hart (Phantom of the Opera), Gwenda Hughes (Once on this Island), Richard Stillgoe. Let's hope security is tight.

Edgar, doyen of the political play, is an unlikely convener for a conference about musicals, but "Facing the Music" will explore the possibilities of the genre. Can musicals tackle serious subjects effectively, while still attracting the mass audiences so envied by "serious" theatre? Or are any but the most light-hearted subjects trivialised by the need for a show-stopping number every eight to 10 minutes - witness Out of the Blue, the musical about Nagasaki, Evita, even Miss Saigon, the Vietnam musical.

The conference was inspired by contributions at last year's conference made by Neil Bartlett, the artistic director who is aggressively mixing high art with musical populism at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Last week's sell-out production of A Chorus Line by the amateur group LT Players is followed this week by the re-opening of Cheryomushki, one of Shostakovich's lesser-known offerings which Bartlett is marketing as a musical comedy. "I hate the idea that there are certain kinds of art for certain kinds of people," Bartlett says. "I'm pursuing a radical commitment to reinventing audiences for contemporary theatre."

At the Birmingham conference, the commercial hotshots will be joined by poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell, playwright and librettist Michelene Wandor, composer Judith Weir and Graham Vick, director of productions at Glyndebourne.

n Facing the Music: at Birmingham University, Department of Drama, 7- 9 April; some places available (details: 0121-414 5998)