National rocks the boat over plans to bar musicals from hall of fame

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MUSICALS HAVE been banned from a National Theatre project to find the 100 most important plays of the century.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber are among those whose shows will not figure in a National Theatre exercise to stage excerpts throughout next year from the century's most "significant" drama.

Last night Sir Cameron said: "I simply don't understand it. The big musicals have been seen by more people in the 20th century than most plays. So when they use the word significant, I would ask significant to whom? Don't the general public count? What are the criteria for these people?"

According to the National: "The aim of the project is to reflect and celebrate as diverse a range of 20th century drama as possible and to show the sweeping development of theatre during those 100 years." But musicals are not to be counted as part of that.

The National's stance is particularly ironic for three reasons: Sir Cameron has given it an undisclosed sum to help it stage musicals; three musicals - Guys And Dolls, Carousel and Oklahoma - have been among the biggest earners and most acclaimed productions the National has mounted; and the NT's current artistic director Trevor Nunn has told The Independent that he deplored distinctions between musicals and so-called legitimate theatre.

In an interview, he said: "You won't imagine I'm going to be a timid apologist about musicals. I detest the terminology in New York that talks about `musicals and legitimate theatre'."

In London, Cats and Phantom Of The Opera, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, are among the longest-running and highest grossing shows in the west end. Indeed, eight of the 10 longest- running shows in the west end are musicals.

Blood Brothers, written and composed by playwright Willy Russell, will also be excluded from the list as it falls into the musical genre. But a spokeswoman for Willy Russell said yesterday: "WIlly writes plays and Blood Brothers can certainly be regarded as a play with music as well as a musical."

Bill Kenwright, the producer of Blood Brothers and many other west end shows, including numerous straight plays directed by Sir Peter Hall, said last night of the decision to exclude musicals from the National list: "It's madness. Not only have musicals been significant in the history of the theatre, they have been significant in the history of the National.

"Certainly, you couldn't begin to think about the history of the last 100 years in theatre without West Side Story. For me and Cameron Mackintosh, it was musicals which made us interested in theatre."

The National's new project, entitled NT2000, will celebrate 100 years of theatre. Throughout 1999, the National's Platform Programme will stage presentations from 100 plays of this century. A number of theatre practitioners, writers, critics and politicians have been polled to help draw up the definitive list.

Angus MacKechnie, Platforms Manager at the National, said yesterday: "We do include plays with music, but not musicals. A musical is a musical, not a play.

"Certainly, in the history of the theatre, musicals have been significant, but the musical is a very different journey through the 20th century. It's governed by composers, not writers. This is a project about the written word.

"In addition, we are performing extracts from the shows, and that becomes difficult with musicals."

But he added that a show such as Oh What A Lovely War could be included. Even though that contained songs, it was a play with music rather than a musical.

The National's stance was backed by west end producer Andre Ptaszymski, producer of Chicago and of a forthcoming production of West Side Story. He said: "In this context musicals aren't plays. It's a celebration of the drama and you risk making it less distinct if you bring in lyricists and composers."

NT2000 will be one of the biggest celebrations of theatre the National has mounted. Running chronologically, the platform presentations will include a reading from the play, preceded by an introduction or interview that will place it in its historical and social context. Authors and original cast members will be invited, where possible. Two such events will be staged weekly, lasting 45 minutes.

The National is asking contributors to the survey to include plays "you consider great, influential or important; plays that are representative of a genre or plays that you have a particular personal affection for; plays that reflect popular choice; plays that represent a period of history - or simply plays that you have enjoyed."

The series of Platform performances of the selected 100 will also prove a shop window for the theatrical profession, with leading actors and directors taking part in the excerpts.

The longest running show in London is Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. But only one other straight play, The Woman In Black, appears in the top 10. All the rest are musicals, with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats in its 18th year and the same composer's Starlight Express in its 15th year.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh is known to dislike distinctions being made between musicals and other forms of theatre. The musicals impresario has set up a Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford. Visiting professors have included musicals composer Stephen Sondheim and the west end producer Thelma Holt.

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TREVOR NUNN (above), artistic director, National Theatre:

"You won't imagine I'm going to be a timid apologist about musicals. I detest the terminology in New York that talks about `musicals and legitimate theatre'."

SIR CAMERON MACKINTOSH, producer:

"The big musicals have been seen by more people in the 20th century than most plays."

RAYMOND GUBBAY (above), promoter:

"Shows like Oklahoma! had a huge impact on post-war Britain.

They took musicals out of the cosy schmaltzy world of Ruritania and put them into the real world.t"

ANDRE PTASZYMSKI, producer of Chicago:

"You risk making [the list] less distinct if you bring in lyricists and composers."

BILL KENWRIGHT, producer of Blood Brothers:

"It's madness. Musicals have not only been significant in the history of 20th century theatre, they have been significant in the history of the National."

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