Life & Culture

‘Musical theatre is the highest form of art. It’s dazzling...’

Adam Lenson is banging the drum for musical theatre - and he has strong feelings about the way Jews are represented on stage. John Nathan met a man with a mission.


Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, UK. 16.04.2021. Director, Adam Lenson, on the set of THE SORROWS OF SATAN, which is being filmed for streaming at Brockett Hall, Hertfordshire. THE SORROWS OF SATAN, is a musical play by Luke Bateman and Michael Conley, which is streaming from Wednesday 5 - Saturday 8 May, 2021, then on-demand Sunday 9 - Monday 31 May, 2021 Photograph © Jane Hobson.

In advance of meeting Adam Lenson I am told — perhaps warned — that this rising theatre producer and director has a lot to promote. He is about to make his West End debut with Public Domain, a clever and cutting new musical about the dark side of living one’s life online created by and starring Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke.

Lenson, 35, is one of 23 young producers (among them fellow Jewish producer Katy Lipson) whose shows are being given a West End stage by impresario and theatre owner Nica Burns as theatres open their doors again. His directing slate also includes a revival of The Sorrows of Satan which, like a lot of theatre in the pandemic era, will be streamed rather than staged, and Lenson also has a new book about to be published, Breaking Into Song, an almost evangelical affirmation of musical theatre as an art form.

All this is against the background of concerts showcasing musical theatre writers, and the “Falsettos-gate” controversy of 2019 in which he berated a London revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s very Jewish musical Falsettos for lacking Jewish representation in its creative team and cast.

Yet when we meet on a spring morning of mythical beauty and sit socially distanced on opposite ends of a London park bench, it is almost an hour before the main reason for this daunting work rate emerges.

Two years ago he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. The skin cancer had gone to his lymph nodes. Thankfully he is free of cancer now, but it changed him. The illness compelled him to set up his production company just before his surgery.

“I didn’t want to wait,” he says. “I didn’t want to wait around for someone to acknowledge the things I believed worthy of acknowledgment; to wait outside the door for an appointment, to be let into whatever the establishment of musical theatre in this country is. I felt scared. There was a point I knew that if it spread I might only have five or ten years.”

The effect of the disease — or surviving it — not only supercharged his love of musical theatre, it reactivated his Jewishness. And although he doesn’t know if he believes in God, among the places he looks for answers to the question “what is life?” is the Talmud, which he reads every day.

“It’s sort of nice to have half an hour of daily mindfulness thing,” he says. His illness was also why he went so hard at that Falsettos production. His point was not that you have to be Jewish to play Jewish, rather that shows that are intrinsically Jewish should have meaningful inclusion of Jewish perspectives.

“We’ve all seen enough performances that feel inaccurate and inauthentic. And that tends to happen when there is no representation.”

But what about the productions of Fiddler on the Roof that have been staged in Japan and all over the world? They would surely never have existed if Lenson’s rule of representation was enforceable.

“I hear that,” he says after a pause. “But within UK theatre I’m talking about my desire for Judaism to be accurately represented.”

While for most the pandemic was a time when many people withdrew from the world in fear, for Lenson it was a time to strike out. “I was able to pivot very quickly towards digital work online,’ he says. “In 2020 I did productions of five new musicals that were filmed or streamed world premières.” Meanwhile the pandemic has hugely affected what’s possible, but in a good way.

“Normally if you don’t know in January that you are doing a show in September, it’s not happening,” he says. “Now the lead-in time for everything has suddenly become four to six weeks. Sometimes less. The thing we realised was that there were other ways of sharing work which led to much more accessibility and more global audience. There was a sense of ‘give it a go!’”

The conventional methods of making musical theatre have for too long been set by guardians of the establishment who suppressed talent while seemingly looking for it, he says.

“There is this thought I’ve heard expressed by industry elders, that if someone were truly talented they would emerge. If they haven’t heard of a young musical theatre writer it’s because they aren’t good enough. Development shouldn’t work like that. We shouldn’t be looking for what emerges. We should be in the ground pushing things out.”

Is this not what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace is supposed to be doing? Lenson’s answer is damningly non-committal. “No comment,” he says. What has to change is the model on which musical theatre makes it to a stage.

“It has begun to feel like there is one type of musical; that it’s very costly, takes a long time to put on and thus has to have an established audience to mitigate as much risk as possible. But mitigating risk is not a great way of fostering creativity. If all you have is very big or nothing, where’s the pipeline?”

Many of the big hitters in the industry don’t want to give young artists their space, says Lenson, because they are afraid. “It is scary to give time to the thing that might replace you,” he says. “I think we are watching so many people who will die in their empires without giving space.”

Meanwhile a different kind of emperor is targeted by Lenson’s latest show. The words in Public Domain are taken entirely from the internet in way similar to the verbatim techniques of the groundbreaking show London Road. Only this show feels much more contemporary and political. It shows the dark side of internet culture and being an influencer, and also highlights the gap between those at the top of Facebook and the low paid moderators whose job it is to sieve through material posted by users and eject anything that falls foul of the company’s rules.

Much of the material is so depraved, workers have reportedly been traumatised. But whatever Lenson’s opinion of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the show would not exist without the producer’s determination to put writers first, “giving them the opportunity to do whatever they want” as he puts it.

“If everyone who had made millions and billions in this art form [asked] how to renew this industry — ‘how do I reach down and help?’” Instead many are more interested in their own “origin story” and “this was how I did it”, says Lenson and they don’t “put the ladder down to help.”

New York is different. He adds that there “you always hear stories like [Hamilton’s] Lin Manuel Miranda running in with a song from In The Heights written on the back of a menu and playing at an open mic. We don’t have that infrastructure,” he says. His concerts exist to plug that gap, but also to cast his talent net as wide as possible. He doesn’t have artists on his books, as would an old-school producer, but there are as many as 200 musical theatre artists on his spreadsheet.

“They’re young, and I’m young-ish. And I think I have found myself attracted to disruption,” he admits. “I’m interested in making a mess.”

This mission statement is certainly in the spirit of the latest show, which whether Lenson and his creators intended or not, makes viewers think hard about whether having a Facebook account is good thing. It also feels creatively fresh and knowing about the pros and cons of the digital world in which all of us now live to some extent. Lenson does to a large extent. He describes himself as a nerd, partly because he understand the potential of being digital when it comes to disseminating work and showcasing talent, but also because of his utter obsession with musical theatre.

“It’s the highest form of art,” he declares without reservation. “It’s the most layered, complex, beautiful, interwoven, dazzling art form that lights up more parts of the brain than anything else. I have total devotion and belief in musical theatre, that’s why I get so sad when it’s so often undermined and undervalued and thought of as being just one thing.”

As evidence of this he pulls out a book from his rucksack. It is his book and underneath the title it sports the strap-line “why you shouldn’t hate musicals.’ And although he would never compare its contents to his beloved Talmud, there is a sense that it contains truths that for Lenson are no less fundamental.

“I spend all my time doing nothing but knowing artists and having calls with them, and spending time with them,” he says.

“If someone in England is writing the next Hamilton, I already know them.There is no doubt about that.”


Public Domain is at The Vaudeville Theatre from May 27 to May 30

Breaking Into Song will be published in September by Salamander Street

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