Michael Ball, Perfect Pitch & The Future of Musicals

Wendy & Andy Barnes with Michael Ball

Ring the buzzer of a little black door just off Leicester Square, climb a flight of stairs and you may just glimpse the future of Musical Theatre: Perfect Pitch, a UK Theatre Company dedicated to the creation and development of the New British Musical. The passionate and focused team behind Perfect Pitch is husband and wife Andy and Wendy Barnes – and if you’re serious about British Musicals you’d do well to remember their names.

Hi both. How did Perfect Pitch begin and how did you meet?

Andy was in the police force, but was signed off because of a broken wrist. At the time (1999/2000) a friend was directing The Wiz at Hackney Empire and asked Andy to produce – and it proved a lot more fun than being a copper! After that Andy went back to college. Wendy was studying Performing Arts, majoring in Music at Middlesex University (Trent Park) and we met when Andy was producing the showcase for Central School of Speech & Drama. Wendy came in as a Bass player. That was in about 2005 and then we started dating.

Andy started Perfect Pitch in 2006 with a season of new work Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Wendy continued acting and working on the music side of Perfect Pitch until in 2008, when she left her agent and the rest is history!

Who does what within the partnership?

Andy’s more about the long term strategy for shows, finances, the legal side, contracts etc. and the production…Wendy does the fun bits! The casting, creative, who’ll be directing, putting the artistic teams together. That said, Andy still has lots of creative input.

How long have you been based here in Leicester Square?

We first moved here in 2008/9 from a shared office at the Ambassadors Theatre. There wasn’t any subsidy – just a few Arts grants and some ad hoc help. Andy did quite a lot of general management and a couple of tours to subsidise our work. It’s only since we’ve had National Portfolio funding that we have had more stability.

What is National Portfolio Funding?

National Portfolio Funding means that we are one of 600 or so organisations that are regularly funded by the Arts Council on an ongoing basis. We have to reapply every three years.

Is it a complicated application process?

The criteria are detailed on the Arts Council website. We applied in 2010 and funding kicked in in 2012. In 2011, when we were waiting for funding, we did a fundraising concert which is how we met Stephen Fry, who became our Patron.

The Great British Musical [credit Roy Tan] hosted by Stephen Fry
The Great British Musical [credit Roy Tan] hosted by Patron Stephen Fry

How did Stephen Fry become involved?

Andy co-produced a fundraising concert at the Criterion Theatre, a venue which Joe Smith who at the time was Old Vic Productions, helped us secure. Stephen Fry has connections to the Criterion and was asked to host. Stephen was really excited because he loves that kind of variety show and has a wealth of knowledge about Musicals. He wrote the book for Me & My Girl, so there were lots of little anecdotes about that. He’s a brilliant figurehead and having him as a patron now is wonderful. Ears prick up when you mention his name.

And Michael Ball is also a patron?

Yes, Michael is very hands-on. Over the last two years he has filmed for us, done online promotions, given us quotes and judged the two Perfect Pitch awards; he’s been absolutely great and both he and Stephen have also supported our 250 club.

The 250 Club: Be a part of British Musical Theatre
The 250 Club: Invest in the future of British Musical Theatre

What is the 250 club?

The 250 club is a mix of philanthropic donation, crowd funding and membership. Anyone can donate £500 and become a member. We have a maximum of 250 members at any time and we offer perks to those members – last Christmas we offered one member an investor stake in one of our shows. The next one will probably be meeting one of our patrons. Members get to meet a lot of our writers personally, and in return, writers build a community of supporters.

What can Perfect Pitch offer a writer?

We’re like a Theatre Company: a team of people who work together to create musicals and make them happen. Writers are a big component, but so are directors, venues, investors…our job is to bring all those people together.

Is that how The Go-Between happened?

Yes. Part of our job is maintaining a dialogue with venues which might be able to produce a new musical, or might have a space where they can take more of a risk. That’s how The Go-Between happened.

We’re also enabling Drama Schools to take new musicals seriously as viable 3rd year production projects – we think over the next five years we’ll see a real revolution in that.

Is there a strong overseas market for new British Musical writing?

Producers and companies in countries like South Korea are always looking for new British product, and they’ve approached us interested in producing and developing new work. We can open that market to our writers and build a bigger system of support for them. Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Korea are growing markets for Musical Theatre.

How does the UK theatre scene differ from the US?

It was the NAMT Festival which first gave us the idea for Perfect Pitch. New York was ahead of us for a long time but I genuinely think we’ve caught up now in terms of the quality of writing. I believe British writers are getting better because they believe that there’s actually a chance their work might get seen.

Why don’t we see more original British musicals in the West End?

It’s often because commercial producers often can’t afford the risk. I think if you asked any producer, they would love to stage new, original shows.

Is budget the main barrier?

Yes, but I think we have also ushered our West End audiences into only seeing shows they know, hearing songs they know, or going to see a musical version of a film. We’ve got to break that cycle.

credit Darren Bell
Lift The Musical: Breaking the cycle [Photo c Darren Bell]

Why do you choose certain writers over others?

The reason we take on anyone is because we really believe they are talented. Our writers take a journey with us where they get better, not just because of what we do with them, but because by writing more they naturally grow and improve.

Do you find writers or do they find you?

Some send links to their project, and several times a week we’ll be invited to some kind of showcase. When we have spaces we do open pitching days. Some have come through the Perfect Pitch Award. That’s open to anyone, even if they haven’t written a musical before.

Do writing teams also come to you fully formed?

Sometimes, yes, which is partly why we set up the Perfect Pitch Award. We might find a stronger component in a team – a stronger lyricist than composer or vice versa. We also receive lots of emails from composers and lyricists who might say they had a great idea for a show but don’t have anyone to collaborate with. Book Music & Lyrics and Mercury Musicals are great at finding those teams but the Perfect Pitch Award is a great opportunity from them to apply without having that partner.

Where can we see Perfect Pitch shows?

The Go Between at the Apollo Theatre. People can also check out Digital Theatre – Perfect Pitch shows From Up Here and Lift are both available to watch in HD. We also have two family friendly shows in the pipeline, Barry the Penguin’s Black and White Christmas and Danny Hero.

Haydn Oakley and Gabriel Vick with Barry the Penguin. At The Theatre Cafe
Haydn Oakley and Gabriel Vick with Barry the Penguin. At The Theatre Café. Available on audio book.

Any tips for someone setting up a theatre or production company?

Yes – good support. It’s difficult to run a theatre company when you have two small children and you’re a husband and wife team. We try to be very hands on parents and sometimes that’s meant that we can’t be at every industry event or showcase or Press Night. You need good people around you. Good parents have helped! We also have great help from Josh Bird, who interned with us.

And when you have time for a night out? We use all our babysitting opportunities for our work. A night off for us is watching something on Netflix. Probably Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for Wendy. Andy’s vice is supporting Spurs – so he’s still officially in mourning.