Showstopper! The Improvised Musical
Created by Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery
James Seabright, Julie Clare & Julius Gree, Keith Strachan & Ray Cooney and Showstopper Productions
It began with a workshop at the Actors’ Centre back in 2007 with Dylan Emery, Adam Meggido and Ken Campbell involved that peaked in a presentation of improvised The Birds and the Bees and then in January 2008 the first Showstopper! show was staged above the Hen and Chickens pub in Islington.
Now, eight years on, after huge success at Edinburgh Festivals and touring and some single night West End appearances and the creation of 611 brand new musicals, their improvisation show has moved into the Apollo. It kicked off its first full West End run with a Las Vegas set show called I Lost All My Money.
Showstopper! creates a new show every matinée and evening. It asks the audience to suggest settings, plot points, musical styles and titles then taking a public vote, based on volume of audience response, on which show they have to work, the premise being that there’s a management with a theatre to fill and it needs a new show now. On stage is a director pitching to a producer and promising delivery, first act within the hour and the rest an hour later, because there’s Cameron on the other end of the line and he’s impatient.
People have come up with all sorts of theories as to how the Showstoppers do it. For instance, it has been suggested that they simply have prepared material within which they can just change a phrase or two. To prove the contrary, they launched this West End season with not one but several press shows so that critics could see the truth of it.
I’d seen their work when they did some shows at this same theatre a couple of years ago so perhaps I didn’t need such reassurance but nevertheless did take in two.
So, are they different? Certainly! At one show the audience voted for a topical setting in the Volkswagen factory. The title was That’s All Volks! and the plot evolved to include mistakes on the production line, new technology and a visit from Chancellor Merkel. Numbers came thick and fast in styles ranging from Joseph to Guys and Dolls.
The other show, called Come Back!, was set in a brothel and involved a ghost—with what looked like a murder story emerging that suddenly got turned upside-down, with one performer making a startling revelation (startling the rest of the cast as well as the audience!).
Styles included Carousel, Wicked (a sisters number) and even the African beat of Lion King. One thing did recur: Dylan Emery, on the telephone to Cameron and occasionally putting his oar in as writer/director to make suggestions or redirect something that’s going wrong or not following audience instructions, has a guitar and a fondness for Once. On both shows, he discovered a Once moment, though the songs were very different.
Of course, some things stay the same: the audience-driven format for a start, costumes that come from a stock of clothes in black and red combined to match the occasion and the same set of scenic pieces (though a new one for this season): steps and screens that can be moved around to give a varied framing.
More importantly there is the same fast-thinking, quick-moving, strong-voiced, multi-talented team of performers: each show has seven from a company of a dozen (I saw the same seven twice). Just as important are the brilliant musicians. They are all able to improvise a tune whoever starts the first note, make up a lyric on the moment, pick up on an idea and carry it forward.
Their knowledge of other musicals is broad and deep. They don’t just quote a number but create one. Their instant rapport must come from rigorous rehearsal, not of pre-planned numbers but of real improvisation. Dance routines are perhaps a little more formulaic but that is probably due to individual abilities and favourite moves—these are all-round entertainers, not dancing divas.
They will have passed show 621 by the time their press embargo lets this online: each one a new musical, for one night only, never to be seen again. But their prime aim is to entertain you, not innovation and originality; they don’t set out to break new musical ground. Integral to the format is asking the audience what style they want the show in and they don’t then create an entire show within the same genre but draw on a range of styles. Part of the pleasure is in the range that they can cover.
Dylan Emery dealt deftly with audience interaction and show control, Adam Meggido was a bundle of compacted energy, Pippa Evans (a formidable Merkel) and Ruth Bratt continuously inventive, Lucy Trodd a story changer, Justin Brett and Andrew Pugsley were as on the ball as all the others.
The Showstoppers may not produce the greatest musical you ever saw (though they might!) but they do make sure that you have fun.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton