Since we launched the Musical Theatre and All That Jazz research network last month, I’ve been thinking about where and how the two fields crossover. A key feature of jazz, of course, is improvisation. In a form like musical theatre, which is usually so reliant on script material, it's fair to say that improvisation is not at the heart of practice, but it’s not entirely absent.

Since its inception in London in 2008 and following a highly successful run at the Edinburgh Festival, Showstopper! has been entertaining audiences all around the UK with a form of musical theatre that puts improvisation at its heart. The benefits of this approach are immediately apparent when one attends a performance of this improvised musical, as I did at Portsmouth’s Kings Theatre a couple of years ago: the company engages the audience straight away in conceiving of a setting and scenario for the comedic show that will unfold before them. After an opening number (in a style suggested by the audience), the show stops periodically (hence its title) to take suggestions from the audience to develop its narrative and stylistic content to its conclusion.

Right now, in the middle of a second nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, theatres are closed and the run of Showstopper! at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End has been interrupted and postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The company is, however, offering live-streamed performances over YouTube, and I attended one of those last night. I was interested to see how the improvised medium, which I know from their visits to Portsmouth, translates into an online format as much as how it relates to jazz culture. I wondered how the show would work, whether the company would engage the audience so immediately and fully, how they would deal with social-distancing measures in their performance and what part the pandemic would play in their performance?

The first thing I noticed, after following the link from my emailed ticket to the YouTube page a few minutes before the performance, was that the chat was already alive with suggestions from audience members. I mean “alive” somewhat literally as the stream of comments surged up the page like an army of marching ants as more and more audience members posted their ideas for the show or else commented on those of others that had come before (“+10000 for chicken attack song”). As the performance had not yet started, it became apparent that a good number of the audience (nearly 990 viewers) had seen the show before and already knew the format. Furthermore, a good number were clearly musical theatre fans because many comments referenced recent shows like Hamilton and Six. As the show started and we were asked to suggest a scenario for the evening’s performance, the comments feed went positively wild. It proved hard to keep up as the performance progressed and I was often unsure whether I was more interested in the performance or the comments feed, but one thing was clear: audience engagement was NOT an issue for the online format. In fact, filtering comments was obviously much more necessary as one member of the company (Pippa Evans) was entirely engaged with that and did not perform at all.

Near the start of the show, we were shown the set up used by the performers for this socially distanced performance. Spaced around a circle were six performers: a band of two (piano and drums) and four actor-improvisors (Ali James, Ruth Bratt, Josh C. Jackson, Adam Maggido). They were lit as in a television studio and each sat before a camera and bright light. What there was in terms of movement in the performance was achieved by live mixing of the separate camera feeds. The performers tried hard to overcome the obvious physical barrier presented by the distanced and seated staging, and I was not so troubled by that as I was by the lack of audience audio. In the theatre, much of what carried the comedy through the show was the reaction and laughter of the audience, which was entirely absent in this format. I remember laughing more and more heartily as the comedy developed in the theatre but in my own home, without the audience atmosphere, I was more inclined to just grin or, at a push, chuckle quietly to myself.

Once the preliminaries were over, the pandemic was not featured at all in the performance or in audience comments. Instead, the focus was entirely on the company developing a narrative around “a once popular band reuniting” with stylistic references to Jersey Boys, Les Misérables and, of course, Hamilton. More leftfield ideas were incorporated as well: a sea shanty and a “chicken attack” song. The efforts of the company’s improvisations were obviously appreciated because the comments went mad after each song with emojis of applauding hands and comments like, “even better than in the original”. Individual performers were singled out for praise both during and after their efforts. In that respect, the online audience behaved much like jazz aficionados in a club; encouraging and appreciating the improvisation effort as much as the different vocal qualities that were brought to pastiche the songs they love. “Thunderhorse, the musical” may not have been a masterpiece but it was a fascinating study of online performance-audience interactions around improvisation that would be well worth exploring relative to jazz contexts.

This article was written by Dr George Burrows.