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In an act of recession-defying philanthropy, the creator of the UK’s largest private collection of musical theatre-related memorabilia has announced his intention to leave the collection to the nation. In forming Overtures, the umbrella title for The Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust, lifelong musical theatre enthusiast Rexton S Bunnett is ensuring the future of the collection, which is destined for the Theatre & Performance Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.


The archive is a treasure-trove of recordings, posters, programmes, scripts, books, photographs, designs and other memorabilia documenting the evolution of the musical in the UK and on Broadway. The collection was started in the late nineteen-fifties by Bunnett and his late partner John Muir and developed into their own research library, which continues to grow.  


Rexton Bunnett said, “My partner John Muir and I spent decades putting this collection together to act as a comprehensive record of this crucial sector of the performing arts in Britain. I now want to ensure that the collection remains together and can be made available to the public and specialist researchers.  Musicals are not only hugely popular and great entertainment but are often an accurate reflection of broader changes within society which can be seen is shows such as Me and My Girl and Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be.”


Geoffrey Marsh, Director of the Department of Theatre and Performance said “This is an extraordinarily generous gift to the nation. The commercial success is key to a thriving arts economy in London’s Theatreland – which in turn is crucial to London’s tourism. This collection provides a fascinating insight in the evolution of musicals in London since the late nineteenth century and the close interplay with America’s Broadway”.


Asked why he has made his decision now, Rexton said, “Our National Museums are great institutions because generations of private collectors have enriched their collections in the past. It is particularly important at times when their funding is constrained that we ensure that the public will have access in the future to material which records the arts in our own times”.


From the very beginning it was what Rexton calls a ‘living archive’, a concept that underlines one of the key aims of Overtures: to recognise and follow new talent throughout their careers. The development of the collection has run alongside the careers of the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, with whom Rexton and John were partly instrumental in getting the show Side by Side by Sondheim onto the West End stage. The collection dates back to the nineteenth century with the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, and includes over 25,000 items.  These include original artwork from many turn-of-the-century shows and a copy of Noel Coward’s vocal score of his Bitter Sweet signed by him and the full cast.


The formation of Overtures coincides with the start of a project to make archival films of new musicals and productions, the first of which, Laurence Mark Wythe’s Tomorrow Morning, was filmed at London’s Landor Theatre in November 2010. The centre of activity for the trust is a dedicated website,, which functions as a meeting place for performers, scholars and theatre lovers from all over the world. It will be developed not only to include a complete online catalogue of the archive but also to serve as an educational resource containing interviews with leading names in musical theatre, high-quality scanned images of items from the collection and video footage.


The donation has already attracted support from the theatre community, including the important gift of the archive of the King’s Head, the pioneering fringe theatre in Islington, established in 1970 by the American Dan Crawford.  Stephanie Sinclaire, his widow, said, “I wanted to ensure that the innovative work of small performance venues is recorded alongside that of the West End’s major theatres. Dan dedicated his life to this and recognised Rexton and John as guardians of this.  I want to ensure that future generations will learn from the work of Dan and his colleagues that you can achieve anything in London if you put your mind to it.’

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