The Spice Girls musical Viva Forever! closes this week, playing its last performance at the Piccadilly Theatre on Saturday 29th June 2013. Hoping to achieve a similar success to other West End jukebox musicals such as We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia, the show’s cast and creative team were left disappointed after scathing reviews and poor ticket sales led to an early closure after a mere six month run. Opinions varied as to what the main problem with Viva Forever! was, with most citing Jennifer Saunders’ book or the songs that it was built around, but there are usually always several issues at blame. To be honest, I was never that excited about a Spice Girls musical in the first place. It was certain to have a built-in fan base, but although I loved the Spice Girls in my teenage years, their contribution to music isn’t remembered in the same way as that of Queen or ABBA. In my opinion, Viva Forever! was always going to be a novelty musical whose appeal quickly wore off. The addition of another jukebox musical also contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the show. I’ve made no secret of my dislike for the growing number of jukebox musicals appearing in the West End; generally speaking, they tend to comprise of a weak story tenuously held together by whatever back catalogue of songs are being used in that particular show. Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not, and there is a place for them in the West End, but personally I think it’s a somewhat lazy way of creating a musical.
There has been a distinct lack of imagination in the West End in recent years, with most theatres housing revivals, jukebox musicals, or shows lifted from popular films. I’m a proud advocate of new British writing and really believe that the future health of the West End rests on the shoulders of new writers and original concepts, not this constant stream of rehashed material and cash-ins. You only have to look at some of the recent West End additions to see how these shows can’t offer a long-term contribution to the industry. Viva Forever! is one example I’ve already used, and its successor at the Piccadilly Theatre provides little more excitement. Dirty Dancing has already had a five-year West End run, closing in 2011 to embark on its current tour, and now its coming back to the West End for a second go round. It’s only scheduled for a limited run and then goes back on tour, acting as a gap-filler for the theatre. It’s a good show, but again, created to ride on the popularity of the original film and while there will of course be plenty of theatre fans happy to see it back here, I can’t help thinking there could have been better choices to take up temporary residence at the Piccadilly.
Then you also have two other revived musicals, Top Hat and A Chorus Line, which recently posted their closing notices after a short time in the West End. Both were well received by theatre goers, with Top Hat doing rather well at the 2013 Olivier Awards, but it’s not enough for sustainable success. They’re great musicals, but its nothing new, nothing exciting, and I know that I for one am finding myself bored by this lack of imagination.
That’s why new shows such as Charlie and The Chocolate Factory are such a breath of fresh air to the West End. This is the second Roald Dahl adaption to make it to the stage (after the highly successful Matilda The Musical) and his stories provide the perfect material to create musicals – he certainly knew how to use his imagination after all. It had its official opening night this week (25th June 2013) and the reviews, while not as adoring as the ones Matilda previously received, are certainly not disappointing, with the biggest praise goes on the spectacular staging of the show and its star performer Douglas Hodge as the enigmatic Willy Wonka. The musical may not be considered quite on a 5* level, but it has definitely brightened up the theatre scene and is a very welcome addition to the West End. This is the type of thing we need more of and maybe 2013 is the year the tide turns. Along with Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, there are more original offerings on the way. Andrew Lloyd Webber has a new musical due to open at the Aldwych Theatre in November 2013, his first original show since his Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies. Musical Stephen Ward is based on the Profumo Affair, a British political scandal in 1963. Then of course there is his old writing partner Tim Rice’s first new musical in ten years, From Here To Eternity. It is adapted from the 1951 novel by James Jones and tells the story of the US soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the run-up to Pearl Harbour. It opens at the Shaftesbury theatre in October 2013.
These are the type of musicals I would love to see more of in the West End. They’ve been sourced from slightly more obscure material, inspired by passion and interest in the subject matter instead of catering to popular culture. I recently came across a recent interview with lyricist Tim Rice and was gratified to see I’m not alone in my thinking here. When asked about the current crop of musicals playing in the West End, he replied that “a few are good and a lot are terrible,” although he did go on to add that he had probably contributed to both parts in his time. It was his remarks on his decade-long absence from the world of musicals that I found particularly interesting, citing a lack of new composing talent and inspiring material as the main reasons. One quote really captured my feeling on the matter:
“To find a new British composer who is really good is rare. Since Andrew, there’s not been a lot out there. It’s why people keep digging up old songs and doing jukebox musicals, which are just cash-ins.”
There are some very promising new British writers of musical theatre out there, this I know. It’s just hard to get their unknown work on the stage when the West End is being flooded with what are expected to be sure-fire hits, going for guaranteed profit over taking a risk on something new. The flop of Viva Forever! and early closures of shows which have been revived or adapted are indicators that the West End needs something more than what it’s getting. I just hope that the right people listen.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)