The writing of these blogs arose from a love of theatre, but my pursuit of pleasure is not only limited to this particular art form. I have been an avid reader ever since I can remember and am also something of a film buff. 2013 seems to be a year for movie sequels; my recent viewings including Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, The Hangover Part III and Star Trek: Into Darkness, and with many more on their way in the coming months (Thor: The Dark World, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, etc), continuing stories appear to be the new in-thing. I say new, but sequels have been around for quite some time. Popular films are constantly churning out sequels to capitalise on their success, and many books are written as an on-going series (the Sookie Stackhouse novels are one example) or in story-arc form split into parts, usually as a trilogy (Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Fifty Shades of Grey). One area in which sequels are conspicuously absent though is the theatre industry.
Sequels in the world of musical theatre are a rarity, and looking back at previous attempts may offer an explanation as to why. Anyone researching musical sequels will be hard-pressed to find an example of a successful work; generally, they have all flopped and since been largely forgotten completely. The sequels to classic musical Annie are perhaps the ones which are best remembered in the minds of theatre fans. The 1977 Broadway musical by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strause and Martin Charnin originally ran for six years and was followed by numerous international productions and revivals on Broadway and in the West End. It was also adapted into the popular 1982 film and a remake is currently in the works. Despite all of this however, the Annie stage sequels failed to come anywhere close to achieving a similar success. The first, titled Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, barely made it off the starting line. It premiered in Washington, DC in 1989 and was universally panned by critics. Extensive rewrites of the script and score weren’t enough to save it and it was shelved before reaching Broadway. Then in 1993, a second sequel was attempted. Annie Warbucks featured a different plot and score and opened Off-Broadway at the Variety Arts Theatre, but also fell short of the high standard set by its predecessor and only ran for 200 performances before closing.
There are other such examples of musical sequels which have suffered the same fate. The 1931 political musical Of Thee I Sing, which featured musical and lyrics by George Gershwin, received much critical acclaim and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – the first musical to ever do so. A sequel was made in 1933, written by the same creative team and featuring the same three characters from the original production, which were also played by the same three actors from the original production. The sequel, titled Let ‘Em Eat Cake, saw its Broadway run end after just 90 performances. Then there was Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960 musical loosely inspired by the ‘King of Rock n’ Roll’ Elvis Presley. The highly popular musical produced a sequel, Bring Back Birdie, in 1981. It seems that both fans and critics unanimously agreed that Birdie should not be brought back though, and it lasted for a mere four performances. And what about The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas? The 1978 musical, which won two Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards, ran for 1,584 performances on Broadway while the sequel production, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, managed just two weeks.
The most recent musical sequel also proved to be the most successful out of the aforementioned productions, although it is hardly considered an actual success. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is a global phenomenon which has been running in the West End for 27 years now and still shows no signs of its popularity waning. The news of a Phantom sequel therefore, earned a very mixed response. Love Never Dies opened at the Adelphi Theatre in March 2010 and received mostly negative reviews. It briefly closed in November 2010 to allow it to be re-worked, and although it was agreed that the production had benefitted from this, it wasn’t enough to redeem it in the eyes of the critics and fans. The all-new Australian production fared better however, although plans for a Broadway run remain on hold. The West End production closed in August 2011 after less than 18 months, a disappointingly short run when compared to its original counterpart, but a better result when held up against other musical sequels. It may be getting a second chance though as a UK tour is being planned, with a possible West End return to follow.
Musical sequels have consistently fallen flat on their face instead of taking the torch and running with it as far as their predecessors have. We could speculate for hours on the reasons why, but perhaps it’s just as simple as that the limits of the stage don’t allow for sequels to work. Even in the movie world, sequels don’t always work. Sequels typically tend to be either a repeat of events or a completely different story; if a sequel is too similar to the first then people may just be bored by it, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, if it’s too far removed from what made the original so good then it may just lose that appeal. It’s a very fine line, and one which I’m not sure musical theatre can tread. It’s an incredibly hard feat to live up to people’s expectations, which is one of the reasons I suspect Love Never Dies stumbled. The Phantom is a character which has a very compelling hold on fans of the show, and the ending of The Phantom of the Opera allows for much interpretation of what happened next. The combination of these two factors means that it was always going to be a near-impossible task to please everybody. The direction that Lloyd Webber chose to take in the next chapter of the Phantom’s life was his personal interpretation, and unfortunately, many people didn’t agree with it.
Sequels go beyond the end of the story to give you a glimpse at ‘what happened next?’ in the lives of its characters. The problem is that people don’t always want to know. Imagination is a wonderful thing, and sometimes, it’s best to let them imagine. Other highly successful musicals, such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon could have created sequels, but I for one wouldn’t want to see them. We could continue to follow the events of revolution in France with different characters or see where Marius and Cosette or the Thernadiers ended up, but would we want to? We could meet the son of Chris and Kim and see what path his life took, but would we want to? I suspect the answer would be no.
There are plenty of musical sequels on film out there, but I doubt any of them are ever going to make it to the stage. Grease 2 and The Lion King 2 aren’t likely to be coming to the West End, and I wouldn’t expect to see the film sequels to Legally Blonde or Dirty Dancing being adapted either. I think it’s possible that a musical sequel could be successful, but past experiences don’t bode too well for it. What do you think?
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Tuesday 23rd July 2013