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The Story of Musicals Part 2

Last Tuesday, BBC4 aired the first in its three-part documentary series, The Story of Musicals, which recounts the history of the British musical from the end of World War II, exploring the twists and turns in its development that made the West End what it is today. Theatre-fans have gone crazy for it, and with good reason. Musical theatre is an integral part of our cultural society, but its profile is overwhelmingly overlooked in comparison to the entertainment of television, chart music, film, etc. So a programme such as this, which is interesting, informative and takes an in-depth look at the world of musical theatre, provides a much-needed focus on this somewhat neglected art-form; after all, let’s not forget the significance of the West End in terms of tourism revenue…

Last night, the second episode was shown, this time focusing on the Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh-dominated era of the ’80’s. It kicked off with the first musical Lloyd Webber did without lyricist Tim Rice; Cats. Cats really was a musical like nobody had ever seen before and it had its fair share of difficulties, including a creative team with little or no West End experience, choreographing the cat-like movements and mannerisms, Elaine Paige being brought in to replace the injured Judi Dench just three days before previews and problems with raising the capital for the show in the first place. As a ‘dance musical’ with no discernible storyline, Cats seemed a big risk for investors and no-one knew if it would be a big hit or a colossal flop – of course, it went on to most definitely be the latter. The crowning achievement of Cats is that it paved the way for the ‘Triple Threat’ musical: with a cast that sang, danced and acted, all at the same time, they set the bar higher for musical theatre shows and performers.

The popularity of the show also ushered in a new form of brand-marketing – Cats merchandise was everywhere! Now it’s the norm: we have hoodies, mugs, hats, key rings… even oyster card holders, and it all brings in a lot of money.

After Cats, came what would go on to be the third longest-running West End musical – although nobody would have believed it at the time. Blood Brothers started in a school hall in Merseyside and only lasted six months in the West End. Willy Russell’s musical about brothers separated at birth drew from the social divide between the rich and the poor that existed at that time and, while it was a relevant and relatable piece of theatre, it was also a change from the familiar and audiences just didn’t accept it. Today, with so many West End shows closing in their first year, it’s interesting to see that this problem of getting audiences to connect with the new and unknown is still around. I’ve always believed that the West End theatre scene is an ever-moving cycle. However, right now, film-adaptions and jukebox musicals are ‘in’ and original work is ‘out’, but times are a-changing and the day is coming for new writing to take back the West End. It just takes a little faith and imagination. It took Blood Brothers three UK tours to find its way back to the West End and when it did, it cemented itself as one of the biggest shows around; an achievement which still stands even now. It just goes to show that sometimes, all a musical needs is a little time to find its feet.

If Blood Brothers didn’t do so well in the 80s however, there were plenty of other musicals which did. Lloyd Webber’s golden touch went to Starlight Express this time, the musical about trains which was performed by actors on skates – if Cats had seemed a risky venture, Starlight Express was perhaps even more so. Still, the combination of John Napier’s brilliant set design – which basically turned the Apollo Victoria into a roller derby – and the spectacle of the show was enough to wow the audiences and ensure success, although the critics were less than kind. The debate over intellectual content versus showmanship and spectacle is one which is still relevant today, as evident in the critic’s response to Rock of Ages. It’s a matter of taste I suppose but whatever your views, the fact remains that these musical extravaganzas sell tickets and as long as they continue to do so, they’ll stay open.

What Starlight Express also did is to attract a new type of audience, as appealing as it was to kids, the tourists loved it even more. Today’s West End is predominantly fuelled by tourism, but it wasn’t always so. With more and more new and popular British musicals emerging, the West End was starting to, not only match the strength of Broadway, but exceed it. In a reversal of circumstances, Broadway, which had once dominated the theatre world, was now being over-run as the British musical invaded. Shows like Evita, Cats, Oliver ruled the boards in New York and when Stephen Fry’s revival of Me and My Girl was a big West End hit and transferred to Broadway, it became the first British musical to win a Tony Award for choreography. If the theatre world thought that Britain was out of hits however, they soon found themselves sorely mistaken as we unleashed what was to be one of the biggest musicals the world has ever seen.

Life is all about chance. Andrew Lloyd Webber meeting Tim Rice, Willy Russell sneaking into that Manchester performance of Blood Brothers – and Alain Boublil going to see Oliver. It was the Artful Dodger that reminded him of the character of Gavroche in the famous 19th-century novel Les Miserables and led to him approaching composer Claude –Michel Schonberg about writing a stage musical about it. After Cameron Mackintosh heard the Les Miserables concept album the two released, he became involved and brought in the director of the time, Trevor Dunn, the connection to Les Miserables premiering at the RSC. After a long rehearsal and preview period, the critics were let loose: the news wasn’t good. It’s been suggested that they were just fixed against the RSC staging a musical, something which they seemed to have gotten over when Matilda first opened there. Whatever the reasoning behind the reviews, it wasn’t looking good for Les Miserables – until Mackintosh phoned the Box Office. Turns out, the audience loved it and, as with most shows, their voice spoke louder than that of the critics. Mackintosh made a comment on the documentary that “often the audience is ahead of the critics” and I agree wholeheartedly. Time and again, a show has been slated by the critics, yet the audience see something in it that the critics seem to be missing and they ensure that it stays alive. Debates over the relevance of the critic are raging all the time, with many theatre-goers believing most to be out of touch, writing subjective and needlessly-harsh reviews.

Today, Les Miserables is still going strong and shows no signs of its popularity waning. Now in its 26th year, it overcame the negativity of the press to become a global hit and the longest-running musical of the West End. Musicals Time and Chess didn’t fare nearly so well however when they opened back then; Time over-reached itself and Chess’ problems arose from the complication of the story and timing issues. There was however, one more 80’s show which went on to become the most successful musical of all time: The Phantom of the Opera.

Probably the show for which Andrew Lloyd Webber is most famous for, Phantom was written for his then-wife Sarah Brightman, the soprano who originated the role of Christine Daae (after director Hal Prince made her audition). After failing to reunite with Tim Rice, Lloyd Webber brought in Charles Hart as lyricist and another successful writing team was born. For the first time as well, he went for star billing by casting Michael Crawford in the role of The Phantom, a character that was completely different to the one he was most known for in TV sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave’ Em. Everything came together though on Phantom: the cast, the creative team, the story, the music… and it was a huge hit with audiences – the show was pre-booked for the first eighteen months, something previously unheard of for a West End musical. It celebrated its 25th Anniversary in October 2011 and, along with Les Miserables, is one of the giants of the West End as it continues to sell-out night after night.

The 1980’s is when everything began to change for the British musical. With hit after hit, they established London’s West End as the theatre hub of the world and took over Broadway. The 80’s were all about taking risks however; shows like Cats, Starlight Express and Les Miserables were new and different and held no guarantees of success – but look what they did for British theatre. In a time where the West End is driven by the familiar and safe, the second episode of The Story of Musicals provides a very important message; one which needs to be heard. Safe and familiar is all well and good, but it doesn’t do anything for the reputation and development of the West End. Over-run with Broadway transfers, film-adapted musicals and jukebox shows, originality is something which it is sorely lacking. Producers and investors must have a little more faith and belief, and theatre-goers need to start opening their minds more because you know what – sometimes a risk pays off.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)


  • MissJulie

    Julie is a theatre enthusiast, and is particularly keen on new writing. She writes articles each week for our website including a popular weekly ‘In Profile’ which features actors and actresses that are not in lead roles and are often in the Ensemble.

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