While this year’s most hotly anticipated musical was a Broadway import, homegrown shows have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. Mark Shenton celebrates the shows that everybody’s been talking about
Musicals continue to be the biggest drivers of attendance and revenue in London theatre – in 2016, more than 8.1 million people saw a musical in the West End (compared with 4.1 million seeing plays), spending more than £400 million in the process (£152 million for plays). Across the country, at UK Theatre’s member venues, musicals accounted for 40% of the total box office income of nearly £470 million taken in 2016.
In 2017, there was a whole roster of new muscial theatre productions, large and small, to satisfy that apparently insatiable appetite, crowned by the (slightly delayed) pre-Christmas arrival of Hamilton.
The most hyped new musical of the century so far officially opens at the entirely remodelled Victoria Palace Theatre tonight (December 21). At the time of writing, I’ve not seen the London incarnation, but I’ve seen it four times in New York, and it is indeed a game-changer: a musical that thrillingly resets the musical theatre compass to tell a historic story in the musical and choreographic language of today, employing the most diverse cast in town.
But, for all its bold sense of adventurousness and sheer craft, it might well be given a run for its money by the recent arrival in the West End of the homegrown Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. After originating at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in February, it transferred to the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue in November, and is both authentically British and a breath of fresh, inclusive air that the West End needs right now, with a star-making performance from John McCrea in the title role, as a Sheffield teenager determined to attend his high school prom in a dress.
Also genre and form-busting was Girl from the North Country, a new play written and directed by Conor McPherson, accompanied by a full score of Bob Dylan songs – some familiar, some less so. It premiered at London’s Old Vic in the summer and transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre next week. The Grinning Man – which, like Les Miserables, is adapted from Victor Hugo – is a delicately flavoured fairytale freak show of a musical. It premiered at Bristol Old Vic last year and this week transferred to Trafalgar Studios. British musicals are finally rediscovering their mojo.
Jukebox shows also held sway in the West End, whether it was the sensationally well-danced An American in Paris, which interpolates songs from the Gershwin catalogue with the score to the 1951 film of the same name (at the Dominion, closing on January 6), or the hit stage version of Jim Steinman’s rock opera albums Bat Out of Hell, which premiered at the London Coliseum last summer. Meanwhile, Broadway’s most lauded performer of all time – Audra McDonald, who has won a record six Tonys – made her full UK stage debut as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, singing a series of Holiday classics and inhabiting her entirely.
Other American-born or influenced shows included an all-tap-dancing revival of 42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, The Toxic Avenger at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Arts Theatre in London. Working and Promises, Promises were both staged at Southwark Playhouse and The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin was at Theatre Royal Stratford East. There were UK tours of two short-lived Broadway shows – The Wedding Singer and Wonderland – as well as La Cage Aux Folles. Caroline, Or Change was beautifully revived at Chichester’s Minerva and transfers to London’s Hampstead Theatre in March. Barnum is being revived at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (with a miscast Marcus Brigstocke in the title role), while Fiddler on the Roof has enjoyed revivals at Liverpool Everyman (as part of its rep season) and Chichester.
Manchester’s fast-rising Hope Mill has staged a series of terrific productions, including UK premieres of Yank! (which transferred to London’s Charing Cross Theatre) and Little Women, and revivals of Hair (now at the Vaults in London) and Pippin – transferring to Southwark Playhouse in February. Another notable musical production in Manchester was Britain’s first all-black revival of the Broadway classic Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange.
The revival of the year was Follies (running at the National’s Olivier Theatre until January 3), Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 musical elegy to a showbusiness past, with thrilling performances from Philip Quast, Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton. Meanwhile, another 1970s Sondheim masterpiece, A Little Night Music, was spellbindingly revived by a cast of actor-musicians at Newbury’s Watermill.
New York saw a transfer of another London Sondheim in Tooting Arts Club’s immersive, pie-shop version of Sweeney Todd (where it is still running), as well as transfers of the English National Opera co-produced revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and the Old Vic’s production of Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s Groundhog Day – sadly, a commercial failure. US-led hits on Broadway included the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away, both of which are surely bound for the West End soon.
Best and worst
BEST OF THE YEAR
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
(Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; Apollo Theatre, London)
The freshest, funniest and most original British musical of the year is a heart-warmer and a heartbreaker.
WORST OF THE YEAR
The Braille Legacy
(Charing Cross Theatre, London)
Misfiring French musical about the inventor of Braille, with a score of aural wallpaper.