Andrew Lloyd Webber remains one of the most recognisable names in musical theatre, but let’s face it; it’s been a while since the celebrated composer has had a hit show. In a far cry from the years when he churned out hit after hit with the likes of Evita, Cats, Starlight Express, and of course, The Phantom of the Opera, Lloyd Webber’s career later on in life has been marred by a series of less-than-successful musical productions. Love Never Dies, his much-hyped sequel to Phantom, proved that lightning rarely strikes twice as it ultimately proved unable to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, and his last musical, Stephen Ward, closed after a West End run lasting just three months.
Things are looking up for the musical maestro however with his most recent show, School of Rock, which opened on Broadway this week to a rush of rave reviews. A stage adaption of the 2003 film of the same name, it stars Alex Brightman (in the role Jack Black played in the film) and Sierra Boggess, and is the first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical since Jesus Christ Superstar to open first on Broadway. He needed those good reviews – not only to help redeem his good name in the industry, but also because it was announced the next day that he was bringing School of Rock to the West End in autumn 2016.
While I couldn’t be more pleased that Lloyd Webber may have found the hit musical he’s been searching for for so long, I can’t help asking if the West End really needs another film-adapted musical?
The lack of originality in the West End is something I’ve touched on in previous articles. There’s safety in the familiar, but this ever-growing reliance on familiarity is risky for the long-term future of the theatre industry, and there may well come a day when the West End becomes a place where the same musicals are brought back time and again and the only ‘new’ shows are reincarnations of what we’ve already seen on screen.
Taking a look back at the musical theatre scene in 2015 for example, we find that it’s already not so far from the truth. The shows that opened over this past year include five revivals, three film-adapted musicals and one musical biopic; indeed, the closest we got to an original show in the West End in 2015 was Stiles & Drewe’s Three Little Pigs, which played alongside The Commitments at the Palace Theatre for a five-week run to entertain the kids during the summer holidays.
I have nothing against these types of shows themselves. One of the highlights of the year was the Chichester Festival Theatre’s critically acclaimed revival of Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton, as too was the West End arrival of jukebox musical Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Film-adapted musicals Kinky Boots and Bend It Like Beckham were also similarly well-received. Done well, they certainly have a place here, just like the long-running classics (Les Miserables, Phantom), the Broadway transfers (The Book of Mormon) and the original British musicals (Matilda The Musical). The issue begins when they start to dominate the West End scene instead of occupying just one part of what should be a rich, and varied landscape.
In recent years, there have been more and more productions moving from the screen to the stage, and not just in musical form – in 2014 for instance, Fatal Attraction and Shakespeare in Love were both reworked as plays and appeared in the West End. As musicals, we’ve seen such films as American Psycho, Made in Dagenham, Ghost and The Bodyguard on stage, and there are more on the way next year with School of Rock and Disney’s Aladdin already announced to be making their West End debuts. In contrast, original offerings such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward and I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical pretty much fell flat on their faces before they even had a chance to get up and running.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a completely original musical – every idea has to come somewhere. Stephen Ward for instance, was based on the true-life events of the Profumo Affair, while I Can’t Sing! was a satirical take on reality TV singing contest, The X Factor. Even Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, the two longest-running musicals in the West End and two of the most globally successful shows in musical theatre history, were inspired by the novels of the same name by Victor Hugo and Gaston Leroux respectively. They stand apart from their novel counterparts though, in that artistic licence has been taken to the extent that the story told on stage is only a faint shadow of the one told on the page. If you’ve read the original novels both musicals were based on, you’ll know they differ greatly from one another.
That’s where the stage adaption of The Lion King got it right too. Yes, the production has the same musical numbers and follows the same narrative of the 1994 animated Disney film, even lifting lines straight from it, but the creative team have embraced the African theme of the story so completely that the musical has become a very different creature. They hit the balance just right, capturing the familiarity of the beloved Disney film while giving it its own identity so that it may exist in its own right.
If you’re going to turn a film into a musical, it’s not enough to produce a carbon copy of it on stage and just throw in a few song and dance numbers. Weighing in the price of a ticket to a West End show these days, you’d be better off staying home and watching the DVD in that case. As a general rule, a film-adapted musical will find long-lasting success instead of momentary popularity if it offers the audience something different to what they’ve already seen. It’s similar to when a classic film is remade – there’s simply no point in creating a carbon copy of something that already exists and is loved.
I firmly believe the West End needs to have a little more faith in original productions. Naturally it’s easier to attract an audience to something they’re already familiar with, but there are ways to bring an element of familiarity to the new and unknown. An obvious answer is to try it out of town first, testing the waters with a pre-West End run to allow time to see what works and what doesn’t, and also to create a buzz ahead of its arrival. Another method is to release a cast recording before the show opens – Jesus Christ Superstar famously came into existence as a concept album before the stage version opened on Broadway.
I wish Andrew Lloyd Webber the best of luck with School of Rock, I really do, but I also wish the man who was responsible for creating so many new hit musicals in his time could help bring a little more originality back into the West End instead. Not that it’s the sole responsibility of established songwriters to do so of course.
We sorely need new British musicals coming into the West End along with the film-adaptions, otherwise we run the risk of the only originality in the West End coming from the PR spin needed to sell them.
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Wednesday 9th December 2015