I love theatre. I love writing about theatre. It feeds my creative impulses and has ultimately enriched my life. I think everyone should open themselves up to the world of theatre, so whenever the chance to educate someone on the subject comes up, I take it, with the hope that they too will come to love and appreciate the joys of the stage in turn. The problem however is that at some point or another the same question always comes up: If I want to see a show, then what is the best one to see? I’ve always had an aversion to answering this as, to be honest, I don’t think it really can be answered.
In addition to my writing duties, I also work behind the bar of my local pub on a part-time basis. Living on the Kent coast, there aren’t that many theatre fans milling around here and the same is true of the people who come into the pub. Most of them only know me as ‘Julie the barmaid’ and it’s always fun for me when they find out about my dual identity as ‘Julie the theatre writer’. The conversations that follow then usually lead to them asking me what show I would recommend for them – indeed, just the other day a guy told me that he was thinking about taking his girlfriend to see a musical in the West End as neither of them had ever been, and wanted my opinion as to which one they should go to.
The reason I couldn’t give him a definitive answer, and the reason why I dislike that question in general, is that theatre is relative. People differ widely, not unlike the shows which play in the West End, so to tell one person which one show they will most enjoy is a highly difficult feat. Variety is the spice of life and we all like different things for different reasons. In that sense, it’s impossible to say with definitive confidence what is the best show in town.
So what musical should I have told this guy to go see?
If I were to recommend my personal favourite, then The Phantom of the Opera wins hands-down. It was the first musical I really fell in love with and nothing I’ve seen before then or since has managed to oust it from the No. 1 spot position yet…although the spots for second and third place have been fiercely contested over the years. I’m a complete sucker for the melodramatic musicals though, always have been and always will, and if it has a passionate love story at the centre or a heartbreakingly tragic death at the end then even better. That’s why, even though there are so many fantastic productions currently running in the West End, I’ll always choose shows such as The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables over any other. Just because I’ve deemed Phantom the best musical however, it doesn’t mean that it is the West End’s best. It takes a certain type of individual to enjoy that production, and for the first time theatre-goer or someone who is looking for light-hearted fun, this is not necessarily the right show for them.
It al really depends on what each particular person is looking for in a show. One of the most redeeming qualities the West End possesses is that is offers such a wide variety of shows. There truly is something for every taste, and if you know what someone likes, then it should be relatively simple to match them up with their ‘perfect’ musical.
Jukebox musicals have an obvious audience. Mamma Mia will clearly appeal to any ABBA fan, as does We Will Rock You to fans of Queen and Jersey Boys to fans of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The same is true of film-to-stage adaptions. If I knew someone who had seen and loved Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, then I would instantly send them in the direction of the Adelphi Theatre to see Tristan Gemmill and Beverly Knight in the musical adaption of the classic 1992 romantic thriller. Billy Elliot? The Victoria Palace Theatre. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? The Savoy Theatre.
The Book of Mormon is ideal for those looking for a little laughter, while Once is ideal for those with a deep appreciation of music. Similarly, the likes of The Lion King, Matilda and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory are shows which will appeal to the whole family. A musical such as Wicked however, benefits from piggy-backing on the popularity of The Wizard of Oz and has a book and score that is both a perfect introduction to musical theatre novices and has a wide appeal to existing theatre fans from all spans of genre preference. The recent newcomer, I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical, is also likely to be a popular choice for fellow theatre-going newcomers as it is easily accessible to all audiences and of course targets the fan base of the television sensation that is The X Factor.
If you take a look at the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Audience Award at the Oliver Awards over the years, it’s notable that the category hasn’t been dominated by any one particular show. It was Billy Elliot who took the trophy home last year, preceded by Les Miserables (2012), We Will Rock You(2011) , Wicked (2010), and so on. The nominations for the 2014 Olivier Awards were announced yesterday (10th March), and in the only category whose winner is voted for by the public, the shows up for the award this year are Les Miserables, Matilda The Musical, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked. All of the nominees are long-running shows, which means that the voting public decided to stick to what they know and love this year, but the Audience Award is akin to a popularity contest and the list tends to differ every year, depending on who is the flavour of the year at that particular time.
There are so many wonderful musicals in the West End right now, with many having been and gone and even more still on their way in. They are all special in their own way and each offers something different and unique to the theatre-going audience. There are a long list of shows which I have seen, loved, and would go to see again, but I know what my first choice will always be. I truly believe that there exists one show which will speak louder to you than any other: I found that in Phantom, and I know many other people who have found their perfect matches as well. The question then should not be, “What is the best show to see?”, but perhaps instead, “What is the best show for me?”
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Content updated 7th October 2014