Ten Best Musicals in London’s West End

The West End is a vast network of theatrical entertainment that is the centre of the UK’s theatre industry and draws in millions of people every year from all around the globe. It is home to some of the biggest and most popular musicals in the world, housing an eclectic mix of long-term residents and newcomers who have recently moved in, each of which brings something special and unique to the scene. Here are ten of the best musicals currently running in the West End.

You can’t talk about the best West End musicals without including Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, the show is an undeniable favourite with musical theatre fans for many reasons, and in terms of longevity alone, it is simply unbeatable. The Boublil and Schonberg classic opened in the West End in 1985, making it the world’s longest-running musical, and it remains one of London’s most popular shows nearly 30 years down the line. A tale of love and redemption, Les Miserables follows the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who breaks his parole to start a new life, but is relentlessly pursued through the years by police inspector Javert. Set in early 19th century France, it is also the story of a group of young students which encompasses the events of the 1832 Paris Uprising. The award-winning musical enjoyed a new surge of popularity following the 25th anniversary concert at the O2 Arena and the release of Tom Hooper’s film adaption in 2012, which starred Hugh Jackman as Valjean alongside such other Hollywood names as Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. Currently playing at the Queen’s Theatre, Les Miserables will celebrate another big anniversary this year as it marks a record-breaking 30 years on 8th October 2015.

Success isn’t measured in the length of a show’s run alone though, of course. Some musicals capture the imagination right from the get-go, hitting the ground running upon their arrival in the West End and riding the wave of rave reviews beyond all expectations. This is true of two recent additions to the West End, Memphis and Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, both of which became instant successes and are leading the race in the 2015 Olivier Awards: Memphis gained 9 Olivier nominations while Beautiful was right behind it with eight nominations.

Memphis is the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that came to the West End last year, opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre in October 2014. A story about how love and music can transcend race lines and airwaves, it stars Beverly Knight as up-and-coming black singer Felicia and Killian Donnelly as white radio DJ Huey, whose collaboration endures many struggles in a world that may really not be ready for their music – or their love. It features original songs by David Bryan and a book loosely based on true-life events by Joe DePietro.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical follows the early life and career of American singer-songwriter Carole King, using songs she wrote with husband Gerry Goffin and other songs by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and more. It won numerous theatrical accolades, including 2 Tony Awards, after making its world première on Broadway in 2013, and opened at the West End’s Aldwych Theatre the following year. The book by Douglas McGrath tells the untold story of her journey from schoolgirl to superstar, from her relationship with husband and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin to their friendship with fellow song-writing duo Mann and Weil, as she rise to stardom to become one of the most successful solo acts in music history.
Both have been flying high in the West End since arriving there and may be walking away with more awards to their names after this year’s Olivier Awards, which take place later this month.

Beautiful falls into the category of a jukebox musical; a show that is based around the songs of popular music artists. Another which falls into this same category is Sunny Afternoon, which also follows Beautiful in that is has been similarly recognised in the 2015 Olivier Awards, having received five nominations, including one for Best New Musical. Billed as the West End’s New ‘Great British Musical’, it charts the rise of the iconic 60’s band, The Kinks, who invented a whole new genre of rock with their new and influential sound. The show features many of their classic hits songs, such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Lola’, along with the title number ‘Sunny Afternoon’, and features a new book by Joe Penhall based on the original story of Ray Davies, The Kink’s band member who is also credited as composer and lyricist and is an Olivier nominee for Outstanding Achievement in Music. First seen at the Hampstead Theatre, the critically-acclaimed musical entered the West End in October 2014 and is still wowing audiences there at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

When discussing ‘Great British Musicals’, the long-running Billy Elliot will inevitably crop up in the conversation. Adapted from the 2000 film of the same name, it features music by Elton John and a book and lyrics by Lee Hall, the latter of which wrote the original screenplay. Set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 UK miner’s strike in County Durham, North-Eastern England, it is a story of one young boy’s struggle against the odds to make his dreams come true as he trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes and follows his passion for dance. The musical premièred in the West End at the Victoria Palace Theatre in May 2005, which means that this year it will celebrate a decade of West End success. A five-time Olivier Award winner, it has been staged in many countries and was last year broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and around the world in a special performance that saw the return of a number of past actors to have played the title role. One of the best film-adapted musicals, it also happens to be one of the best original British musicals, and is likely to celebrate many more milestone anniversaries in the West End.

Another hugely popular film-adapted musical in the West End is Disney’s The Lion King, based on the beloved 1994 animated film of the same name. Both powerful and moving, it follows Simba on his epic journey from wide-eyed cub to his destined role as King of the Pridelands through a cast of actors in animal costumes and innovative puppets. The stage production is linked again to Billy Elliot as Elton John wrote the music for the original film and musical, which also features the lyrics of Tim Rice and a musical score created by Hans Zimmer with choral arrangements by Lebo M. The Broadway musical transferred to the West End in October 1999; 15 years and multiple awards later, it is still going strong at the Lyceum Theatre and is not only one of the most successful musicals in the West End, but the world.

New life can also be breathed into an old favourite, revived and remade into something spectacular that looks and feels like a fresh, almost brand-new show. Tooting Arts Club managed to achieve this to astonishing effect last year with their take on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The site-specific production originated at London’s oldest pie and mash shop, Harrington’s Pie and Mash, providing audiences with a intimate and intense theatrical experience as they met in the local barbers before entering the authentic Victorian venue and watching the performance by candlelight on benches, right in front of the cast. Harrington’s is currently undergoing refurbishment, which led to the show moving into the West End for the spring, by special arrangement with Cameron Mackintosh. It can now be found in a pop-up space on Shaftesbury Avenue, next-door to Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre. Jeremy Secomb and Siubhan McCarthy continue to lead the critically-acclaimed production as the bloodthirsty barber Sweeney Todd and his pie-making partner in crime Mrs Lovett, alongside the rest of the original cast with the addition of Zoe Doano as Johanna.

The revival of popular musicals is a common practice, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats serving as a recent example of how well it can be done. No revival was met with such enthusiasm and eager anticipation as Miss Saigon, which returned to the West End last year after an absence of nearly 15 years. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the show was Boublil and Schonberg’s second big hit following the success of Les Miserables, and tells the tragic love story of  young Vietnamese bar girl Kim and American GI Chris, who are are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. The original West End production enjoyed a record-breaking run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Cameron Mackintosh’s new 25th anniversary production brings the show back to the West End for another go around at the Prince Edward Theatre this time. The original cast featured Jonathan Pryce, Simon Bowman, Peter Polycarpou and Claire Moore, and made a star out of Lea Salonga, who played the lead role of Kim in both the West End and on Broadway and won the Olivier Award and Tony Award for her performance. The show’s current Kim, Eva Noblezada, was similarly plucked out of obscurity to make her West End début after being spotted at a high school musical theatre showcase. Fans begged for the return of Miss Saigon, and now they have finally gotten their wish; the response it has been met with ensures that it isn’t likely to leave again any time soon.

In terms of commercial success and popular appeal, shows such as Wicked, Matilda and Mamma Mia are a few such representatives of the West End’s big hitters, but the giant presiding over them all has to be the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. From the creators of Southpark, the show is a satire of the Mormon religion which follows two Mormon missionaries who are sent to a remote village in Northern Uganda to bring news of the Latter Day Saints to the local villagers, who are living under the threat of famine, poverty, AIDS, and a brutal warlord. Trey Parker and Matt Stone collaborated with Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez on the musical, which is edgy, filthy and outrageously funny, while also surprisingly sweet at times. The original Broadway production was an unprecedented success, garnering overwhelming critical acclaim and winning 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It transferred to the West End at the start of 2013, opening at the Prince of Wales Theatre on 25th  February with Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner reprising their roles as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham respectively. The smash hit show quickly proved itself to be the hot ticket in town as the entirety of its availability in that initial West End run sold out instantly, and it continues to be one of the most sought-after shows in the West End, running a daily lottery-based system to meet ticket demand.

The newest arrival in the West End, Gypsy transferred into the Savoy Theatre just last week. CFT’s critically-acclaimed revival of the Broadway classic was a 5-star, sell-out success during its 2014 run in Chichester, Sussex, and talk of a subsequent West End transfer quickly followed. It is considered one of the greatest ever Broadway musicals, featuring lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by Arthur Laurents, and music by Jule Styne. The show is based on the true life memoirs of legendary burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee and follows Momma Rose and her two daughters, Baby June and Louise, as they trek across America in their family vaudeville act. Times are changing though and audiences are expecting more with the rise of burlesque, while Momma Rose also has to deal with her two girls who have their own ambitions. It features such classic songs as ‘Let Me Entertain You’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, and ‘Rose’s Turn’. Gypsy hasn’t been seen in London for over 40 years, but made its long-awaited return at the Savoy Theatre on 28th March 2015 starring Imelda Staunton, who reprised her role as Momma Rose from the Chichester production.  She is joined by Lara Pulver as Louise and Peter Davison as Herbie. The show is in the West End for a strictly limited run, which coupled with the success of its run in Chichester, probably makes this the most in-demand musical in the West End right now.

Everyone has their own views on what the best West End musicals are, as well as having their own personal favourite show. If asked for mine, I would say that The Phantom of the Opera is the best musical in the West End. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running classic is musical theatre perfection in my opinion, fulfilling every aspect needed to make a great, successful show. The story of a disfigured, masked genius and his obsession with beautiful soprano, Christine Daae, is one which has captivated audiences all around the world for over 28 years; it is a story of love, passion and madness, enriched by a sumptuous score, lavish staging, and breath-taking special effects. The multi-award winning musical was adapted from Gaston Leroux’s original French novel by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who collaborated on the book with Richard Stilgoe. Lloyd Webber also wrote the music for the show, with Charles Hart credited for lyrics with additions from Stilgoe. The Phantom of the Opera made its world première at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End on 9th October 1986 and is still running there today, the 2nd longest-running musical in the West End and as strong as it ever was. It caught my imagination from the first moment I saw it and will always have a special place in my heart above any other show, a sentiment I’m sure many other musical theatre fans share for their best West End musical too. Perhaps yours is in the list, perhaps not, but the success of these 10 musicals speaks for itself and every musical theatre fan should have them on their list of shows to see/have seen.

London Theatre Tickets

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Friday 3rd April 2015

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