The Story of Musicals: Part Three

All good things must come to an end – this week, it was the BBC4 documentary series The Story of Musicals, with the third and final episode airing last night. Starting with the ’70’s and finishing in the West End of today, the series chronicled the history of the British musical and provided an intriguing insight into its development throughout the years.

Part Three of The Story of Musicals began by looking at Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, the musical which followed his global smash hit, The Phantom of the Opera. It transferred to Broadway one year after opening in the West End, but was not well received there by the critics; the New York Times’ critic, dubbed ‘The Butcher of Broadway’ for his scathing reviews, wrote that it was about as sexy as a trip to the bank – it closed eleven months later (ironically, an 11-month run today would probably be considered a success, not a flop). After such an onslaught of successful British musicals, the critics seemed almost gleeful to find one they could tear apart. That kind of success can’t last though; there is no recipe that can guarentee the perfect musical and, most of the time, the creatives are taken by surprise when a show takes off as it’s almost impossible to tell if an audience/critics are going to give it the thumbs up or not. Everyone is due a ‘flop’ at some point in their career and it was Lloyd Webber’s turn.

He wasn’t the only one looking to find a follow-up success: Cameron Mackintosh was working with Les Miserables writers Schonberg and Boubil on Miss Saigon, the musical which was inspired by a photo from the Vietnam War that Schonberg came across. Whenever someone mentions Miss Saigon, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is the helicopter. A helicopter inside a theatre? Something like that had never been done before, but it was such a visually impressive set design (by John Napier of course) that it has become an iconic image of the show. It’s not the only thing people remember though. There was a major controversy over the show’s casting decisions when it made moves to go across to Broadway, mostly centred on the RSC actor who had originated the role of The Engineer in the West End, John Pryce: a white actor who was playing an Asian man. Cameron Mackintosh pulled the show after a particularly big row with US Equity, who eventually backed down.

Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn’t sitting by idly after Aspects of Love failed to impress the American theatre-goers. He focused his attention on Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, but went for a new approach which was to have long-running effects on London’s West End, to this day. Lloyd Webber decided to cast teen pop idol Jason Donovan in the lead role of ‘Joseph’, using the draw of his name to bring in an audience. It heralded in a new age of ‘stunt casting’, an issue that is very much a hot topic in modern times. Sometimes it worked: singer Cliff Richard profited on his name when he wrote and financed a musical of the novel Heathcliffe, which sold very well, despite being panned by the critics. Sometimes though, it didn’t work, as in the case of Faye Dunaway, who Lloyd Webber chose to remove from the LA production of Sunset Boulevard.

What worked phenomenally well in the 80s just wasn’t cutting it with the 90s’ audience. Melodramatic musicals were no longer bringing in a crowd, as in the case of another Schonberg, Boublil and Mackintosh production, Martin Guerre. So the West End did what it always does when something stops working: it evolved. Now, it appeared audiences just wanted to have fun when they went to the theatre – enter Mamma Mia. Working with ABBA band members Benny and Bjorn, producer Judy Kramer and writer/lyricist Catherine Johnson created the original ‘jukebox musical’, based on the back catalogue of ABBA songs. In a complete reversal, the musical’s story had to fit the songs, instead of writing songs to fit the story. It was a huge hit and transferred to Broadway, after almost being cancelled in the wake of the 11th September attacks. A few hours of fun away from the grimness of reality was something New York sorely needed however, and they were convinved to continue with rehearsals.

What Mamma Mia did though was to usher in a whole new style of musical theatre. Today’s West End has many jukebox musicals, from Rock of Ages (which recently opened) to Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (which recently closed). One which garnered enough success to match the level Mamma Mia set was the Queen musical, We Will Rock You. If it had stuck to the original idea of a Freddie Mercury biographical show instead of Ben Elton’s fictional story, who knows whether WWRY would have been more or less successful? If it had been up to the critics, WWRY would have been long gone – they hated it. Bad reviews can kill a show as easily as stepping on an ant, but the jukebox musical has a secret weapon in its arsenal in the form of a pre-existing fan base. Queen fans flocked in to see the show, and a performance by the cast at the Royal Variety Show, in front of millions of viewers, certainly didn’t hurt its chances. Still, it’s cases like these which cause you to think about the influence of the critic – look what they did to Aspects of Love?

The jukebox musical wasn’t the only new development in modern theatre though. Jerry Springer: The Opera was an explosive combination of low culture and high culture, mixing together two very different languages – but somehow, it worked, attracting first-time theatre-goers. The outrage of the general public after the BBC broadcast the show in its entirety was too much for it to overcome however, and it closed. Another new twist in the road proved easier to travel down though, with the arrival of the Disney production. They spotted a gap in the market and looked to expand their musical films for the stage, jumping on the commercial opportunity this could provide. The Lion King was, and is, a massive hit with audiences, with its innovative use of puppetry and popular familiarity – and more followed. Mary Poppins was next up, though this time, Thomas Schumacher (president of Disney Theatrical) had to work with Cameron Mackintosh, who owned the stage rights. It also featured the magic touch of UK composing team Stiles & Drewe.

London’s West End may not have been dominating the theatre world as it had in the 80s, but it wasn’t out of hit musicals just yet. The film-adapted musical of Billy Elliot not only had the foundling base of its film following, but the added bonus of the name of Elton John being attached. It was the original vision of Joan Littlewood’s work in the 70s that helped the musical find its gritty, British feet though, and it opened in 2005 to universal acclaim.

The West End continued to change, as Andrew Lloyd Webber turned the wheel further with his BBC reality TV shows, which originated with his search to find a ‘Maria’ for his production of The Sound of Music. Casting a lead role through the medium of TV was an unprecedented move, to say the least, but with the growing popularity of shows like The X-Factor, it was undoubtedly a very clever move. Not only did all four of the shows create new musical theatre stars – something sorely needed at the time – they reinvigorated the industry. With millions of viewers tuning in, it’s no surprise that ticket sales for The Sound of Music shot through the roof, but perhaps most importantly, it brought in a wider, younger audience. Musical theatre is not a widely valued art form. If a show like that brings more people to the West End, then it can’t be a bad thing. Of course, there were many arguments over whether the shows were in fact auditions, opposed to a publicity stunt to boost ticket sales, but the fact remains that they put a spotlight on the West End, and that’s ok in my book.

Today, the West End is a very different place to when The Story of Musicals began its journey. I’ve always believed though that musical theatre moves in an ever-changing cycle. We’ve been on top of the world and brought right back down again, but with the emergence of musicals such as Ghost (which is transferring to Broadway) and Matilda (which is sure to), the tide is starting to turn in our favour again. Cameron Mackintosh commented on the future of the British musical at the end of last night’s episode, saying that it is the writers who hold it in their hands. Jukebox musicals, Broadway transfers and film-adapted musicals have dominated the West End for some time now, but with the arrival of so many new talented British writers, the wheel is continuing to turn and slowly opening up that door for new writing to break through. What The Story of Musicals showed so wonderfully is that change is an integral part of the West End’s survival. It has continually evolved throughout the last thirty years and, I have no doubt, will continue to evolve for the next thirty – I, for one, can’t wait to see what surprises it brings.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

18th January 2012