There are currently five UK-produced musicals running in London’s West End. There are nine shows transferred from the US, with two more set to open in the next few months. It’s undeniable that musicals from the US have dominated the mainstream musical theatre scene in London over the last 20 years, with internationally successful long-running British musicals few and far between. Has new British musical theatre died? Or are we just looking in the wrong places?
To answer this question, it’s important to define exactly what a British musical is. For the purposes of this article, I define a British musical as one with a UK-based writing team that was first produced in the West End with original music. If we exclude jukebox shows such as Mammia Mia or Tina, both original UK productions, but ones that take their music from existing sources, this leaves only five original British musicals currently playing in West End theatres: The Phantom of the Opera, Matilda, Six, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Only Fools and Horses. I also won’t be including stage shows adapted from musical films such as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Singin’ in the Rain, although these were all successful productions that premiered in the West End.
When you think of musicals that became known world-wide in the 20th century, you won’t get far without naming a British show. Oliver!, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera… they all originated in London’s West End, which in the 60s, 70s and 80s was the birthplace of many of the world’s most popular musicals. With the premiere of Blood Brothers, which continues to regularly tour the UK, and the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dominance of the musical theatre scene, the 1980s became the decade of the British musical. For five years of the 1980s there was an Andrew Lloyd Webber show nominated for best musical at Broadway’s Tony awards; three of them won. This is especially remarkable given that the last major London to Broadway transfer was in 1965 with Half A Sixpence. (Another British show, Oh What A Lovely War, was also nominated for the best musical Tony in that year). More importantly, Lloyd Webber’s musicals continue to be successful: a new production of Evita played at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre over this past summer, and Joseph will return to the London Palladium next year. The original West End and Broadway productions of Phantom continue to run, with the London production soon to enter its 35th year.
Lloyd Webber continued to produce highly successful musicals into the 90s and early 2000s, and his shows continue to be performed regularly in London, unsurprising as he owns many of the theatres, and over the world. But the pace at which successful British shows are being made has gradually slowed over the last 30 years. The iconic shows of this time have been almost entirely US-produced: Rent, Wicked, Hairspray, Hamilton. There have of course been British successes too, that played for many years in London as well as gaining international recognition, but these have been few and far between since the peak of the British musical in the late 20th century. One of my all-time favourite shows, and arguably the most successful British show of the 2000s so far, Billy Elliot, ran in London for eleven years before closing in 2016. It won the Tony for best musical in 2009 and ran for three years on Broadway, with many international productions. Matilda the Musical enjoyed similar success, setting the record for most Olivier awards won by a musical in 2012 with seven, a title the show now shares with Hamilton. But these shows are notable for their lack of British company in the list of musicals of the 21st century that have already become classics. Original UK shows have mostly stayed in London over the last 2 decades, if they’ve been produced at all. The creative, once-fruitful land of London theatre has grown barren, with government cuts to arts and diminishing financial faith in new, original works not helping the situation.
But of course, there is always hope. Whether you’re discussing art, politics or fashion, nothing is ever as simple as a slow drift into complete irrelevance and obscurity. I don’t believe that’s where we’re heading at all: over the last couple of years British musical theatre has been coming back to life. Not that it was ever really dead; just because British musicals haven’t been successfully produced across the world doesn’t mean the London theatre community isn’t brimming with life and creativity. Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong places.
The British theatre scene is building itself back up from the roots: fringe theatres and exciting new writers are coming into their own. Two years ago, the Cambridge Musical Theatre Society took a musical about Henry VIII’s six wives to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Six, written by then-students Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, is now playing at the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square with a huge UK tour, Broadway and Sydney runs planned. International recognition doesn’t define a successful show: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has been playing in London since 2017, with a UK tour starting next year. And there are countless new musicals being produced in smaller London theatres all the time; they may not run for amazingly long stretches of time but it’s these daring new productions that keep the creative lifeblood of London’s musical theatre scene flowing. They are ever-changing and adapting, with new writers surfacing constantly. Check out Soho Cinders, a London-based retelling of Cinderella soon to open at the Charing Cross Theatre, or a new musical based on Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity at the Turbine Theatre.
So even though the West End may look like a US-dominated monolith on the surface, underneath there are new exciting writers with amazing stories to tell. The British musical is not dead, and never has been – perhaps just sleeping. But we need to encourage this tentative new growth with support for original home-grown shows as well as big-budget Broadway hits, because breakthrough begins as a workshop or try-out.