November 11, 2012 is a significant date for the West End. After a 24-year run, the curtain will fall on Blood Brothers by Willy Russell at the Phoenix Theatre.
The show’s departure reminds us of a time in theatre back in 1988 when many musicals did not have to first be a movie before being produced on a West End stage. In fact, Disney Theatrical – which ultimately became the catalyst for this subsequent rise – didn’t even exist.
Is this just nostalgia or was the West End better back then? Did it in fact offer and embrace more opportunity for originality? More significantly, was its “brand” better when the West End was a production’s single focal point?
For Blood Brothers, initially this was not the case. It originally played a limited run at the Lyric Theatre before Bill Kenwright picked up the rights and toured a new production for 12 months until Russell finally gave his permission for a West End transfer.
In 2012, Blood Brothers is a rare thing: a West End original book musical that has not been a movie
But in 2012, that show is a rare thing: a West End original book musical that has not been a movie. In 1988, musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera, Chess, Cats and Starlight Express were also playing – all original books and scores, not produced by movie companies or adapted from movies, specifically built for the West End and described as “blockbuster musicals”.
The reality is that rarely in today’s West End are musicals built any longer just for West End presentation but already with a view towards post-West End touring.
Part of this change between 1988 and 2012 could be that there was not an Ambassador Theatre Group owning a string of both West End and regional houses. Today, as one of UK theatre’s powerhouses, it constantly needs product to fill its venues, resulting in fast moves from the West End to the touring circuit. In contrast, back in 1988, Blood Brothers, after its West End opening, did not begin UK touring until 1995. Similarly, another 1988 West End hit, Me and My Girl, did not tour until its eight-year run had ended in 1993. The West End was the visible long-term and universally recognised destination to see these shows.
The West End today often outputs pocket-sized productions or revivals of the original (for example the Broadway transfers of Legally Blonde, 9 to 5 and the recent remount of Spamalot, or actor-musician revivals such as Sunset Boulevard and Sweeney Todd, representing a more economically efficient – if less spectacular – model than in contrast to their original productions).
By contrast, Wicked and Jersey Boys have been successful in the West End by not economising on their original Broadway scale and where – for at least the first few years of their runs – you have to go to see them thus fuelling both the West End economy and its reputation.
While the West End still remains an enviable internationally respected brand, it must be careful not to turn itself into a poor man’s cousin to its Broadway counterpart where spectacle is still pioneered with gusto.