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How long-running shows are kept fresh around the world

Mazz Murray, Dianne Pilkington and Jo Napthine in Mamma Mia!, which has been running in the West End since 1999. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg Mazz Murray, Dianne Pilkington and Jo Napthine in Mamma Mia!, which has been running in the West End since 1999. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg
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Even before Les Mis stiffened the global sinews, Cats was purring and prowling its way round the world in the early 1980s, smashing box office records with an irresistible blend of innovative dance, catchy tunes and feline sensuality.

By the close of the 1980s, British musicals had conquered the world. In addition to Cats and Les Mis, there was The Phantom of the Opera, which went on to become the second longest-running musical on Broadway, and Starlight Express, which has been playing continuously at a specially built theatre in Bochum, Germany, since 1988, making it far and away Germany’s favourite musical.

To keep any big show fresh and user-friendly over three decades takes vigilance, organisation, and re-investment on a grand scale. It is something that British producers such as Cameron Mackintosh, David Ian and the Really Useful Company are extraordinarily good at.

Even in times of economic hardship, the future is brighter than ever for our musical entrepreneurs with the increasing demand for big-budget British and American shows in mainland China, which until a few years ago was a no-go area for western entertainment. Earlier this year David Ian, in partnership with Really Useful Group, took a tour of The Sound of Music to 12 Chinese cities, most of which had not been visited by UK theatre companies before.

The same production has just opened in Jakarta and moves on to Sydney in December. Its resident director, Jason Capewell, who has worked for David Ian Productions since 2003, admits the Chinese experience was “a whole different ballgame.”

He explains: “In most of the overseas places we go to there are English speakers and people we’ve worked with before. In China we had to allow a couple of extra weeks in each place because of the cultural differences. You can’t go barging in telling them how to do everything, you have to be patient and mindful of the Chinese input.”

Did the Chinese audiences like what they saw and heard?

“They are very polite,” says Capewell. “They’d sit there very quiet and attentive throughout the performance, reading the surtitles, then they’d all stand and applaud for three or four minutes at the end. It’s very different from a typical British audience and can be quite unnerving for the actors.”

Max Finbow, managing director of David Ian Productions, says, “Most of these Chinese cities we’ve never heard of have the most phenomenal theatres, each city wants to outdo its neighbour with the most iconic architectural achievement, and they are all desperately in need of large-scale product. The Chinese are very brand-orientated and the West End or Broadway imprimatur is important to them, the fact that it’s the London Palladium production of The Sound of Music counts for a lot in terms of marketing. They don’t want cheap copies, they want the real thing. Clearly it’s a great opportunity for theatre producers in the UK.”

The clear winner in the most-number-of-tours stakes is Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, if only by dint of the fact that it dates back to the 1960s, a good 10 years’ start on its nearest competitors. It can probably also claim to have been produced in more places around the world than any other show, as it has been licensed to play in 66 countries since it was made available to amateur companies 10 years ago. Its latest incarnation takes to the stage next month at the St Petersburg Children’s Theatre.

“Joseph is different from Phantom or Cats in that there is no definitive version,” explains Jessica Koravos of the Really Useful Group. “We like the fact that professional producers and amateurs can do the show in their own way.”

Built in 1988, the Starlight Express Theater in Bochum was specially designed to accommodate the show. Photo: Starlight Express Theater
Built in 1988, the Starlight Express Theater in Bochum was specially designed to accommodate the show. Photo: Starlight Express Theater

When a show like The Sound of Music takes to the road there is a lot of red tape to be negotiated before the creative process begins. In this instance, the show is owned and licensed by the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, so when they revived it at the London Palladium in 2006, co-producers David Ian and Really Useful had first to apply for a licence, stating their intentions and credentials.

Then a further licence had to be sought to tour the show in China, south-east Asia and Australia. While the show itself is rolled out in its entirety from London, the job of booking the theatre, marketing and bringing in an audience is down to the various, tried and tested overseas producers, such as James Cundall in Singapore, and John Frost in Australia.

One of the problems for British producers now making incursions into China is that those vital relationships on the ground, which determine what kind of business a show will do, have yet to be consolidated. Often juggling half a dozen touring shows at any one time, David Ian knows he must trust his lieutenants to act in his best interests.

“It’s where your reputation lives or dies,” he says. “If you do a good job, you’re a lot more likely to be granted licences to do other shows in the future. The way I see it, I’m responsible at both ends of the spectrum – to the licence or copyright holder, or in some cases such as Chicago and Jersey Boys, the original Broadway producer, who will have approval on everything, from the cast to the orchestration, but I’m also responsible to the locally based producing partner and promoter in all these places.”

Crucial to the success of any touring show is the resident director, the person charged with replicating the original template in every detail. He or she very often comes on-board during the show’s first run, so they can live and breathe the director’s wishes and intentions.

“Directors vary from show to show,” says Jason Capewell. “Some are very strict and insist it should be done exactly as they created it, others give you more freedom to adapt it to different audiences in different countries. I’ve learnt to leave my ego at the door and adapt to individual needs.

“I toured Grease for 11 years and I’d say David Gilmore, the original director, fell very much into the easygoing category. He was happy for me to make modifications according to where we were, so it was a bit slower in South Africa, a bit faster in Scotland.”

Clearly the shows that endure internationally are those with universal appeal – Les Mis, Phantom, Cats, Joseph, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music – but executive producer at Cameron Mackintosh Ltd Thomas Schonberg points out that their durability is only as good as their production standards.

“The only reason these shows are still popular after all this time is that they are maintained to the highest standards, and it is also important that they are reinvented from time to time, to ensure that they do not become museum pieces, and that a whole new generation of audiences see them in a new light.”

Longest running shows of all time

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