2018: Best musicals of the year
In the absence of attention-stealing shows such as Hamilton, there was a stunning mix of old-fashioned classics, innovation and some new British musicals. Tim Bano toasts the shows that made for a cracking year
No musical in 2018 could quite top the all-vanquishing hype of Hamilton in 2017, but the year hasn’t been without its high points. Or, indeed, hype. So let’s start with Heathers, the cult adaptation of a cult film that had a West End run after a trickle of a tryout at the Other Palace in London earlier in the year. There was so much marketing around the show that it was difficult to tell what was coming from the fandom and what from the relentless churn of the PR machine.
In the end, it turned out that the show was really good and all the other critics were wrong. Great score, really strong performances, particularly from Carrie Hope Fletcher (what a voice) and creepiness from Jamie Muscato. I mean, there were critics who loved the Strictly Ballroom musical earlier this year, despite it sapping the soul of the original film, and yet hated Heathers for the same charge. How very.
A show that also caused a stir before it had started was The Assassination of Katie Hopkins at Theatr Clwyd in Wales. It came complete with a one-person protest outside the theatre, though said protester was brought cups of tea by staff, somewhat diffusing the tension. Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth’s exploration of free speech was full of ideas, and a really exciting thing to see programmed and produced by a midscale producing house outside London.
The West End has upped its game, even just a little bit, in terms of musical representation: Arinze Kene’s form-breaking Misty played with music at Trafalgar Studios but Caroline, Or Change at Playhouse Theatre, transferring from Hampstead, stars Sharon D Clarke as a maid in a white Jewish household in Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s musical.
Tesori is finally getting the recognition in this country that she deserves. Besides Caroline, Or Change, her award-winning musical Fun Home, written with Lisa Kron, opened at the Young Vic to crown David Lan’s stupendous final season and mighty career at the theatre – along with The Jungle and The Inheritance. Fun Home is based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, and is easily one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had a more moving experience in a theatre than watching the show – which is all about Alison coming out to her closeted dad – on Pride weekend among a sea of weeping faces. How has this not transferred to the West End yet?
While there were some great Stephen Sondheim revivals across the country, including a lovely A Little Night Music at Chester’s Storyhouse, probably the best to be seen this year was Marianne Elliott’s reinvention of Company with Rosalie Craig as a female Bobbie. It’s the perfect example of how to thoroughly think through an update of a slightly dated show. It’s going on into next year, so just go and bloody book.
On the other end of the ‘how well thought through is our revival’ spectrum was Chess. They threw everything at it, poor loves. To be fair, the tech was pretty impressive, but what a ravaging of Benny and Bjorn’s fantastic score.
Away from the West End, creatives on the fringe have been doing brilliantly inventive things with musicals on the small scale. There was Gus Gowland’s Pieces of String at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, Moonfleet at Salisbury Playhouse, and Adam Lenson’s adventurous outings at Southwark Playhouse – including a really tight revival of Kander and Ebb’s The Rink and a bold new musical about the Bronte sisters called Wasted.
I also loved Mythic at Charing Cross Theatre, based on the story of Greek god Persephone who falls in love with sexy, moody Hades and decides to live with him in the underworld, much to the disappointment of her mother Demeter, who happens to be the goddess of food. Marcus Stevens and Oran Eldor’s punchy pop songs had more hooks than a Peter Pan convention and the whole thing was a snappy delight.
Anais Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin’s Hadestown at the National picked up where Mythic left off, following Eurydice’s descent into Hades and Orpheus’ attempts to win her back. Featuring what has been scientifically proven to be the deepest voice in the world from Patrick Page as Hades, the whole show was full of style and class and footstomping folk songs.
A different brand of folk infused Sting’s troubled musical The Last Ship, which finally found its sea legs under Lorne Campbell’s direction at Northern Stage, showing how regional theatres can make great successes of big musicals that Broadway failed, and how brilliantly a musical can be local and universal at the same time.
A yen for the classics saw the ever-wonderful Rebecca Trehearn light up a lovely revival of Sweet Charity at Nottingham Playhouse, a venue that is having new life breathed into it by artistic director Adam Penford, and Elizabeth Newman directing the better of two simultaneous productions of Summer Holiday – hers at Bolton’s Octagon, while the other toured the country.
The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre musical is always a highlight of the year, and Maria Aberg’s slime-green saturated Little Shop of Horrors was no exception. With Jamie Lloyd taking on Evita there next year, it looks like the venue’s reputation will remain in tact.
In a way it has been nice not to have such attention-stealing shows as Hamilton. The absence of one big focal point only goes to show, by comparison, how consistently good the whole year has been. We’ve seen old-fashioned classics, stunning innovation, a couple of brand new British musicals. What more could we possibly want?
Best and worst musicals
BEST OF THE YEAR
Fun Home (Young Vic)
WORST OF THE YEAR
Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre, London)
The absolute worst musical of the year was this massively shoddy medieval romp set to a wedding DJ playlist. But the absolute worst thing of the year that was not a musical? Killer Joe, without a doubt. A completely thoughtless revival of Tracy Letts’ play with Orlando Bloom that was irredeemably nasty.