The Stage 100 is intended to reflect who are the 100 most influential people working in the theatre and performing arts industry. It is considered from the point of view of The Stage, as a trade publication, and so focuses both on theatre as a business and an art form. Inclusion within the list and ranking is weighted towards achievements in the past 12 months, but also takes into account continuous achievement. We also aim to have a list that – as much as is possible and plausible – reflects the astonishing breadth of the theatre industry. However, we do not weight the list to attempt to make it gender-balanced or ethnically diverse: we believe the list should aim to reflect how the theatre and performing arts industry is, not what it aims to be, or we would like it to be.
To celebrate his 80th birthday, Ian McKellen had a remarkable idea. Rather than ‘holing up in a health spa in Spain’ as he had done for his 50th, the actor decided to mark the milestone by embarking on one of the most extraordinary undertakings of an already extraordinary career: a nationwide tour of a new one-man show – Ian McKellen on Stage.
He traversed the whole of the UK, with dates at 80 venues large and small, many of which he had existing relationships with, some of which he was visiting for the first time. The tour started at the Space, McKellen’s local arts centre on the Isle of Dogs, and finished at the Orkney Theatre in Kirkwall, more than 700 miles away. He then added on an 80-date West End run at the Harold Pinter Theatre for good measure.
The show was the theatrical event of 2019. It is hard to imagine another performer who could have pulled off such a feat, nor one who would have even thought of trying to.
This was an astonishing achievement, but what made it truly special – and propelled McKellen to the top of The Stage 100 – was the fact that this was more than a celebration of an actor’s illustrious career. The tour was a love letter to theatre itself and more specifically to local theatre. It was also an act of supreme generosity: of giving back, from an actor to an industry that he has made his home and that he has continued to return to, despite his global fame as a film star.
Because, as well as raising awareness for all the local theatres he performed in, McKellen raised money for them. All box office fees were kept by the host theatres, with McKellen giving his own time free of charge and encouraging them to spend that money on specific projects.
By the end of the show’s run, more than £4 million will have helped fund projects ranging from improved seating at the Albert Halls in Bolton (near where McKellen grew up) to supporting a three-week run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream designed for children on the autistic spectrum, produced by Flute Theatre and staged at the Bridge Theatre in London.
The influence of McKellen’s visit will be felt very tangibly by those in receipt of this money for years to come.
The tour will also have a lasting impact on the audiences who saw McKellen perform and will surely have come away inspired by McKellen’s passion for live theatre – in all its forms, but especially Shakespeare.
Over his career, McKellen has played most of the great Shakespearean roles. He has been Hamlet (1971), Romeo (1976), Macbeth (1976 – opposite Judi Dench), Richard II (1968), Iago (1989), Richard III (1990) and King Lear twice (2007 and 2017/18), to name just a few.
Ian McKellen on Stage featured the great actor delivering speeches from some of these Shakespearean roles, complemented with other parts he has made famous (Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Widow Twankey) and some more offbeat personal selections (a sublime recitation of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins). All this was interspersed with anecdotes about his life in the theatre and his experience as an activist for gay rights.
Indeed, in many ways, the tour was an extension of McKellen’s activism: it was an act of advocacy for the importance of live local theatre, at a time when the very concept is under threat.
Perhaps the tour’s greatest legacy will be that it illustrates to fellow theatremakers – and actors in particular – the extraordinary relationship that can be built up between a performer and the general public, if that performer is willing to dedicate themselves to taking theatre to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to them.
Speaking in November at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, McKellen exhorted his fellow actors to follow his lead and tour the country.
“When I make this point,” he said, “I’m told: ‘Oh, actors don’t want to tour.’ All actors? I bet there are a few actors out there who would like to tour. When we are assessing what a nation is, what could be more beneficial to our sense of community and national identity, than remembering that the most famous and celebrated Briton ever was not a politician of left or right. He was not a general, he was not a monarch, but he was a playwright-actor and we should rejoice that Shakespeare and the British drama he inspired are celebrated throughout the world.”
While the question of whether McKellen is the greatest actor of his generation is a moot point, it seems inarguable that his devotion to theatre – and especially theatre outside London – is unparalleled. Certainly, he has done more for theatre around the UK in 2019 than anyone else. We are very lucky to have him.
Last year: 24
Recent stage performances have included: Ian McKellen on Stage (2019), King Lear (2018), No Man’s Land (2016), The Syndicate (2011), Waiting for Godot (2009), The Seagull (2007), King Lear (2007)
Coming up in 2020: Ian McKellen on Stage runs until January 5. No further stage projects have been announced
By her own extraordinary standards, 2019 was a slightly subdued year for Friedman, who last topped this list in 2017. Still, even in a relatively quiet year, Friedman managed to pick up seven Olivier and six Tony awards for her shows, while continuing the global roll-out of arguably the world’s hottest theatre brand.
Sonia Friedman Productions’ critically acclaimed stagings of Summer and Smoke and The Inheritance closed in January, going on to scoop best revival and best new play respectively at the Oliviers. Ivo van Hove’s All About Eve did not quite land with critics, but it did superb business, thanks in no small part to its starry cast, led by Gillian Anderson and Lily James.
Trevor Nunn’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which SFP transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory, ran pretty much throughout the year, joining the ever-present Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Book of Mormon in the West End, while Mormon also embarked on its first UK and European tour.
But the artistic highlight of Friedman’s UK output in 2019 was Rosmersholm: this Rolls-Royce revival of a rarely staged Ibsen play was hailed by the Guardian’s Michael Billington as his number one show of the past year: “I’d rate this one of the best Ibsen productions I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Everything about this production felt right.”
While it was not quite a box-office smash, it did serve as a welcome reminder that high-quality, classical drama can still thrive in the West End (just about) and it was a great example of the kind of top-class commercial theatre in which Friedman specialises.
Internationally, it was all go. Ink and The Ferryman both triumphed at the Tony Awards and were followed on Broadway by the transfer of The Inheritance. This epic play about three generations of gay men in New York did not quite receive the ecstatic notices it had enjoyed in the West End. It will be interesting to see how it fares at this year’s Tony Awards. Her other Broadway productions included Mean Girls and The Jungle – a decent indication of the staggering range of SFP’s output.
Meanwhile, the worldwide roll-out of Harry Potter continued apace with the show opening in Melbourne and San Francisco. Hamburg and Toronto follow in 2020, and they surely won’t be the last, although the New York run does not appear to be doing the same spectacular business as its West End counterpart.
Back in London, 2020 is shaping up to be an exciting year, with a new Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt, plus a new adaptation of Uncle Vanya, a transfer of the US production of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Almeida’s The Doctor already all lined up for West End runs.
But amid all these glittering achievements there was one dark cloud: 2019 was the year that Friedman and her colleagues said goodbye to Teddy, her beloved Bichon Frise dog – a Theatreland icon in his own right and well known as “the real boss of SFP”, who died in May.
Last year: 2nd
Productions include: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Rosmersholm, Fiddler on the Roof, The Book of Mormon (West End and tour), All About Eve, The Jungle, Dreamgirls
Coming up in 2020: Leopoldstadt, Uncle Vanya, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Hamburg and Toronto)
Really Useful Group / LW Theatres
It was the year of old-school Lloyd Webber revivals in 2019, as Jesus Christ Superstar ran at the Barbican, Evita played at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat enjoyed sell-out success at the Palladium. With Phantom and School of Rock already in the West End, this meant Lloyd Webber had five shows running in London.
Behind the scenes, things were also as busy as ever. The composer closed his Theatre Royal Drury Lane and began a major £60 million redevelopment of the venue, which will reopen next year with Disney’s Frozen. He backed The Stage’s Get Into Theatre initiative, demonstrating again his desire to increase the diversity of the theatre sector, while his own LW Theatres partnered with ethical ticketing company Twickets, in an effort to offer customers a safe way to sell on their unwanted tickets. He was also busy putting the finishing touches to the big-screen adaptation of Cats, and writing his new musical, Cinderella, expected to land in the West End in 2020.
Last year: 3
Productions include: The Phantom of the Opera (London and New York), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, School of Rock
Coming up in 2020: Cinderella, Evita (Barbican)
Cameron Mackintosh Ltd / Delfont Mackintosh Ltd
Eyebrows were raised in the industry when Mackintosh announced plans to replace the original West End Les Misérables with a version based on the touring production. But the impresario proved once again he knows exactly what he’s doing, and – crucially – what audiences want.
While the Queen’s Theatre closed its doors for a major refurbishment – ahead of reopening as the Sondheim Theatre and the home to the ‘new’ Les Mis – a concert production of the musical popped up next door, at the Gielgud, starring the likes of Matt Lucas, Alfie Boe and Carrie Hope Fletcher. The concert enjoyed a sell-out run and was so popular that it was filmed and screened in cinemas.
Just around the corner at his Prince Edward Theatre, Mackintosh brought back that much-loved nanny Mary Poppins. He also gave £1 million to drama school Mountview and was awarded the Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts.
Last year: 4
Productions include: Hamilton, Mary Poppins, Les Misérables
Coming up in 2020: Les Misérables (on tour and in the West End), The Phantom of the Opera (UK tour)
As you’d expect with a theatre producing shows across three spaces, there were hits in 2019 at the National, but also some misses. There was the technically brilliant Anna, the epic Small Island, the returns of Follies and Translations and Annie Baker’s The Antipodes. Meanwhile, the year ended on a high with the ambitious The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But there was also the baffling When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other with Cate Blanchett and the disappointing Hansard and Peter Gynt.
West End transfers included The Lehman Trilogy and Nine Night, while A Taste of Honey starring Jodie Prenger was one of four major tours in 2019. It also worked with Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch on a Public Acts staging of As You Like It. Productions aside, director Norris and executive director Burger have committed to making the NT a carbon-neutral organisation, and to reduce the number of six-day rehearsal weeks it holds.
Last year: 5
Productions include: Follies, Small Island, Home, I’m Darling, The Lehman Trilogy, Anna, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Coming up in 2020: Romeo and Juliet starring Jessie Buckley, The Visit starring Lesley Manville, The Welkin starring Maxine Peake