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Half a century of great musicals: Part Four, 2003 to 2012

A scene from London Road at the National's Cottesloe Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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This week I’ve been offering a daily canter through my life so far, with a favourite musical (or two) for each year. In today’s final part of four, I come up-to-date with the years 2003 to 2012. This is obviously my own personal list; what are your own favourites? What have I left out? Post your comments below.

2003

Jerry Springer – the Opera opened at the National Theatre on April 29. This was the first new production of Nick Hytner’s regime at the helm of the National Theatre, though it had in fact been discovered and nurtured via workshops at BAC and a production on the Edinburgh Fringe before that.

It introduced a brilliantly subversive and original musical theatre voice in comedian turned writer Richard Thomas to the mainstream, though he’d served many years on the comedy circuit (as did Tim Minchin ahead of writing Matilda, see 2010 below). On a personal note, I’d known Richard since we were at University together – and he claims I gave him his first bad review! But I was happy to give him a great one for this.

I thought it broke hilarious new ground in form and content, and was a breath of (not so much fresh as filthy) air. 

I also loved the fact that, as Richard told me for a BBC interview at the time, “The opera crowd regard it as a musical, and the musical crowd think it’s an opera, but I’m very happy to be in a grey area, a no man’s land!”

He has since, of course, continued to play with form, co-writing an opera about Anna Nicole Smith for the Royal Opera House and a dance piece called Shoes for Sadler’s Wells.

Also in 2003, Wicked opened at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre on October 30, where it is still running today, and regularly tops Broadway’s weekly chart of the most financially successful show in town. It has also gone global, and has been playing in London since 2006. It’s not a show I’ve ever been able to truly love, though I’m impressed by its scale and spectacle and enjoy Stephen Schwartz’s score. I have returned to it a number of times over the years both on Broadway and in London to see different people playing the lead roles of the two outsiders whose friendship empowers them. It embarks on its first UK national tour late this year.

And also in 2003, Avenue Q followed the Rent route of opening first off-Broadway (at the Vineyard, in March) before transferring to the main stem (as Broadway is called), opening at the John Golden Theatre on July 31; and like Rent, too, it would go full circle, ending up re-opening at off-Broadway’s New World Stages (where it is still running now) after it closed on Broadway!

This delightfully subversive adult puppet musical was scored by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (who sadly never worked together again after completing this show, though Lopez has gone on to collaborate on The Book of Mormon with South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone). I saw it first on Broadway, then regularly in the West End when it transferred here and played, in turn, the Noel Coward, Gielgud and Wyndham’s Theatres, with Cameron Mackintosh – landlord of those theatres and the show’s London co-producers – valiantly propelling it to a 5 year run, even though it faltered when it initially opened and only a drastic weekday ticket price discount scheme kept it afloat.

2004

Caroline or Change transferred to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on May 2, after premiering at off-Broadway’s Public Theater the previous November. This impressive but challenging musical about the relationship between a young white Jewish boy and his family’s black maid, set in 1963, is charted against the social and political backdrop of the times.

Charged up with a jazzy but jagged score by Jeanine Tesori and an earnest but committed book by Tony Kushner, it’s a show I find easier to admire than love. (When my car was broken into and the cast album in my glove compartment was stolen,  I remember quipping that the thieves got what they deserved!) But when it came to London’s National Theatre in 2006, with the brilliant Tonya Pinkins reprising her New York performance as the maid, I was finally won over to its bracing, serious ambitions.

2005

Billy Elliot opened at the West End’s Victoria Palace on May 11, where it is still running today. Based on the 2000 film of the same name, it reunited Stephen Daldry, Peter Darling, Lee Hall, respectively director, choreographer and writer of that film, newly joined by Elton John as composer, who provided easily his best, most appropriate theatrical score to date.

This is a great British musical, gritty, heartwarming and moving, based around real-life events of the 1980s Miners’ strike, told with huge style and integrity. Most radically and bravely of all, it puts a tiny, not-yet-teenage boy at its very centre to carry the show; a feat that would be carried forward for young girl actresses with Matilda (see 2011 below). I love this show and as well as the London first night was thrilled to be at its Broadway premiere, too, in 2008. I last saw it in London in November, and as I wrote then,

I more or less sobbed my way right through it. A friend remarked in the interval that use of codeine painkillers, like I’m on for my hip at the moment, is prone to make one more emotional; but it wasn’t just that. I hadn’t seen the show for a couple of years, and suddenly felt overwhelmed by its portrait of the passing of one way of life – coalmining in Tyneside – but also the adoption of a new way of self-expression that young Billy takes to so unexpectedly yet so beautifully.

Also in 2005, The Light in the Piazza opened at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre on April 18, after development in Seattle and Chicago in the two previous years. This gorgeous musical, with its yearning, rhapsodic score by Adam Guettel, is one of the most intense and piercing love stories I’ve ever seen musicalised. Guettel, grandson of the great Richard Rodgers, is hardly the most prolific of composers, but his scores for Piazza and Floyd Collins (premiered off-Broadway in 1996, and brilliantly revived at Southwark Playhouse last year) mark him out as one of the most important writers of musicals working today.

As I wrote when Guettel came to London last year to do a beautiful cabaret evening of his work at the Hippodrome in a review for The Stage,

Never mind the quantity; feel the quality. Both of his shows are modern musical masterpieces, and I don’t use the phrase lightly. Even Sondheim was once moved to publicly list ‘The Riddle Song’ from Floyd Collins as among songs he’d wished he’d written himself. To hear it rivetingly performed by the composer himself, joined by the superb Jonathan Ansell (redeeming himself after the Superstar TV auditions debacle and proving himself to be a serious musical theatre artist again), helped make this one of the essential musical theatre nights of the year.

I saw Bartlett Sher’s beautiful original Broadway production of Piazza twice, where it starred Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara as the mother and daughter at the centre of it, and it also gorgeously done for its British premiere at Leicester’s Curve in 2009 a new production by Paul Kerryson that starred the lovely pairing of Lucy Schaufer and Caroline Sheen.

2006

Spring Awakening opened at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company on May 19, before transferring to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre later that year on December 10. I saw it at both addresses, and was knocked out by its dazzling melding of modern pop songs (by composer Duncan Sheik to lyrics by Steven Sater) to an adaptation of Franz Wedekind’s classic play about burgeoning teenage sexuality that kept the tensions between the two palpable. A mostly youthful cast brought great passion to it, too.

Though it ran on Broadway for just over three years, its London transfer failed to take the town, despite a stupendous recreation of the Broadway production that was superbly cast locally. Initial excitement was created by a sold-out engagement at Lyric Hammersmith, but the transfer to the West End’s Novello Theatre lasted just over two months. But between Hammersmith and the West End (where I saw it on its first and last nights in both places), I saw it at least six times, and loved it every time.

Also in 2006, The Drowsy Chaperone opened at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre on May 1, after prior developmental productions that had begun back in 1999 via the Toronto Film Festival. The latest in a trend towards metamusicals – musicals about musicals that also included The Producers, Spamalot and later on [title of show] – it was a brilliantly realized pastiche and tribute to 1920s musical comedies.

I laughed so hard the first time I saw it on Broadway that the producer apparently asked the press agent who the critic was who was sitting in K101-102 was, as I wrote about here then. When it came to London’s Novello Theatre in 2007 (where, like Spring Awakening at the same address, it would sadly flop), I had a different reaction on one of the two occasions I saw it: I actually threw up watching Elaine Paige  (But no, it wasn’t a reaction to her performance, as I wrote about here at the time, but a case of food poisoning).

2007

The Pirate Queen opened at Broadway’s Hilton Theatre (now the Foxwoods) on April 5 and closed just over two months later; it would be followed into the same address by Mel Brooks’s musical adaptation of his 1974 film Young Frankenstein. Both were massively collectable flops, and showing, as ever, that pride always comes before a fall, especially in the musical theatre.

The Pirate Queen had a score by Boublil and Schonberg, prime movers behind Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, but working without producer Cameron Mackintosh (who had already had a fall with them with their third show Martin Guerre); the lead producers instead were  Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who had been behind the global success of Riverdance.

The creative team was bolstered by co-lyricist John Dempsey and Richard Maltby Jr, both of whom have featured earlier in this series for their work on The Fix (in 1997) and Starting Here, Starting Now (in 1976) respectively. 

The cast included Britain’s own (and wonderful) Hadley Fraser and Stephanie J Block (an alumna of Wicked), but despite the pedigree, this ship quickly sank. I remember seeing it sitting in front of Rob Ashford (who hadn’t worked on it, I hasten to add), and we bonded then and there over our shared horror of what we were seeing.

Young Frankenstein was, if possible, even more morbidly terrible, partly it wasn’t even amusingly bad; it was just bad. Yet Mel Brooks, who had had such a big success in adapting The Producers for the stage, implemented a top price of $450 a ticket as lead co-producer of his own show, hubristically sure that it would follow that show’s success, which had also introduced premium pricing on Broadway for the first time. The legacy of that with both those shows lives on dubiously today all over Broadway and the West End.

2008

Gone with the Wind opened at the West End’s New London Theatre on April 22, and was followed at the same address in the same year by Imagine This, which opened on November 19, just as The Pirate Queen and Young Frankenstein shared the same address the year before on Broadway (see entry above).

Gone with the Wind ran for less than two months, closing on June 14, while Imagine This closed a month and a day after it opened on December 20.  As an inveterate collector of musical theatre flops, here was a veritable feast of  huge ambitions not matching the results in both cases.

Gone with the Wind, adapted from the Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name and its celebrated film version, had book, music and lyrics by debutant musical theatre writer Margaret Martin, who had secured the rights to adapt it by sending her songs and a draft script to the rights holders, and then in turn got Trevor Nunn on board to direct it. I went to the very first preview, which ran for over four hours. As I blogged at the time,

One thing I was curious about was how long it could possibly be: the copyright version of the 1939 film version, of course, runs for 3 hours 46 minutes, and Trevor Nunn productions are not noted for their brevity. Before Saturday’s performance began, a stage manager appeared and warned us that Nunn had obviously seen fit to trim not a single minute from that length: stating that this was currently longer than they wanted it to be, he respectfully asked audiences to leave as discreetly as possible if they had to go early, to avoid distracting the actors. In fact, the performance finally ended at 11.35pm – four hours and five minutes after it had begun. By then, great clusters of the audience had been frequently trickling away, presumably to make their last trains; those of us who had stayed to the end had the further delay of getting out of the New London, which is one of the hardest in London to leave since it is so entirely elevated from street level, and I didn’t get to the street till gone 11.45pm.

Then it was the turn of Imagine This, a scarily earnest musical set in the Jewish ghetto of Nazi occupied Warsaw, which was full of sincere intentions. As a banner unfurled at the end of the show-within-the-show that a theatre company was presenting to their fellow ghetto dwellers urging them “Don’t Get on the Train”, I turned to my companion and said, “It should say ‘Don’t Get on the Escalator’.”

2009

Next to Normal opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on April 15, heavily re-worked from previous workshop incarnations when it was titled Feeling Electric, and a subsequent off-Broadway staging at Second Stage in 2008 that included eliminating the original title song. It was then tried out again out of town in Washington DC, before finally  coming back to Broadway.

All the work paid off; here was a searingly painful and truthful musical about a woman confronting the twin demons of the loss of her son and an intense clinical depression that had affected her ever since. Beautifully written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), it featured a brilliant cast led by the captivating, heartbreaking Alice Ripley as the woman, who seemed to be living the role as if from the inside.

As a sometime sufferer of depression, I won’t deny that the musical spoke to me incredibly personally; but each time I saw it in New York – and I saw it nine times in all – I was overwhelmed also by the impact it had on those around me, too. Every single performance I saw had fellow audience members – and me – weeping openly. Broadway audiences can often be restless and unengaged; but this show held them gripped every time. I really hope it comes to London one day soon.

2010

American Idiot opened at Broadway’s St James Theatre on April 20. After all the occasionally successful (Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys) but mostly dismal musicals based around existing pop catalogues, this vivid and electrifying stage translation of a celebrated album by the band Green Day hit the bullseye.

As I wrote in my review for The Stage when the US touring version came to the UK last year,

I recently described the West End as hurtling ever closer to theme park oblivion with its over-reliance on the tried, already tested and familiar to produce jukebox musicals out of old pop catalogues, or in the case of Let It Be, not so much a musical as a tribute band concert in the guise of one. But exceptions can prove the rule, and American Idiot is exceptional – a bracing blast of kinetic energy and blistering musical daring with lighting that burns into your retina and sound that threatens to burst your eardrums. It is, almost literally, blindingly brilliant…. The show provides an astonishing marker that musicals and rock music don’t have to clash but can co-exist in the same restless, revolutionary show. It’s the single most exciting and original live rock musical I’ve ever seen.

Also in 2010, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson opened at Broadway’s Bernard B Jacobs Theatre on October 13. after previously premiering at off-Broadway’s New York Public Theater. This bracing original rock musical set the biographical story of the 7th US President to a hip, modern score, featuring words and music by Michael Friedman, that achieved a similar juxtaposition to that of Spring Awakening (see 2006 above). I saw it both off and on Broadway, and although it only ran for two and a half months after it opened on Broadway, it was thrillingly alive.

2011

London Road opened at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre on April 14, before being revived the following summer at the National’s larger Olivier. The first original British musical developed and produced by the National under Nick Hytner’s watch since 2003’s Jerry Springer – the Opera (though there have been imports from Broadway of Caroline or Change and Fela!), this riveting and thrilling musical set the verbatim words (collected and edited by playwright Alecky Blythe) of an Ipswich community affected by the serial murders of prostitutes in 2006 to Adam Cork’s insinuatingly clever score.

Rufus Norris directed a stunning ensemble cast in this most radical of departures for musical form seen on a London stage in years. I saw it twice at the Cottesloe and three times at the Olivier.

Also in 2011, Matilda the Musical opened at the West End’s Cambridge Theatre on November 24, where it is still running today, after a try-out at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre the previous Christmas. As I wrote in my review for The Stage when I first saw it in Stratford,

A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Miserables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again… It refills the stock of moppet musicals – from Oliver! and Annie to Billy Elliot – and gives it a giddy and invigorating burst of new life, thanks to the jaunty, tuneful wit of Aussie comedian and composer Tim Minchin’s songs, and a production by Matthew Warchus that has bite, bile and some brilliance. The tone and style is somewhere between Warchus’ own staging of Our House and a kids’ version of Spring Awakening.

It heads to Broadway next, opening at the Shubert Theatre on April 11. I can’t wait to see it again there.

2012

Once opened at Broadway’s Bernard B Jacobs Theatre on March 18, after a try-out at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop the previous December. I saw it both off-Broadway and three times on Broadway now, and am hugely looking forward to seeing again when it comes to the West End’s Phoenix Theatre where it will open in April, after a Dublin try-out next month.

The show, which won last year’s Tony for Best Musical on Broadway, is going head-to-head in London with the arrival of The Book of Mormon, the Tony winner of 2011, the month before – but Once could be the sleeper hit London needs.

It is a homecoming of sorts, too, for this quietly reflective, moving stage version of the 2006 Irish indie film hit, since most of the creative team are Anglo-Irish, including director John Tiffany, book writer Enda Walsh, designer Bob Crowley and orchestrator Martin Lowe, each of whom won Tony Awards for their efforts, plus Tony nominated choreographer Steven Hoggett. It’s interesting that they had to come first to New York Theatre Workshop to create the show, rather than originate it closer to home.

Continue reading Half a Century of Great Musicals:

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