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Successful musicals look to the past

The cast of A Chorus Line. Photo: Tristram Kenton.
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On August 29, 2013, the first West End revival of A Chorus Line closed at the London Palladium after six months – a long way off the original 1976 Broadway transfer to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which ran into 1979.

Broadway’s economy has also changed in the 38 years since the musical’s premiere. While at its heart the universal theme of this musical telling us “to kiss today goodbye” and chase our dreams will always remain relevant, the show’s references to a Broadway of the seventies with its stories of dancers’ angst, now feels nostalgic and lost on much of today’s young audiences.

However, in its most recent 2006 Broadway revival, the show still sustained over a year and a half run on the Great White Way, yet its relative failure in the West End, like the 2010 West End transfer of HAIR from a successful Broadway run, could also suggest that today’s UK audiences are no longer as interested in the sound of these scores or connect with their material.

Earlier this year, I attended the Public Theater in New York’s production of Here Lies Love written by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim. The musical tells the story of Filipino politician Imelda Marcos and is performed in a promenade setting. With its two writers and rising star director Alex Timbers behind it, this could be considered the coolest creative team in town, while its writers are both newcomers to the musical form.

The show has been well-received by audiences and critics alike and is planned to transfer to a site-specific location in Manhattan during the coming year. Many heralded the show as a new age for the musical, and yet in deconstructing it there is much to be seen in its structure that mirrors that of the 1978 musical about another infamous dictator and his wife: Evita.

Here Lies Love actually follows a very traditional book musical format with its template even recognising the eleven o’clock number.

It is, in fact, the promenade staging that has perhaps served to divert from examining the actual structure of the material itself and which appears to suggest it is subverting the form of musical theatre more than it actually is.

Here Lies Love could be seen as one of the most significant steps in musical theatre since Jonathan Larson’s Rent exploded onto the New York Theatre Workshop stage in 1996. But again, Larson’s construction owes much to the form of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from which he takes that template, moulding it into a new form while closely respecting and reflecting within it those past successful musicals’ structure and disciplines.

Many musicals often fail because there is not enough regard given to what has gone before. Instead, there’s an ambition and perceived need to dismiss it and reinvent the wheel.

A Chorus Line and its at-the-time ground-breaking form allowed for many more musicals addressing urban and real themes and issues to follow (including Evita), much in the same way as those musicals before A Chorus Line laid a foundation from which it could evolve.

A life in the theatre is all about what you are doing next and I am not saying every musical must be constructed like these past successes. However, in the evolution of the form nor should we simply discount what has gone before but recognise and learn from the reasons why these past musicals were successful.

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