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Mark Shenton: 2015 musical theatre highlights

Natalie Dew in Bend it Like Beckham. Photo: Ellie Kurttz Natalie Dew in Bend it Like Beckham. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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The commercial theatre, on both sides of the Atlantic, is heavily dependent on musicals for much of its financial health. While most plays come and quickly go – the 13-week star-driven vehicle has become the regular producing template – musicals typically aim to have more lasting power; unless they, too, are star-driven vehicles that can only run as long as their stars can commit.

I’m sure that this year’s transfer of the Chichester production of Gypsy could have run for years at the Savoy if Imelda Staunton could have kept it up; as it is, she did a ferocious, towering and virtually unbroken run of some eight months, and of all eight performances a week. The best television treat of the Christmas season will surely be a telecast of a filmed performance of the show on BBC4 on December 27.

Staunton has long been one of British theatre’s best-kept secrets, and when I interviewed her for The Stage before it transferred, she revealed to me that the production should have happened a year before it did, but was postponed.

The reason? “I don’t think I was famous enough. I’m not a big enough name to open in the West End,” she told me then. It was only after the rave reviews at Chichester that it finally did. And if there’s one really satisfying thing about it, she’s now finally been acclaimed as a bona fide West End star in the process.

She’s now in the Sheridan Smith territory of being able to sell tickets on the strength of her name alone (Smith, coincidentally, will follow Staunton into the Savoy in another Jule Styne-scored revival, Funny Girl, currently playing a sell-out run at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory). Funny Girl feels a little cramped and crowded on the Menier stage, but it should have more room to breathe when it moves – and Smith is, as ever, astonishing.

Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple. Photo: Nobby Clark

It’s the latest in the powerhouse Menier’s triumphs. The venue took coals to Newcastle again by returning The Color Purple to Broadway earlier this month with its London star Cynthia Erivo reprising her Menier performance to the sort of star-making reviews that make me wonder if we’ll ever see her again on the London stage. And the Menier also brought the sensational Burt Bacharach revue Close to You (originally titled What’s It All About?) from Off-Broadway to Southwark in the summer, before moving it to the West End’s Criterion, where it is now running.

New York also sent the West End jukebox show Beautiful – the Carole King Musical (playing at the Aldwych), as well as delivering the London transfer for the British-set Kinky Boots, with its score by Cyndi Lauper. The show is now at the Adelphi, and won this year’s London Evening Standard award for best musical (by public vote).

Those awards, enslaved as they are to the cult of celebrity, also recognised Gemma Arterton for the newly created newcomer in a musical award for Made in Dagenham, over the more deserving Natalie Dew in Bend It Like Beckham, my own personal favourite (and completely homegrown) musical of the year.

Meanwhile, the National employed Blur frontman Damon Albarn to score Wonder.land, its Christmas flop of a musical that’s Wonder.less rather than Wonder.ful. I’m surprised the NT took it forward after its rushed summer try-out as part of the Manchester International Festival revealed serious flaws, but I also hoped it would be able to fix them.

Rufus Norris was much better represented as director of London Road, the single most audacious musical yet presented at the NT that stretched the form into totally new verbatim territory. He also brought it to the cinema screen this year with its original theatre cast augmented by stars including Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy and Anita Dobson.

Evelyn Hoskins in Carrie The Musical. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Evelyn Hoskins in Carrie The Musical. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Outside London, stage versions of Mrs Henderson Presents (at Theatre Royal Bath before heading to the Noel Coward in February) and Calendar Girls (at Leeds and next at Salford’s Lowry in January) were hits, while Sheffield’s Crucible offered the year’s most glorious revival in Daniel Evans’ production of Show Boat.

Beyond the West End, musicals also thrived in London at the Lyric Hammersmith (reopening after refurbishment with Drew McOnie’s sensationally choreographed Bugsy Malone, set to return next summer) and at Southwark Playhouse, which had the London premieres of Carrie (a fast Royal Shakespeare Company flop in the 1980s), Broadway’s underwhelming Xanadu, and a thrilling new production of the Maury Yeston co-scored Grand Hotel, directed by Thom Southerland. Southwark’s 2014 London premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway hit In the Heights was revived for a lively move to the new King’s Cross Theatre.

Miranda, of course, was responsible for the year’s single most talked-about musical on either side of the Atlantic when Hamilton premiered at Off-Broadway’s Public before moving to the Richard Rodgers, and is now reportedly London-bound next year. But first, Motown the Musical will arrive from Broadway at the Shaftesbury in February.

The year ahead also promises the latest of English National Opera’s musicals in concert, in which Glenn Close will reprise her Broadway performance as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Meanwhile, Lloyd Webber has promised that his current Broadway entry, School of Rock, will arrive at the London Palladium in the autumn. When I interviewed the composer last summer for The Stage, he told me: “I’d love one more hit.” I think he’ll get his wish.

Mark Shenton’s musical picks of 2015

Alex Young and Danny Collins in Show Boat. Photo: Johan Persson
Alex Young and Danny Collins in Show Boat. Photo: Johan Persson

Best new musical
Bend It Like Beckham (Phoenix Theatre, London)

Best revival
Show Boat (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield)

Best performance by an actress in a musical
Imelda Staunton (Gypsy)

Best performance by an actor in a musical
Killian Donnelly (Kinky Boots)

Best director
Daniel Evans (Show Boat)

Best Choreography
Drew McOnie (Bugsy Malone, Oklahoma! (tour), In the Heights)

Disappointment of the year
Wonder.land (National Theatre, London)

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