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Mark Shenton: Musical theatre innovation isn’t only happening on Broadway

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh in Romantics Anonymous at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh in Romantics Anonymous at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Yes, this year has brought the West End the stage version of Bat Out of Hell and 2018 already promises us Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which opens at the Aldwych in March.

It would be tempting to compare them unfavourably with the Broadway-originated Hamilton, which has just begun its delayed previews at the Victoria Palace, and is a genuine game-changer. Meanwhile, also on Broadway, a series of original musicals pushing new boundaries have opened this year, from a folk musical retelling of a story of September 11, 2001 solidarity called Come from Away, to Dear Evan Hansen, a new story about a teenager who finds a lie spiralling out of control.

There were also adaptations of the film Groundhog Day (launched in 2016 at London’s Old Vic) and a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 that forged new territory for the musical in wonderful productions.

But not all the innovations are American. Britain has caught the idea that it’s good to be bold with new musicals and not necessarily keep to what’s safe, tried and tested.

There were at least four new musicals that offer bold signposts for the future of the homegrown musical in the UK.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, now at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Apollo after originating at Sheffield’s Crucible earlier in the year, is an absolutely thrilling original musical that adapts a real-life story of a male British teenager who went to his high school prom in a dress, based on a TV documentary.

But it’s far from the only evidence of a resurgence in real originality in musicals. Girl from the North Country, which premiered at the Old Vic earlier this summer and is transferring to the West End’s Noel Coward at the end of December, is a jukebox show with a total difference: it uses the Bob Dylan catalogue as an atmosphere-setting commentary to Conor McPherson’s portrait of a community.

The Grinning Man, which has just begun previews at the Trafalgar Studios after originating at Bristol Old Vic last year, is a gothic musical gem, based on a Victor Hugo novel, that conjures an entire world.

And possibly best of all, I finally caught up with Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It turned out to be a giant, generous joy of a show that I watched with a smile as wide as a mile, when I was not stifling back tears. It proves the sheer genius of director Emma Rice and the pay-off of the long relationships she builds with actors she works with regularly that here include Marc Antolin, Carly Bawden, Dominic Marsh and Joanna Riding. After the Globe board’s shameful treatment of Rice, it’s particularly pleasing that she’s leaving on such a high.

Emma Rice to step down as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe

Wouldn’t it be wonderful – and not a little ironic – if a future commercial life for Romantics Anonymous also provides the Globe with a valuable revenue stream?

Meanwhile, each of these shows prove that the creators of British-developed musicals (even if Romantics Anonymous is the work of New York-based writers Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond) can take on the best of Broadway in creating original shows of their own.

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