Richard Jordan: Musicals are flourishing, so why don’t we hear them on the radio?

Michael Ball Michael Ball
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Two of the top-selling chart albums of the past 12 months were Alfie Boe and Michael Ball’s Together Again, and Leading Ladies, featuring West End stars Beverley Knight, Cassidy Janson and Amber Riley.

Both albums saw these artists performing familiar standards from stage musicals.

Last week, it was announced that in May, the first West End revival of Chess will star Ball opposite pop and Strictly Come Dancing star Alexandra Burke.

What should that tell us? That the musical is the most popular cross-generational mainstream art form?

Musicals are having their biggest renaissance since the defining eras of the ’80s blockbusters and the golden age of Broadway. There is renewed interest in the art form because of shows as diverse and original as HamiltonDear Evan Hansen, Come From Away and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, plus long-running classic musicals, revivals and jukebox shows.

For the first time in years, the new original musical has galvanised itself. Writers are choosing what they want to write about and brilliant original ideas are back to being as off-the-wall as when Cats first danced or Curly sang about the Oklahoma meadows.

The results of these new voices breaking through is thrilling, but will they have as great a legacy as their predecessors?

While it is the case that musicals’ position is the strongest it has been for a quarter of century, there has been a real demise in hearing songs from musicals being widely played on the radio. This seems at odds with the public’s appetite for the genre.

Once, radio was musical theatre’s greatest asset – a collaborator for the growth and positioning of this art form in popular culture.

Musicals such as Les Miserables, The Phantom of The Opera, Chess and Cats all saw charted hit singles and used radio playtime as a driving part of their marketing campaigns. The concept albums of musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar also saw them become hit records long before they were ever staged.

This meant that songs could be recognised on their own merit and could drive familiarity of a show when it was staged.

It also meant that songs released on major recording labels from musicals such as Evita, Phantom and Jesus Christ Superstar, which became modern standards, were mirroring those of the Great American Songbook which received wide radio playtime.

For today’s composers, though, I doubt the legacy of their work will remain as defined in the memory because radio no longer positions it across mainstream programming. Musicals have instead become much more marginalised by broadcasters.

Take Hamilton. Its album has won a Grammy, but none of its songs have significantly featured on any mainstream radio shows except Radio 2’s Elaine Paige on Sunday. Today, this is virtually the only time one hears a musical song played across any main station network in the UK.

The arrival of Encore Radio – a digital and online station dedicated to musical theatre – has helped give greater airtime to musicals; however, in 2018, musical theatre has been turned into “specialist interest programming”, which fails to match with the apparent public popularity of the form.