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David Benedict: It’s not just shows, theatres thrive on imaginative reworkings too

Les Miserables at the Queen's in London's West End. Photo: Shutterstock The Queen's Theatre in London's West End is to be renamed after Stephen Sondheim. Photo: Shutterstock
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While some musical theatre aficionados, myself included, know more than our fair share about queens, we know rather less about the Queen’s. I’m not talking about Six, the cheeky, mock-Tudor musical at the Arts Theatre. I mean Cameron Mackintosh’s theatre on Shaftes­bury Avenue (he also owns the Gielgud next door), which is about to close for refurbishment, reopening in December as the Sondheim.

To save you the bother of looking her up, the queen in question when the theatre was built (1907) was Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Empress Consort of India as wife of Edward VII, also known as Queen Alexandra of Denmark, the present queen’s great-grandmother.

The very good news is that, unlike the small but noisy old guard who attempted to hold back time when Indhu Rubasingham rebuilt, repositioned and renamed the Tricycle theatre as the Kiln, the royal family doesn’t seem in the least miffed by the renaming.

Indeed, the only faintly controversial thing about the story is that when Les Misérables returns to reopen the building, it will be in Mackintosh’s newer incarnation of the show, a fact that hasn’t gone down well with some of the original’s more staunch fans who believe John Napier’s design and, principally, the revolve are fundamental to appreciation of the musical.

Les Mis designer John Napier criticises plans to replace West End production with ‘fudged’ update

I have no horse in this race and concede that there are arguments on both sides, especially when the original production, as much as the work of its writers, has contributed to a work’s uninterrupted success.

Yet I do, where appropriate, tend to favour imaginative reworkings, which is why I am crossing every available digit for the announced 2020 Broadway production of West Side Story choreographed by the unexpected choice of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and directed by Ivo van Hove, who is chief among those directors of whom it can be said that when he’s good he’s very, very good (A View from the Bridge) and when he’s bad he’s All About Eve.

Back in the present, chief among the musical classics currently in revival is the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of the imperishable Fiddler on the Roof, now boasting a fresh cast alongside Andy Nyman continuing as Tevye.

Okay, cards on the table: I’m as big a fan of the musicals of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick as the next person (actually, more) but, for me, their masterpiece is not the beloved Fiddler, it’s their lesser-known jewel She Loves Me. The latter pulls off the seriously rare trick of being a masterpiece adapted from a masterpiece – Lubitsch’s tender, touching and terrific romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940) starring Margaret Sullavan and a never-better James Stewart. The late, great Nora Ephron loved that movie so much she remade it with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as You’ve Got Mail.

Fiddler has had a more than healthy London life. The original production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, ran for just shy of five years at Her Majesty’s Theatre and has reappeared, for better – and worse – in every decade since. Two years ago, Daniel Evans directed a remarkable new production at Chichester with a notably ethnically diverse cast led by Omid Djalili as Tevye the hardworking milkman in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka facing up to the marrying off of his five daughters: it’s Jewish Jane Austen or, as I like to think of it, Pride and Prejyiddish.

Evans’ atypical yet trenchant and passionate production was scouring the West End for a theatre when Trevor Nunn’s Menier production was announced, so it’s small wonder that the latter made its way to the Playhouse complete with a superb environmental design by Robert Jones steeped in evocative colour by lighting designer Tim Lutkin. The design as a whole conveys the cramped village at the musical’s considerable heart and, better yet, pulls the audience into it. Yet with the outstanding exception of Nyman’s rigorously authentic, wonderfully vivid central performance, there’s a sentimentality to Nunn’s handling of the material that Evans’ production eschewed to far more winning effect.

Where Nunn’s production succeeds most is in its sense of community. And at the very opposite end of the scale, a different community simply glows in Sam Harrison’s tiny and deeply touching paean of praise to the hidden power of Hello, Dolly! – and all musical theatre – in Love Is Only Love.

Scrupulous direction by Jason Morell elicits knockout performances from the calmly beguiling Harrison and a dazzling, emotionally precise David Seadon-Young. The show is as elegantly witty as it is touching (very), crisply avoiding every cliché of the coming-of-age/coming-out genre. It was at the Other Palace as part of the Pride celebrations but deserves a far bigger life.

West End’s Queen’s Theatre to be renamed after Stephen Sondheim

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict

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