It’s the time of year when critics and commentators routinely draw up their best of the year lists, and I’m no exception. In the bumper Christmas edition of The Stage, you can find my critical round-up of the West End year, but in today’s column I want to highlight my 10 favourite musical theatre events of 2014.
Back in August, I declared the Lion “one of the smallest shows in town, featuring just a man and six guitars on an otherwise bare stage. It runs for just 70 minutes. And yet it is, for me, absolutely the best original musical of the year so far, on either side of the Atlantic.” I ended up seeing it a third time, too, and now that the year has drawn to a close, it simply hasn’t been bettered in content or execution. Benjamin Scheuer’s deeply affecting and personal journey, set to his own thrilling songs, through his childhood battles with his late father and his later struggles with his former girlfriend and his now banished cancer. Scheuer will bring it back to Off-Broadway’s Lynn Redgrave Theatre at Culture Project from February 3. Book your flight now.
The Lion wasn’t the only show I saw at least three times this year. I was also a serial return visitor to the UK premiere of Dogfight, Pasek and Paul’s brutal but eventually beautiful 2012 Off-Broadway musical. Its portrait of misogyny brought charge from some critics that it was itself guilty of misogyny, but portraying something is different to endorsing it. Besides, Laura Jane Matthewson’s astonishing performance of female empowerment – after being used as pawn in a man’s game – silenced all doubts about who held all the cards here. She was tenderly supported by the growing emotional awakening of Jamie Muscato to make this one of the most heartfelt shows of the year.
Also at Southwark Playhouse — now one of the most enterprising theatres in London — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2007 Off-Broadway musical In the Heights also received its UK premiere. I loved this rawer, rougher production in London even more than I did when I saw the more polished version in New York. It had a much sweatier vigour, particularly thanks to the choreography of fast-rising star Drew McOnie. There are hopes to get this production to the West End – I only hope they’re able to hold onto the atmosphere they created in Southwark.
Okay, I’m cheating a bit here – this should actually be three separate entries, since each of the three shows presented in the Union Theatre’s celebration of the person I personally consider to be Britain’s foremost theatrical compose was a real gem.
The Dreaming, originally written for the National Youth Music Theatre, was given its first professional outing, and revised Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a yearningly romantic score.
Love Story reprised Goodall’s musical 2010 musical – first seen at Chichester and then at the West End’s Duchess – in a captivatingly sincere production that featured performances of quiet, wounding intensity by David Albury and Victoria Serra as the two protagonists, two more of the best performances I saw all year in musicals alongside the two leads in Dogfight (see above).
Finally, Girlfriends – Goodall’s 1987 musical that was a fast West End flop – was sensationally reclaimed, with its haunting score of surging choral anthems providing a tapestry of emotion in music. I can’t wait for the West End premiere of Goodall’s latest, Bend It Like Beckham, in 2015 at the Phoenix.
The Menier has already become London’s foremost Sondheim destination, with previous productions of Sunday in the Park With George and A Little Night Music both transferring to the West End and Broadway, and Merrily We Roll Along going to the West End, as well as offering the UK premiere of Road Show. Now artistic director David Babani revisits Assassins – the show that he began his producing career with at the New End in 1997, when he wasn’t yet 21 – to offer it at the Menier in a stunning new production by Jamie Lloyd, with a tremendous cast that includes Broadway’s Aaron Tveit, Catherine Tate, Andy Nyman, Mike McShane, Stewart Clarke and Simon Lipkin.
Timothy Sheader had a tough time with Ragtime in 2012 at the Open Air Theatre that he runs, but this year came good with a searingly wonderful production of Gershwin’s 1935 ‘folk opera’ Porgy and Bess. A glorious ensemble cast sang it beautifully – probably the best musical I’ve ever seen at this address.
Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke stages her first-ever musical with brio and brilliance. It helps that Cy Coleman, Larry Gelbart and David Zippel’s 1989 Broadway show is so literate, musical and witty, but Rourke and her creative collaborators bring it to sizzling life with a luxury cast that includes Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig (newly-weds offstage as well as on now), Tam Mutu, Samantha Barks and Rebecca Trehearn (the latter of whom was another stand-out in Dogfight).
By sheer coincidence, the London transfer of Here Lies Love coincided neatly with a West End revival of Evita, both revolving around the women behind the thrones of dictators. The West End Evita starred a stunning Madelena Alberto in the title role of Argentina’s Eva Peron, and Here Lies Love starred Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. These stunning musicals are each as bold as they are respectively different.
The new British musical of the year for me was Charles Miller’s Return of the Soldier, a really special chamber musical seen briefly at Jermyn Street Theatre. With its brooding, lingering score, set to lyrics by Tim Sanders, it was performed with a fierce integrity by Laura Pitt-Pulford, Zoe Rainey, Stewart Clarke, Michael Matus and Charlie Langham. It throbbed with feeling and heartache.
The biggest new indigenous musical was Made in Dagenham, which like Billy Elliot is based on a film about a true-life industrial dispute that led to lasting changes in the way we live (and work) today. Richard Bean’s witty script anchors the story and Rupert Goold stages it with finesse. Though David Arnold’s score could do with more take-home melodies, there’s plenty to cheer here.
And the rest…
It was a good year for musicals overall – even while shoe-horning in extra entries here by combining Evita and Here Lies Love and the three Goodall musicals, I’ve left out the returns of Cats, Miss Saigon and the West End’s latest jukebox compilation Sunny Afternoon, not to mention the Menier’s delightful re-run of Forbidden Broadway, Memphis (with a cast stunningly led by Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly) or I Can’t Sing!.