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In praise of musicals beyond the West End

There are currently a whopping 19 musicals on seemingly full-time residencies in the West End (though one, Love Never Dies, closes at the end of next week), plus limited runs of Crazy for You at the Open Air, London Road at the National, the return of Fela! to Sadler’s Wells, and South Pacific, now previewing at the Barbican (ahead of an official opening next Tuesday). By contrast, there are just 12 plays on commercial runs, plus 8 plays in repertory at the National and Shakespeare’s Globe. And of those plays, only the inevitable Mousetrap, Woman in Black, 39 Steps and now War Horse are on open-ended runs.

So musicals not only dominate the commercial West End, but they also stick around a lot longer, leading to the paradoxical state that though there are fewer plays over musicals in terms of numbers running overall, many more of them actually open in the West End and at the National across the year.

Then there’s also the fact that places like the Donmar, Royal Court, Young Vic, Almeida, Hampstead and Tricycle also constantly add to the constantly changing mix with yet more plays, and we still have a theatre culture that is overwhelmingly play-based, despite West End appearances to the contrary.

That’s even more the case elsewhere on the fringe, where of 40 shows listed in this week’s Time Out in their Off-West End and fringe section, just seven are musical-based, including a youth theatre run of Fame - the Musical at the Lyric Hammersmith and the latest OperaUpClose production at Soho Theatre of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The fringe has traditionally shied clear of musicals, and for very good economic reasons: beyond two-handers like Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, they’re usually more demanding of resources and people. If you’re operating on a profit share, and only have 60 seats to sell, there’s not going to be much money to go around at the end of the day when, as was the case when I saw The Hired Man at the Landor last night, you have a cast of 17 plus an orchestra of four.

Yet there’s a huge gain from seeing a show like this in the close-up quarters of such a small space with such a big cast: the shattering intensity of the piece that it also has in much larger spaces is magnified even more. I have a long history with this show - I saw the original production that came to the Astoria (now a Crossrail hole-in-the-ground at Tottenham Court Road), after a try-out run at Southampton (where the cast had curiously included Tilda Swinton!), in 1984, which was incidentally before Andrew Keates, the 25-year-old director of last night’s production, was even born.

It is still, hands-down, the best-scored British musical to have opened in the intervening 27 years, and the most distinctively English of any. (When I appeared on Elaine Paige’s radio show a few years ago to choose my “essential musicals” - i.e. my favourite shows — it was one of my five!)

I therefore follow it as religiously as I do productions of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the play that I’ve previously credited for changing my life and giving me the theatre bug in the first place, though of course it doesn’t turn up nearly as often. Still, I’ve seen it over the years not once but twice in New York (both in an off-Broadway premiere in a tiny theatre on West 42nd Street and then again when a UK touring production from New Perspectives Company turned up at 59E59 Street Theatre as part of its annual Brits Off-Broadway season), and regionally in Salisbury in 2003, when one of Goodall’s most scorchingly beautiful of all songs ‘Day Follows Day’ was added to the score.

And although the original production, with Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills playing the central couple (who subsequently married in real life and are still together today) is still seared in my memory, last night’s was a showing to rival it. That’s saying a lot, but I’d go even further: it’s one of the best musical productions I have ever seen on the fringe, from the confident, organic way director Andrew Keates marshals the large cast in this small space, to the stunning design of Freya Groves, the walls like the coalface of a mine and simple straw bales for the countryside scenes and Howard Hudson’s atmospheric lighting.

But most of all one is struck by the quite extraordinary range of musical talent that is being produced in England nowadays to provide a cast as strong as this. Catherine Moat and Joe Maxwell, who have both just graduated from Guildford School of Acting, both give beautifully nuanced and gorgeously sung performances as the central couple, with Abigail Matthews and Ben McMath (both recent graduates of Mountview) as their daughter and son providing vim and vigour. But it’s a production of rigour throughout the ranks; this is an ensemble that is perfectly in tune (in every sense) wih the piece and each other. It feels ego-free, with each person there to serve the piece.

Next up at the Landor is a new production of Ahrens and Flaherty’s Ragtime, running from September 1 to October 8; I can’t wait. It’s one of a clutch of major musicals that are receiving fringe productions now - just this week, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade opened at Southwark Playhouse’s second Vault space, and next week performances begin at the Union for Michael John LaChiusa’s Bernarda Alba, to be followed by a new production of Stephen Schwartz’s rarely-seen The Baker’s Wife (it’s British premiere in 1989 in a Trevor Nunn directed staging was a short-lived West End flop), while the Menier, of course, still has the UK premiere run of Sondheim’s Road Show playing to September 18. If you care about musicals, you won’t want to miss any of them.

8 Comments

We saw The Hired Man on Tuesday and I thought it was incredibly moving: such beautiful much and a superb cast. The use of the space at the Landor is terrific. Dames at Sea at the Union was also brilliant; even nicer that Mr Roy Hudd was sitting in the front row.
We have booked to see Parade at The Southwark Playhouse have booked to see Sondheim’s Road Show for a second time!

Should read 'such beautiful MUSIC' - sorry for the typo!

I'm glad someone else has mentioned the Union. I saw Dames at Sea last night and it's just what we can now reliably expect from this tiny, crumbly venue – the cream of young talent fresh out of stage school, with brilliant choreography and a sense of delight at being involved from all concerned, including the old stagers who beef up the cast. It's a privilege to be sitting that close to something that good (however flimsy the material itself) – yet it only costs fifteen quid.

Just seen you mentioned them yourself right at the bottom - I know you're a great supporter!

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And don't forget the sterling work that Youth Music Theatre UK are doing - a premiere of James Bourne and Elliot Davis' OUT THERE in Bracknell next week - they are a major commissioner of new musicals and produce all over the UK

Totally agree with the comments re "Dames at Sea" and "The Hired Man" - both brilliant pieces and amazingly well performed and presented given the constraints of both locations. There is nothing like theatre up close - you really can't appreciate it from Row S of the Stalls in a huge auditorium! At the Landor and the Union the cast are playing it to you - a new meaning for "In Yer Face" theatre!

And it's brilliant that there are producers willing to take that sort of risk - the expense of such a huge cast for "The Hired Man" must be massive, I can't imagine they'll make much of a profit even if the house is full every night. But thank goodness there are still producers and directors and companies willing to take on that risk - our theatre experience would be much diminished without them!

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One of the reasons that I try to stear clear of "Dress Circle" - a store I once loved to visit- is that I have learned that it is very hard to get served upstairs because the assistant is invariably indulging in a long conversation with some local "theatre luvvie". Now when I try the same trick with this same assistant I get the cold shoulder because I am not in his "magic circle" despite knowing as much if not more about theatrical affairs as the "luvvie' (I am 68 and have a life times experience plus a daughter in the business.)

Now I rather get the same feelings from Mark Shenton's blogs. I really don't know what audience he is trying to reach beyond the same crowd of theatre geeks who are no doubt thrilled by his endless outpourings over the plays/musicals he has seen and how many times he has seen them,with whom when etc.

Now fine- I get the point: Mr Shenton is one of those lucky guys who has had the means and opportunity to see shows and plays that we ordinary people have not (And still has) Having this fact shoved down our throats weekly (daily?) as in the above column is beyond annoying. He is becoming the theatre's answer to Harry Knowles and really a distinquished publication such as "The Stage" deserves better. Someone with a little less experience and more c ontact with the ordinary punter would be in order I think...

But its so nice he gets to go to Las Vegas and see the same Cirque shows over and over. That means so much to world theatre. And he loves almost everything done in a theatre with less than 90 seats.

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