When I left home on Sunday morning to head to this year’s West End Live, things weren’t looking promising: there was a sudden windy downpour. But by the time I arrived in Trafalgar Square for the second day of this year’s giant theatrical Glastonbury or Isle of Wight Festival (without, of course, the mud), the sun was out, the square was packed, and the cast of Rock of Ages were on the stage. Well, as I tweeted at the time, you can’t win them all.
Joking aside, the few minutes presented from the show were an ideal showcase of that show’s few pleasures: at least you didn’t have to endure the feeble book but could just enjoy the energy of the cast pumping out some contemporary rock classics.
The show has defied the critics (or at least me!) to find an audience at the Shaftesbury, just as We Will Rock You has done the same thing at the Dominion, and I’m actually pleased for them (if depressed for the musical more generally); the West End does need to offer a broad range of entertainment. Whether that means that the crudest, broadest cartoon strip of a script should (dis)grace its stages, of course, is only the sort of question that detains people like me.
But the great thing about West End Live is that it offers a free taster of just how varied the West End is. When the event started just seven years ago, only four West End shows were represented at the inaugural event in Leicester Square; by the time the refurbishment of that square forced the event to relocate, of necessity, to Trafalgar Square, it had grown in scale and reach. This weekend’s festivities saw every single West End musical represented for the first time. And Trafalgar Square became so crowded that they had to introduce a one-in, one-out policy for new arrivals
Given that, of course, everyone has a matinee on Saturday and a lot do now on Sundays, too, it meant a concentration of shows in the morning slots, but the programme was kept moving on each day by solo appearances and theatre school and youth theatre performances in the afternoons. On Sunday, for instance, that saw the likes of the wonderful Louise Dearman and Mark Evans (both of them with recent solo albums to promote) giving solo spots, as did Daniel Boys, who also acted as the engaging co-host of Sunday’s festivities throughout the day.
Daniel had a pretty busy day; no sooner had he wrapped West End Live than he was hurtling down to the Playhouse to take part in a concert performance of a new British musical version of Little Women to benefit the Gingerbread charity for single parents. And, to declare an interest, I found myself sharing a dressing room backstage with him, as well as Jon Robyns and Norman Bowman. For the first time in my life, I found my name not only on the dressing room door of a West End theatre, but also on the sign-in sheets at the stage door.
I had been conscripted as the narrator/presenter of the concert, binding the songs together with some linking narration to put them into context. For once it meant that the critic was onstage instead of in the stalls, and it provided an interesting change of perspective.
As Albin sings in “I Am What I Am” in La Cage Aux Folles, whose most recent London revival was seen on this very stage, “Why not try to see things from a different angle?” It’s not bad advice. To watch the energy and commitment of a cast up-close, freely giving of their time and talent to support that of an emerging composer Steven Luke Walker, is both inspiring and humbling.
And while this generation of younger West End talent — including Gina Beck, Helena Blackman, Norman Bowman, Daniel Boys, Nikki Davis Jones, Sarah Lark, Shona Lindsay, Jon Robyns and Lisa-Anne Wood — have each already variously earned their West End stripes, it was lovely to see a future generation, in the shape of young students from the Guildford School of Acting, providing choral support. As one of the established actors said wistfully in the wings, “They have so much hope!”
So, of course, does anyone who attempts to write musicals, too. As I said in my introduction to the concert, and regular readers of this blog will now, I’m particularly passionate about supporting new musicals, so I was delighted to be part of the first step in the journey of this brand-new one. I quoted Sir Tim Rice’s recent comment in a newspaper interview, “The crisis is not with performers, it’s with new writers. All the British guys who have written successful, good new musicals in the last 20 years have been getting on a bit. There’s Elton [John] and Andrew and I, but where are all the young guys?”
It was a pleasure on Sunday to offer a showcase to the work of one of the young guys Steven Luke Walker. Steven works by day as a highly regarded vocal coach and singing tutor in the West End; but it was wonderful to see him stretching his wings into his own compositional work. I, too, stretched my wings appearing on the other side of the footlights to the one I’m normally on. But fear not: I’m not planning on giving up my usual (night) job anytime soon.