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London 2014: Welcome to the ’80s

A couple of weeks ago two show announcements came on the same day that would have had the writers of Forbidden Broadway rubbing their hands together with glee. In a West End market currently saturated with revivals, and original productions of 1980s ‘mega-musicals,’ it was revealed that Evita (1978) and Cats (1981), both hits by British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber would be joining the ranks of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon this coming season, making the West End feel like it had stepped into a time-warp.

Wait, what year is it? (From the current West End revival of Miss Saigon. Photo: Michael Le Poer Trench)

Wait, what year is it? (The cast of the current West End revival of Miss Saigon. Photo: Michael Le Poer Trench)

There was certainly a mix of opinion from theatre fans – many excited at the prospect of seeing two huge shows back in London, even if only for a limited time. However, others remained more cynical about the announcements, and despite being a fan of both shows (don’t judge me – I have a weird affinity with Cats), I couldn’t help feel that this was indicative of a wider problem with London theatre.

At the press launch of Cats, members of the original creative team Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne led by Lloyd Webber answered questions from the press and spoke about how, and why, they were bringing one of the West End’s longest running musicals back into town. The composer spoke frankly about his want to ‘refresh’ the show – notably by adding a ‘rap’ number for the character of the Rum Tum Tugger as well as a new Growltiger section (you know – the track you always skip on the CD…?), but other than this, didn’t fully answer why the team thought the show would belong in the West End of 2014.

Nostalgia plays a key part. Many of my friends and peers exclaimed to be excited in a sort of ‘ironic’ way to see the show, that in many cases was our first experience of live London theatre, seeing the original production as children. I felt guilty saying I actually loved Cats and grew up watching the video, and found many of my friends to be the same. There is less social stigma with Evita however – Madonna earned the show some ‘cool’ points, and this is a show most musical theatre fans can quote verbatim, or at least attempt “he supports you/for he loves you…” in the original key when drunk (surely this isn’t just me?).

Madonna as Evita.

Madonna as Evita.

The main reason both shows are transferring into town is primarily circumstantial. After the departure of long-running musical We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre along with the early demise of I Can’t Sing at the London Palladium – two of London’s biggest houses have since been dark. Both venues have sketchy track records of new musicals and revivals, with flops such as Grand Hotel, Notre Dame de Paris and even, to some degree, Beauty and the Beast at the Dominion (2,069 seats) and a similar string of bad luck for the Palladium (2,286 seats) which in turn means producers have understandable reservations about signing a lease, especially in the long term. The size and scale of both houses, both in seating capacity and stage size presents obvious challenges to any production

Both Cats and Evita are transferring into London after long stints on UK tours. Touring shows are by their very nature different to West End productions, usually in size and scale due to them having to fit the tight specifications of many different venues, often with minimal ‘get in’ or technical time. Considerable money and attention will have to paid to each production in order for them to expand into their new ‘semi-permanent’ houses as well as achieving West End standard commanded by the significantly increased ticket prices.

These challenges aside, the greater problem comes when looking at the shows collectively, and the message it sends to both audiences and the wider theatre community. Whilst each show arguably has its own merits, reviving old titles somehow suggests that audiences are only interested in seeing new versions of old works. During the Cats press conference, the Lord was asked this question directly, and asked if it was a “sorry indictment” of the current theatre scene. The composer replied using Shakespeare as an example and was met with applause from those gathered, seemingly agreeing that there is more than enough room for shows both new and old.

Trevor Nunn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Gillian Lynne, and Cats at the press conference. (Photo: Dan Wooller/wooller.com)

Trevor Nunn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Gillian Lynne, and Cats at the press conference. (Photo: Dan Wooller/wooller.com)

Whilst Lloyd Webber may seem to be an easy target, it mustn’t be forgotten that in the past year he has himself been a victim of the unsteady climate after launching his new musical Stephen Ward directly in the West End, closing some three months later. In this respect, it is unfair to question the composer’s commitment to supporting new works, as despite even his best efforts he saw first hand how audiences can be unwilling to take risks on new titles and instead opt for tried and tested ones where they know they won’t be disappointed.

Whilst both shows are solid titles to have in town, the message this sends to new writers is a somewhat bleak one. The 2013/14 season was a particularly testing one for new musicals, and hopefully not indicative of the current trend for the upcoming one. New titles such as Made in Dagenham (Adelphi Theatre) have begun to pull out all the stops with early marketing of their material in the hopes of building an audience base before they even open – a method that had mixed success last season.

As ever it is the London fringe scene, as well as regional theatre that is providing new writers the opportunities to showcase their work. A significant debate was started via The Stage newspaper last week regarding theatre critic’s role in the development of new musicals. Fiona Allan, chief executive of Leicester Curve theatre, stated that the future of new British musicals lies at the hands of the critics who should be more supportive in their efforts to promote and develop new works. Speaking at the launch of the regional theatre’s new season, which announced a new musical version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary that will premiere at the Curve next year, she blamed critics for “murdering” the venue’s previous new musical The Water Babies earlier this year. Whilst the show reportedly gained a strong following online as well as positive reception from audiences, mainstream critics from national newspapers were not so kind on the show – something that Allan argues ruined its chances of transferring into the West End.

Water Babies at the Leicester Curve Theatre.

The Water Babies at the Leicester Curve Theatre.

It’s easy to argue both sides of this argument – but as a fellow theatre critic I can’t help feel that this would be an unfair and ultimately unhelpful method of working. Had critics praised the show, or even just ignored many of its flaws, a false sense of success would have been created, which could have ultimately resulted in a West End transfer and subsequent financial and artistic flop. In the same way as I firmly believe children shouldn’t be told they are amazing at every sport/activity/hobby they try, creating a false sense of reality ultimately does more harm than good.

As Allan argues, it is the critic’s place to offer support to new writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean offering false praise, but writing with caution and understanding that many people do still take their word as gospel when deciding whether or not they should shell out their cold hard cash, but nor should they face going against their professional integrity in order to simply ‘support’ new writing. There are of course countless examples where critics have supported, gushed and praised new musicals (Matilda for example transferred from Stratford upon Avon as a unanimous five-star hit) so it’s not like critics can be blamed for turning their backs on new work. The recent revival of Miss Saigon actually received mixed to poor critical notices, with many critics (most of which remembered reviewing the original 1989 production) found it a less heartfelt carbon-copy, proving the point that the age of the piece is somewhat irrelevant from a critical perspective.

Whether you agree with Allan or not, something needs to change in order for the West End to provide an easier transition for new musicals. As the ’80s Renaissance is currently proving – audiences love to revisit a classic, often taking their own children for a trip down memory lane, but you have to ask – in twenty years or so, will there be any new shows TO revive…?

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