West End musicals 2008: The Year of Musical Non-thinking
In a year when new musical theatre productions in London consisted of juke box transfers, classic revivals, whimsical adventure stories and majestic failures, one might be forgiven for thinking that the age of great new musicals exists merely in days of Auld Lang Syne. So let's pause and think back over the year's musical fayre.
Broadway's smash hit Four Seasons bio-musical, Jersey Boys, crossed the pond and succeeded in lighting up the London gloom with its witty yet dramatically strong book and feel-good score of (mainly) Bob Gaudio hit songs. And during the course of the year revivals of shows by some of the major icons of musical theatre have also managed to shine: notably Terry Johnson's brilliant staging at the Playhouse Theatre (transferring from the Menier Chocolate factory) of Jerry Herman's masterpiece La Cage Aux Folles; Trevor Nunn's delicious production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory; Lindsay Posner's stylish revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Carousel at the Savoy; and Craig Revel Horwood's stunning actor/muso reinvention of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black's Sunset Boulevard (transferring from a sell-out run at the Watermill).
But new musicals have generally not fared as well. Back in the Spring, the first of the year's small crop of new musicals - Trevor Nunn's bold or misguided (depending on how philosophical one's approach to theatre may be) production of Margaret Martin's first (and possibly last) musical, Gone With The Wind - failed to bear fruit and was gone by summer. The summer saw a glimmer of new hope in the shape of Michel Legrand's beautiful score for Marguerite. But, largely due to a rather bland libretto by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Jonathon Kent and equally bland Herbert Kretzmer lyrics, what might have been a promising new show also disappeared after a few months. Also in the summer the musical extravaganza, Zorro, opened at the Garrick and, though far from a musical theatre masterpiece, its catchy score by the Gypsy Kings, vibrant choreography and spectacularly entertaining staging turned it into one of the year's surprise hits. Then in November came Imagine This, the musical with the dual setting of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Zealot mass suicide at Masada. Again, despite a score by Shuki Levy that was at times both beautiful and powerful, a clichéd and pretentious book made one think it was hard to imagine anything worse than this.
But the year was not all doom and gloom. There were some quite brilliant performances in the new musical productions that graced London's stages: Ryan Molloy in Jersey Boys, Alexander Hanson in A Little Night Music, Peter Polycarpou in Imagine This, Ben Goddard in Sunset Boulevard, Ruthie Henshall in Marguerite, Connie Fisher in They're Playing Our Song, Hannah Waddingham in A Little Night Music, Kathryn Evans in Sunset Boulevard. And - for me the two absolute stand-out performances - Douglas Hodge in La Cage Aux Folles and Elena Roger's sensational "little sparrow" in Piaf.
So, after a rather mixed year in 2008, what of the prospects for 2009? March will come in like a lion with the big blockbuster from Oz, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (a new show but with no original score) and the end of the year will see the already heavily hyped new Lord Webber show, Phantom: Love Never Dies (a show with an original score but a distinctly un-original idea). In between, the Palladium will feature the also already heavily hyped Sister Act - the Musical (with a brand new Alan Menken-Glenn Slater score).
So, right now at least, it does not seem there are too many great new and original musicals on the West End horizon. But that does not mean the age of great musicals is dead. There are some highly talented new musical theatre composers and writers out there. This year's Edinburgh Fringe, for example, witnessed a number of new musicals created by bright new talent, such as Dougal Irvine's award winning Departure Lounge and the hugely entertaining and deftly clever Jet Set Go by Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger. Maybe what London theatre needs is some new thinking by producers to have the courage to back new talent and attempt to stage some of the bright new musicals that are clearly "waiting in the wings".