BWW Reviewers Reflect On Why We Return To Long-running Shows
Among us theatre reviewers, there's always a sense that you are missing out on something in theatre; with literally hundreds of new productions nationwide each year, it's impossible to see everything you want to.
And yet, so many of us have certain shows that we've seen numerous times. We are repeatedly drawn back to the characters, the story and - as most of these are musicals - the songs.
Our Chief London critic Gary Naylor recalls a time when he did not like Evita, but a new cast completely changed his mind. "I'd heard all the songs, of course, and I confess in 2010 I walked into New Wimbledon Theatre and contemplated the curtain with a somewhat jaundiced eye. An audience amongst whom I appeared to be the only newbie didn't help. I wrote a snippy, somewhat cynical review.
"Three years on, I was sat amongst celebrities at a Gala Night in honour of the opening of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Theatre at Arts Educational Schools and settled in for another run through those terrible lyrics and hackneyed melodies. But - what a surprise!
"Gone was the bombast, the clichés and the caricatures and, with students (nervous, but talented and ultra-committed) delivering it, a new musical emerged. Actors did not simply navigate their way from set-piece to set-piece, but told a complex story of power with the songs heightening and not dominating the emotional heft of the tale. My words were as different in reviewing as the shows were in conception and execution."
Wicked seems to be a top pick, with Nicky Sweetland our most extreme case of repeat viewing - having seen it a remarkable 32 times! Natalie O'Donoghue remembers what an impression the show had on her the first time she saw it. "I'm Glasgow-based, so when I visit the West End I try to catch new shows. But I had to see Wicked again. Even if I know the score beforehand, it feels so different listening to it after you've seen the show in its entirety.
"What would the show be like without Kerry Ellis, who was such a huge part of my enjoyment? Answer - still amazing. Alexia Khadime brought something new to the role and I loved it just as much. Then we had Rachel Tucker.
"History was made as Louise Dearman took on the role of Elphaba, making her the first actress to play both of the lead roles. So obviously I couldn't let that pass me by. I mean, it was HISTORY. Willemijn Verkaik stepped into the role in 2013 as the first actress to play Elphaba in multiple languages...which was more essential viewing.
"One of the reasons I return to Wicked is the strength of its casting. You're (hopefully) never going to see an Elphaba or Glinda stunt casting. Sure, some people go and see Wicked and then just move on with their lives. But you'll find that most people who've connected with the show go back time and time again to see what somebody new brings to the role. That's my excuse anyway."
Sometimes, the number of visits creep up on you; Nicole Ackman was surprised to realise that she has seen Kinky Boots seven times. "People often ask me why I return to it so often, and it's a two-part answer.
"The first is that I love seeing different actors in the roles of Charlie and Lola. An actor's interpretation (and even sometimes playing age) can make the roles seem so different, and I love how seeing a different actor in a role can make you realise something about a show you had missed before.
"The other reason is that I can guarantee that if I go see Kinky Boots, no matter how I feel when I walk into the theatre, I find it impossible to leave in a bad mood."
Fiona Scott points out that some shows, like Rent, benefit from repeat viewing. "I think for most people it takes more than one viewing to 'get it', and I've often had to explain the plot to whoever I'm watching it with. That doesn't discount a work as a good piece of art, though, if it needs multiple viewings or further background reading or thought to appreciate it.
"People go to the same restaurant, buy the same car, go to see the same band over and over again; why should going to theatre be any different? We are creatures of habit and if we're lucky enough to have disposable income, we all have our things that money gets spent on."
When there's been a big build-up for a show, to arrive and find that the understudy is playing one of the lead roles can be disappointing. Not for Kerrie Nicholson, who found that some of her most memorable experiences have been with shows performed with understudies as the lead.
As someone who goes to the theatre as often as I'm able, it's a given that you'll see a talented cast whoever's on, principals or understudies. In my experience, I think understudies often don't get the praise they deserve. Some of my most memorable times at the theatre have been with understudies, and two particular instances will always have a special place in my heart.
"The first time I saw the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar, there was a notice as you went in saying the role of Judas, usually played by Tyrone Huntley, would be played by Joshua Dever. An unfamiliar name to me and needless to say, he blew me away.
"I adored that production so much I went back twice more, and to my surprise and delight Josh played Judas on both occasions. To watch his portrayal grow in depth and confidence each time was amazing.
"My other favourite experience was with Beautiful. The first time I saw the show, Joanna Woodward was playing Carole King. I had seen Joanna before this in a smaller role in another show, and was excited to see her play a lead. I loved the sassiness and vulnerability she brought to the role and her vocals astounded me. After this, I would book specifically to see her, and I think she ended up being my Carole on all but two occasions.
"Understudies can help a show feel fresh and change the dynamic, so I'd love to support more. Not living in London makes this difficult though, as they go on at short notice or have set shows during the week.
"I would especially love to see Adam Bayjou play Valjean, having heard wonderful things from friends, but Delfont Mackintosh have imposed a rule whereby their company members cannot post about holiday on social media without their permission. As my disability makes it difficult to be spontaneous, I'm massively frustrated by this!"
But can a hiatus from being a regular attendee also be a good thing? Kerrie seems to think so. "Les Miserables was the show that got me into going to the West End regularly. However, there came a point, I realised during my 10th visit, that it felt tired. I took a break and returned recently, seeing a couple of different casts. It reignited my love for the show!"
Personally, I found that a break can also make you question your dedication to a show. The Phantom of the Opera was the first West End musical I ever went to and I loved it more than I could describe. I knew every word of every song and begged my parents to take me for every birthday for many years.
Having had a break of nearly a decade, I saw it again last year and was so disappointed by the saccharine sentiment, the unengaging cast and the blocky staging. It sadly lacked all the magic that had enthralled me so many times before.
Our UK Editor Marianka Swain had the opposite experience with Wicked. "I remember seeing it early on and being impressed by the spectacle, though losing engagement during the lengthy second half.
"But a return visit on the show's 10th anniversary, with Rachel Tucker leading the cast, completely changed my perspective. It was revelatory to see someone bring a very specific, idiosyncratic and movingly authentic performance to this massive enterprise.
"There's even more space for creative freedom in my current favourite and sure-to-be long-runner, the mighty Hamilton. I was a huge fan of the cast album and mixtape, and had devoured clips online before seeing the show, but was still staggered by the organic staging and just how damn entertaining it was.
"The book and score's intricacy means you get more out of it with each layer you peel back, making it ideal for return viewings. But I also loved watching my mum's primary experience - seeing 'The Room Where It Happens' for the first time through her eyes. She now proudly wears her 'A. Ham' cap.
"I've subsequently seen the production with understudies too, and was excited by how much the show shifted to allow for a new person's energy - perhaps stemming from its roots as individual performers from different musical backgrounds coming together."
Returning can be a mixed blessed, though. "I've done a few trips to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - as well as reviewing, I wanted to just enjoy the experience as a lifelong fan (I did A-levels while Harry did his O.W.L.s) - and found the production just as enthralling with a new cast," says Marianka.
"That's partly testament to the care, imagination and stagecraft injected by an exceptional creative team; unlike some quick-hit brand vehicles, they built this beautiful piece to last. However, I started to run the risk of unravelling the tricks, which I definitely didn't want - much more satisfying to gasp in wonder at the magic."
What's your all-time favourite long-runner?
Aliya: Les Miserables; there is a timeless quality to the story and the music. The emotion in it never fails to bring me to tears. I also always enjoy The Mousetrap - any show running continuously since 1952 must be doing something right!
Kerrie: Les Miserables - I've made so many friends through going to see it. Also Jersey Boys showed how jukebox musicals can use songs to enhance story, and The Lion King is joyful and visually stunning.
Nicole: Les Miserables, because it was the show that got me into theatre and it's moved me in so many different ways over time. After the latest election in America, where I'm from, the barricade scenes affected me in such a different way. I also love The Grinning Man, which I saw six times over the course of its run.
Tim: Les Miserables - I saw it when I was about nine years old on a UK tour. I'd never seen a show of such scale in my hometown before and it blew me away. While much of the story was lost on me, the music washes over and bathes you in its richness every time you see it. There was a point where it got a little tired, but some neat updates after the 25th anniversary have reignited it.
Gary: Hamilton. Believe the hype; it is a game-changer. The world will never be the same...
Natalie: Wicked is the musical that I will never tire of. Although it's been running for a while in the West End, the dynamic casting keeps it fresh and brings something new to a wonderful story every time.
Nicky: I'm in the very fortunate position to be able to see most shows at least twice, but there is one I've seen more than any other and that's Wicked. I've watched the show 32 times because I just love the themes of acceptance. When coupled with some complex characters and a stunning score, it's hard to beat.
Fiona: Wicked was the first show I became obsessed with as a teenager, and I still try to visit Oz once a year or so. I find the thrilling score and the story of friendship and celebration of difference so empowering. I love seeing what each Elphaba does with the last minute or so of "Defying Gravity".
Marianka: Les Miserables has a special place in my heart, and I loved returning to Chicago recently - revisiting its whip-smart style and social satire. But Hamilton is my current passion; long may it reign.
Fraser: For me, it's Blood Brothers. The beauty of live theatre is that every second is unique and can never be repeated exactly. It was the eighth viewing before I saw, in the closing minute, a broken Mrs Johnstone joining the limp hands of her sons. Like rediscovering an old book, each new viewing has become a voyage of discovery - and I've seen it 13 times so far!
We'd love to hear about YOUR favourites. Which shows have you seen again and again? Why do you love them? Have you noticed any changes? And which do you think is the best long-runner of all? Tweet us at @BroadwayWorldUK or let us know here