The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide to: Musicals

Where to start with musical theatre

By: Feb. 09, 2021
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The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide to: Musicals
Kinky Boots UK Tour

There is a particular snobbery surrounding musical theatre: critics say that in a moment of high drama, crisis or emotion, the most unrealistic thing to do would be to break into song. Musicals are too camp, annoying and definitely not cool. They appeal to the coach parties of tourists rocking up in Leicester Square every weekend, (Those were the days!)

However, musicals are not representations of real life, nor do they pretend to be. A successful musical has a magical combination of a highly memorable score, an engaging storyline, incredible choreography and visually impressive set and costume design. It's not a coincidence that the best musical theatre performers are called a triple threat, as they act, sing and dance, often without any perceivable effort.

Here, BroadwayWorld leads you gently into the magical world of musicals. As the beating heart of theatre, you will laugh, cry and exit the auditorium (or, for now, your screen) not able to get a particular earworm out of your head.

Musicals are not for me

As long as you like music and entertainment, there is a musical out there for you. Just as theatre represents every facet of life, musical theatre can be uplifting, tragic, thoughtful, provocative and outrageously entertaining. Even the most ardent musical-lovers have a few shows they didn't engage with, so even if your only memory is a creaky version of Godspell you saw on a school trip, give it another go.

James Corden, an alum of such musicals as Into the Woods and The Prom onscreen, explained the magic of live musicals very well with his introduction to the 2019 Tony Awards.

I don't know anything about musicals

Despite purists debating about the genius of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics (now 90, Sondheim's output merits its own separate article) or Bob Fosse's choreography, the best thing about musicals is that, genuinely, you need no specialist knowledge. The best musicals will flow effortlessly, leading the audience through the story without any necessary explanation.

I don't know where to start

Occasionally shows come along that simply capture audiences to become part of pop culture. These are the best ones with which to begin.

The BBC recently put on a brilliant musical extravaganza, celebrating all things musical theatre. Take a look and you might well find something that grabs you.

The Greatest Showman. Despite a critical mauling on release, this captivating musical film took $434,993,183 million at the worldwide box office and the soundtrack topped the iTunes chart in more than 77 territories. So, even if you haven't seen it, you have probably heard one of the songs. Probably "The Greatest Show" or the Oscar-nominated "This Is Me".

Based on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a good place to start your education, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by, yes, a young Stephen Sondheim. Set in 1950s New York, the Montagues and Capulets become the Jets and the Sharks in a multiracial, blue-collar neighbourhood. Steven Spielberg has directed a much-anticipated film remake written by the esteemed Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America.

The Lion King. Based on the Disney movie, this Hamlet-inspired story follows lion cub Simba as he seeks to avenge his father's death by defeating his evil uncle Scar. With soaring music composed by Elton John, Hans Zimmer and Tim Rice, the stage show is completely enthralling, with some of the best makeup and costume design in the West End.

Hamilton. Even if you have been living in a cave for the last few years, you will have heard of this seismically award-winning musical. The unlikely success of a multi-ethnic hip-hop musical about America's founding fathers has reverberated around the world and is a brilliant place to launch your musical education. It is fast-paced, witty and totally captivating.

The Producers was adapted by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan from Brooks' 1967 film, signaling an interest in shifting screen successes to the stage that has resulted in such subsequent hits as Hairspray and Kinky Boots (pictured above). This wildly irreverent and incredibly funny story follows a failing producer and his hapless accountant who pull off a scam to fund a musical based on the Third Reich in the knowledge it will flop. When the show is a huge hit, chaos obviously ensues. The production was a Broadway phenomenon and heralded the return of musical comedy to the New York stage after a decade or more defined by British blockbusters (Cats, Les Mis, Phantom, Miss Saigon).

Chicago. Bob Fosse's legendary choreography never looked as good as it does in this jazz-age crime saga. Premiered in 1975 but best-known for its pared-down revival in the 1990s, the show is visually stunning and oozes glamour, stage smarts and sex appeal from every pore. The 2002 film remained pretty faithful to the stage show and featured an Academy Award-winning performance from a sinuous Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma.

It's too expensive

There's no getting away from the fact that the big musicals in the West End can command insane ticket prices. Returns at the box office are a brilliant way to get a cheap ticket if you are flexible and booking in advance can yield bargains. However, one way of saving a packet is to enter one of the many lotteries that some shows hold.

The Book of Mormon has 21 tickets for every performance to be sold through an on-the-day lottery at £20 each. Entries are accepted at the box office two and a half hours before each performance. Winners get a pair of tickets to that evening's show. If you can't make it to the theatre in person, an online lottery for an additional pair of tickets is available through Twitter every week.

Matilda. The Cambridge Theatre holds back 16 £5 tickets at the box office every day exclusively for 16 to 25 year olds. Photo ID is required to prove your age and tickets are available from the box office every day from 10am. Or you can wait for the film due to star Emma Thompson as "the Trunch" - originated by Bertie Carvel onstage.

Hamilton runs the Ham4Ham lottery where £10 tickets are available two days in advance through an online and app-based lottery.

Tickets for Wicked can be hard to come by and horribly expensive, but the website holds £22 tickets for certain performances.

Where can I watch musicals

At home

Frozen. Disney are responsible for so many successful musicals and Frozen - headed in due course to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - is one of the most popular ever. Available now on Disney+, the story is inspired by the fairytale The Snow Queen and is a beautiful story of family, friendship and being true to yourself. The Disney Cruise version is now available on YouTube.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You can rent this now and find out why it has become a cult classic. A newly-engaged couple break down in the middle of nowhere and seek refuge at the increasingly bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-n-Furter. With a brilliant cast, including Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Richard O'Brien, this supremely camp and kitsch production offers a musical pastiche of sci-fi and horror b-movies. The result is an exuberant celebration of sex and sexuality that is bizarre and entertaining in equal measure.

The 1959 film of Porgy and Bess won multiple awards and captivated a new generation with songs such as "Summertime". Dorothy Dandridge stars as the sultry Bess, who captivates the downtrodden, disabled Porgy, played by a masterful Sidney Poitier. The all-black cast was ground-breaking at the time and the themes of poverty, abuse and love remain as relevant as ever. The stage version remains a perennial favourite not least in the world of opera.

The incredible success of the stage show Mamma Mia ! translated into a juggernaut of a film franchise. Based on the music of ABBA, the slightly questionable story follows the young Sophie's search for her father, who could be one of three men her mother was in a relationship with at the same time. With a stellar cast including Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, it is fun, frivolous and pure escapism. Just make sure you skip over the sections where Pierce Brosnan sings.

Broadway HD has a good selection of musicals to stream and currently has a free trial.

In theatres

The Book of Mormon. Not one for the kids: utterly outrageous, incredibly rude and extraordinarily funny, this satirical examination of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follows two Mormon missionaries as they travel to Uganda to spread the word. It will almost certainly offend but will also entertain and amuse in equal measure.

The untold backstory of the witches of Oz provides the subject of Wicked, which chronicles the unlikely friendship of two young women, Glinda and Elphaba, and their chance encounter with The Wizard. Possessed of warmth, opulence, and wit, this is one of the most successful musicals ever for good reason, and Jon M. Chu has recently been signed to direct a film adaptation.

The release of the much-anticipated film of Everybody's Talking About Jamie has been delayed and so you should rush as soon as you can to catch this masterclass in feel-good musical theatre live. Based on the real-life story of Jamie Campbell who wanted to go to his school prom in a dress, the musical is packed with wit, warmth and emotion.

Six. This all-female show is an inspiring way of inadvertently learning about one of the most interesting parts of the UK's history. Following the individual stories of the six wives of Henry VIII, the concept is innovative, the music is rousing and the show is now a must-see. (Its New York opening last March coincided exactly, alas, with the ongoing shutdown of Broadway.)

These are just a few of the ways in which you might dip a toe in the water of musical theatre. However, be warned: once you start, it will be impossible to stop.

We would love to know your thoughts on this: do you have a favourite musical, and why? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram!

Kinky Boots Photo credit: Helen Maybanks


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