British musicals are having a renaissance
From ‘The Little Big Things’ to ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ to ‘Just for One Day,’ original British musicals are popping up all over the West End.
But what does it say about the British musical industry that a show first seen on the West End in 1993 is once again the talk of the town? The happy news is that there are, in fact, a slew of new British musicals currently running or on the horizon that look poised to make a splash of their own.
After all, a musical industry that only looks backwards isn’t much use: we need new shows that can themselves be revived in 30 years.
The term “British musical” is itself open to interpretation. The Time Travellers Wife, now in previews at the Apollo, has a British songwriting duo in Grammy winners Joss Stone and Dave Stewart, and it bills itself unapologetically as “British.” But it’s based on a book by an American writer, Audrey Niffenegger, here adapted by the prolific California-based, Atlanta-born playwright Lauren Gunderson, so it’s not specifically British in the way that, say, Billy Elliot very much was.
Far more so is something like Standing at the Sky’s Edge, whose localised setting – the vast Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield – has nonetheless spawned a show of broad and vibrant appeal first seen in London earlier this year at the National after two runs in the south Yorkshire city where it takes place.
Winner of the 2023 Olivier for Best Musical, the director Robert Hastie’s production gives pride of place to its composer-lyricist Richard Hawley. The singer-songwriter’s robust back catalogue drives the show alongside new material that catches no less fully at the heart. The result is a West End transfer early next year to the same theatre that back in the day housed Cats, an English musical that belongs to an entirely different, well, litter.
There’s a deserved sense of occasion, too, to The Little Big Things, the first musical at the West End’s newest venue, @sohoplace, and recently extended to 2 March 2024. Adapted from Henry Fraser’s memoir about his personal triumph over adversity, the show foregrounds Fraser and his family both before and after the teenage Henry’s accident whilst on holiday in 2009 that resulted in a crushed spinal cord.
Far from being defeated by events, Henry turned his disability to advantage, redefining himself as an artist who could paint with his mouth in a show that courses with the very English virtues of pluck and determination and a firm belief that compassion and kindness offer a way forward.
That musical’s director, Luke Sheppard, will continue to till British soil next year when he premieres Just For One Day at the Old Vic. Few of us in London at the time (as I was) will ever forget the sense of occasion on July 13, 1985, when Wembley Arena hosted over 70,000 people in a fund-raiser for famine relief in Ethiopia. (The John F Kennedy stadium in Philadelphia hosted a complementary concert the same day.)
Following his London and Broadway success with & Juliet, Sheppard has already proven himself a dab hand with the jukebox musical, though Just For One Day promises a musical reach (The Police, Sade, and Elton John, amongst many others) that the earlier homage to Max Martin doesn’t possess.
Taken collectively, these shows suggest that reinventing Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t the only game in town. When it comes to British musicals, it’s equally possible for the theatre world to honour the past while also pointing an invigorating way toward the future.
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