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Everything you need to know about 'Bronco Billy' and Western musicals

Dennis Hackin's frontier musical about Bronco Billy and his band of Wild Westerners, who try to make a living with their travelling show, opens on 24 January.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Howdy! What could be a better cure for the January blues than an exuberant new musical with a Wild West setting, a cast of lovable and eccentric travelling players, and a battle of wills between a stuntman and a runaway heiress? Bronco Billy: The Musical has all the ingredients for a modern take on classic Golden Age screwball musical comedy tropes, plus lots of 1970s-style disco dancing.

Based on Clint Eastwood's 1980 film, the musical follows a group of Wild Westerners led by Bronco Billy, as they tour across the US. The show is one of many Western-inspired musicals to hit the West End in recent years, such as George and Ira Gershwin's Crazy for You, which closed at the Gillian Lynne Theatre last month (December 2023).

Read our Bronco Billy guide to find out more about this exciting new musical playing at Charing Cross Theatre from 24 January to 7 April.

Book Bronco Billy tickets on London Theatre.

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What is Bronco Billy about?

Set in 1979, the title Bronco Billy is living out his version of the American Dream as the leader of a Wild West travelling show with his found family, but the demands of touring are taking their toll. Things take an unexpected turn when he meets Antoinette Lily, a Manhattan chocolate bar heiress on the run for her life. All sorts of zany hijinks ensue.

Was there a Bronco Billy film?

Indeed there was. This Western comedy-drama was released in 1980, directed by and starring Eastwood opposite Sondra Locke. Shot on a modest budget of $5 million, the film featured a soundtrack led by country-music stars Merle Haggard and Ronnie Milsap, as well as singing from Eastwood himself.

Bronco Billy remains a personal favourite of Eastwood’s, who considers it one of his most enjoyable filmmaking experiences. He said in Howard Hughes' 2009 book Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood, “If, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you'll find it in Bronco Bill."

Who wrote the Bronco Billy musical?

The book is by Dennis Hackin, who wrote the original screenplay. Music and lyrics are by Chip Rosenbloom and John Torres. Rosenbloom is a Hollywood director, producer and screenwriter and has written songs for Sheena Easton, Rita Coolidge, and Dayna Lane. Torres is a songwriter and vocalist who has received a John Lennon Songwriting Award, an L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award, and nominations for the American Independent Music Awards and Stage Raw Theatre Awards.

Has Bronco Billy been performed on stage before?

The show premiered at Los Angeles's Skylight Theatre Company in May 2019. In 2020, the musical won the Ovation Awards for Best Book (Original Musical) and Best Lyrics and Musical (Original Musical). The Los Angeles Times praised the way Bronco Billy “tugs at the heartstrings with its notions about dreamers intent on making their lives and possibly the world a little bit better.” Hunter Bird returns to the show as director in London.

Who is starring in the London premiere of Bronco Billy?

The title role is played by Tarinn Callender, who originated the dual roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the West End production of Hamilton. Callender was most recently seen in the touring production of The Drifters Girl. Leading lady Antoinette is played by Emily Benjamin, who received acclaim as the alternate Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club.

It’ll also be fun to see Victoria Hamilton-Barritt back in devious stepmother mode as Constance, after she received an Olivier Award nomination for playing the Stepmother in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. Hamilton-Barritt’s other credits include Hex, In the Heights, and A Chorus Line.

What is a Western musical?

Simply put, a Western musical is one set in the American West, past or present. There’s something about the wide-open space of the prairie or desert that makes Westerns perfect musicals. In pop culture, the West is a space of possibility where tight-knit communities are formed, but also a place of physical and emotional isolation.

The underlying lawlessness can make it a hostile environment for women and outsiders, as is experienced by heiress Antoinette Lily in Bronco Billy. A battle of the sexes is often at the centre of the love story, and as such, Westerns often explore gender politics.

Famous Western musicals

There are several musicals that have taken inspiration from the Wild West, with theatre greats including Rodgers and Hammerstein showing a preference for the genre. We've rounded up some of the best frontier musicals to hit the West End and Broadway.

Oklahoma!

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! changed the face of musical theatre when it was first performed on Broadway in 1943. The romance between cowboy Curly and farm girl Laurey is threatened by troubled hired-hand Jud, set against the backdrop of Oklahoma’s entry into the Union. The film version starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones is rapturously romantic, while Daniel Fish’s radical 2019 stage adaptation, seen in London in 2022, made explicit the show's implicit violence.

Annie Get Your Gun

Rodgers and Hammerstein clearly liked the West, as they were the producers of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946), loosely based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley. “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” one song states – or maybe you can?

Ethel Merman starred on Broadway and Betty Hutton on screen. A few years later, Warner Brothers produced its own variation on the theme with Calamity Jane starring Doris Day, which became a stage musical in 1961.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is one MGM’s most energetic offerings and was adapted for the stage in 1978. Rachel Kavanaugh’s 2015 production at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre embraced the woodsiness while elegantly navigating sexism.

Paint Your Wagon

Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon follows the lives of a mining camp community in Gold Rush-era California. Eastwood starred in the 1969 film adaptation with Lee Marvin, Harve Presnell, and Jean Seberg.

Crazy for You

George and Ira Gershwin's musical Crazy for You is set in the desert town of Deadrock, Nevada, whose residents transform the town's fortune by putting on a show in a disused vaudeville theatre. Susan Stroman’s production at the Gillian Lynne Theatre was a feel-good highlight of 2023.

We look forward to seeing how Bronco Billy pays homage to these classic shows and how the musical showcases its individuality with themes of love, reinvention, and living your dream. As Ado Annie sings in Oklahoma!, “I can’t resist a Romeo in a sombrero and chaps” – she’d probably go crazy if they started disco dancing, too!

Book Bronco Billy tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Tarinn Callender in rehearsals for Bronco Billy. (Photo by The Other Richard)

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