British musical theatre stars

Will producers have more faith in putting our British musical theatre stars in the spotlight?

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The West End musical is in rude health: in 2018, musicals were seen by over 9 million people, spending more than £500m for the privilege (audiences for plays, by comparison, were seen by over 4 million people, spending some £167m; figures for 2019 are not available yet). 

No wonder that musicals occupy more West End theatres than plays do, and of course (with the golden exception of The Mousetrap), usually run for a lot longer than plays nowadays. While plays are typically booked for limited runs of 12-16 weeks only, musicals are invariably on open-ended runs; and it's a striking fact that of the top 20 longest-running musicals of all time in the West End, eight are still running since they opened - in the case of the top two, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, since 1985 and 1986 respectively, with Mamma Mia! and The Lion King - the 5th and 6th longest runners - both premiering in London in 1999. 

The news that Thriller Live will finally bow out of the Lyric on 26th April will remove one of those eight shows from the list, but as well as the titles above, Wicked, Matilda the Musical and The Book of Mormon are all still going strong. 

In all of these cases, the show itself has become the star attraction, rather than the actors in them. That isn't to say that individual actors aren't capable of gaining followings of their own which will see the show again and again, and then follow them from this show to their next.   

But is the age of the star-making vehicle dead? There's no question we now have world-class musical theatre talent being trained at the UK's drama schools and some, like Killian Donnelly, having no formal training at all but nevertheless going on to become a West End (and Broadway) headliner. And with so many musicals in town, it's just as well - we need the talent to fill their ranks. 

Yet when Waitress opened in the West End last year, rather than finding a homegrown talent to open the show here its American producers imported Katharine McPhee, a runner-up on American Idol who had become a chart star in the US and had taken over the role on Broadway, to originate it at the Adelphi. It was only after she departed the company that Welsh-born singer Lucie Jones was finally propelled into the lead that she'd originally auditioned for before the show opened. She has since been rotated out of the show again to allow its composer Sara Bareilles to reprise the role she had also taken over on Broadway; this week it was announced that Bareilles' run has now been extended an extra two weeks to 21st March, before Jones finally returns. 

But for one night only, last Sunday, Jones returned to the Adelphi to headline her own show (with Bareilles this time in the audience), which was being recorded for future release as a live album. I was there, and can formally attest: she's a bona fide star. As she soared and ailed through a programme of songs made famous by Barbra Streisand (a tough act to follow under any circumstances, but which she did not once but twice), and others from Legally Blonde and Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, she proved her versatility and punch. 

Of course, there are good commercial reasons for a producer wanting the security of a 'name' above the title, and Waitress has duly accommodated this by rotating in 'stars' like Strictly Come Dancing's Joe Sugg and Pussycat Dolls' Ashley Roberts into its ranks. (The lead producers are Barry and Fran Weissler, about whom Jason Robert Brown memorably wrote in a lyric to the audition song "Climbing Uphill" in The Last Five Years, "these are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical", which is exactly what they did when the produced a revival of Grease on Broadway in the mid-90s).  

But there's also a fundamental lack of faith in a local headliner like Lucie Jones being able not to do the show (it was clear from her heart-rending rendition of "She Used to Be Mine" on Sunday that she's more than capable of delivering its power and pathos) but to sell it. (You can see for yourself in this YouTube clip from West End Live last June.)

The producers of & Juliet, by comparison, more boldly reckoned on casting the firebrand Miriam-Teak Lee, only a couple years out of drama school, in the title role, whom I fully expect to see up for an Olivier when those nominations are announced next month; and a West End stalwart Oliver Tompsett - who happens to have one of the best male voices in town - as Shakespeare (across town et the Gielgud, Shakespeare is now also being played by a bigger headline comedy star David Mitchell in the new play Upstart Crow, but I definitely found Tompsett more engaging - and funnier, too).

British stars like them can be made - but only if they're given the opportunity. It's ironic that Lucie Jones was given house-room on the same Adelphi stage last weekend to prove it beyond question, when the show she's actually a part of has temporarily moved her out of it to bring in a bigger name. 

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