This being the first full summer post-shutdown when theatre on both sides of the Atlantic is back to something approaching normality, it’s interesting to look, from a UK perspective, at a couple of the New York musicals that we can hope to be hitting the London stage before too long. A small caveat to begin with though: while the West End is doing reasonably well (every theatre is occupied and with future tenants lined up, even though disappointingly few productions are regularly selling out), it should be noted that, at the height of the tourist season of 2022, Broadway has only twenty one shows playing. There are exciting things announced for the autumn/fall for sure, but it’s still remarkable to consider that, at time of writing, exactly half of the houses that constitute Broadway are sitting dark, and that, of those with shows, only two of them are hosting straight plays (both of which are London imports: The Kite Runner and the blockbuster Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, here streamlined into a briefer but equally magical single epic play, as opposed to the expensive two parter still on offer at the Palace).
Everything else on Broadway is a musical, ranging from the long running usual suspects (Wicked, Phantom, The Lion King) through classic revivals to a soaringly original new work that genuinely prescribes hope for the future of the genre. The biggest hit, but only likely to cross the Atlantic if it’s above-the-title star elects to come with it, is Hugh Jackman in The Music Man, a Jerry Zaks-directed revival of Meredith Wilson’s Broadway classic. Critics have been divided on the merits of both the production (attempts to water down the more unreconstructed aspects of this 1957 musical have met with some derision) and Jackman’s athletic central turn as confidence trickster Harold Hill, although generally everyone adored the leading lady (Sutton Foster, seen here to great acclaim in last summer’s Anything Goes at the Barbican). With star power like this, The Music Man will likely prove similarly critic-proof should it hit London: the piece itself may not be held in the same affection here as it is in the US, but, concerts aside, Jackman hasn’t appeared on the London stage since he starred in the National’s Oklahoma! back in 1998-9, and he has a massive fan base.
With Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman’s opulently imaginative Into The Woods from Theatre Royal Bath allegedly eyeing a West End transfer, I guess the chances are little to zero of London audiences getting to see the other high profile revival this season, a semi-staged version of Sondheim and Lapine’s masterpiece featuring a full onstage orchestra and lightning-in-a-bottle casting, mixing Broadway veterans and debutants, all delivering career-highlight work. Some of the leads have just changed but Philippa Soo (Cinderella), Brian D’Arcy James and Sara Bareilles (Baker and Wife), Julia Lester (Little Red Riding Hood) and Patina Miller’s Witch, amongst others, found colours and nuances in the lyrics and characters that I had never encountered before in the half dozen other productions I’ve seen. The absence of decor and elaborate costuming in Lear deBessonet’s production only serves to highlight the sheer brilliance of the material. The Bath production is great fun, but this one is perfection.
Plans are already underway for a London transfer for MJ, the bona fide blockbuster that attempts to simultaneously eulogise, mythologise and humanise Michael Jackson, and ends up being a flashy Vegas-style spectacle with jawdropping production values and, of course, banging tunes. Double Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Ruined) has provided a serviceable script, centring on a documentary team filming Jackson in rehearsal for his 1992 World Tour amid unsavoury rumours. It’s her blandest work to date (one suspects that the fact that the whole extravaganza is presented “by arrangement with the Estate of Michael Jackson” means that her hands were tied when it comes to exploring the more controversial aspects of the MJ legend) but never plumbs the depths of Katori Hall’s clunky book for Tina The Tina Turner Musical.
On the plus side, and why London theatregoers will flock to MJ in the same way their NYC cousins are doing, there are THOSE songs (‘Beat It’, ‘Billie Jean’, a thrilling first act finale mash-up of ‘Earth Song’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, and ‘Thriller’ have seldom sounded so exciting or vital) and the most dynamic theatre choreography since Cats. Choreographer-director Christopher Wheeldon (An American In Paris) has ingeniously added just enough ‘Jackson-isms’ to satisfy the fans, to the rigour and craft of his classical background: the result is both an homage and, at times, an improvement on the original work. The exhilarating ensemble of dancer/athletes/human dynamos fair take the breath away, as does Natasha Katz’s endlessly inventive and transformative lighting design.
Wheeldon’s work is as eclectic as it is electric, as evidenced by a spinetingling second act exploration of Jackson’s dance influences, from jazz age hoofers the Nicholas Brothers to Astaire to Fosse, before culminating in a roof-raising version of ‘Smooth Criminal’. Tony winner Myles Frost, in an authentically sensational Broadway debut leads from the front but the performance of the night for me, apart from the dance ensemble, is that of Quentin Earl Darrington who doubles Jackson’s Tour Manager and his tyrannical father with a dazzling sleight of hand. MJ is about as far removed from the UK’s long-running Thriller Live as Les Mis is from a school play and will be a massive West End hit when it’s time comes.
It lost out on winning the Tony for Best Musical, as did our beloved Six, to A Strange Loop, a show that will be a much harder sell to UK audiences but is such an epoch-making leap forward in terms of form, content, structure and representation in musical theatre, that it is required viewing for anybody who cares about the art form. Not since Sondheim and Lapine unleashed the poisoned romanticism of Passion in 1994 has such an unconventional and daring piece taken home the big prize (also winning the 2020 Drama Pulitzer, one of only ten musicals to achieve that in over 100 years of the award being given). The fact that Michael R Jackson’s “big, Black and queer ass American” -to quote the rollicking opening number- musical, a massive critical success off-Broadway pre-pandemic, is even on the Great White (!) Way is cause for rejoicing.
A triumphant, sometimes painful, breathtakingly inventive interrogation of racial and sexual identity, filtered through a stunning score that shimmers, soars and screams, taking in influences from jazz and gospel to pop and showtunes, and the authentic life experiences of a young Black gay creative trying to write a musical masterpiece while also negotiating the toxic NYC dating scene, straitened finances and regular guilt trips from his stridently God-fearing mother, it’s a mould-breaking beauty. One of the many fascinating things about this power-packed show, equal parts fun and anguish, and never less than riveting, is how something so specific and current, can also feel so timeless and so universal, if you’re only willing to open your heart and mind.
Brilliance doesn’t automatically convert to ticket sales of course and this would be a tricky proposition were it to open cold in the West End without a massive star (in an ideal world, UK and American Equity would strike a deal whereby we get this terrific original Broadway cast for a limited London season, before passing the baton to British talent). It would be a great fit for somewhere like the Young Vic, Stratford East or the Lyric Hammersmith, and although the National generally produces it’s own work, it does have form with bringing over Broadway successes that are not obviously commercial to UK audiences (Fela! and the original Caroline, Or Change spring to mind). This would play well in the Dorfman, although it’s also sufficiently vivid to ignite the larger Lyttelton.
I’m fervently hoping that A Strange Loop does make that Transatlantic crossing. The precedents are strong: in the last twenty one years only three Tony Best Musical winners weren’t later seen in London, and of those, Hadestown (2019) had already played at the National Theatre prior to conquering Broadway and The Bands Visit (2018) gets it’s belated UK premiere at the Donmar this autumn. That leaves only 2014’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which was very much an American view of English Victoriana, something that never seems to go down very well over here (The Mystery of Edwin Drood anyone?). A Strange Loop’s unique mix of rage, sweetness, insight and freshness will be a shot of pure adrenaline to the London theatre scene.
Another unusual NYC treat that I really hope we get over here -although it’s not a Broadway show, or at least not yet- is the fantastically bonkers Titanique, the über-camp Celine Dion jukebox disaster musical we didn’t know we needed. Performed in a basement comedy club in Chelsea but stuffed to the gills with Broadway level talent (co-creators and stars Marla Mindelle and Constantine Rousouli have umpteen Main Stem credits between them, as do several of the fabulous supporting cast), it’s premise is that Dion didn’t just sing My Heart Will Go On for the epic movie, but that she is also a survivor of the sunken ship, and is here hell bent on inserting herself, however inappropriately, into every single scene of a re-enactment of the film. Mindelle’s Celine is a thing of wonder, capturing precisely Dion’s bizarre and specific mix of diva and innate niceness. And blimey can she sing. The voices and musicianship throughout are astonishingly good, and raise the chaotic but frequently hilarious proceedings into something truly special.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the iceberg that sunk the Titanic reimagined as a bitchy drag version of Tina Turner (wrecking the ship to River Deep Mountain High) or characters lip syncing for their lives (literally) à la Drag Race to get places on the lifeboats or an entire cast berating a cardboard cut-out of Patti LuPone for not wearing a mask. Not every joke lands but you’ll be having far too good a time to care, and there’s real magic in the way Mindelle can put over a genuinely moving A New Day Has Come, complete with breathtakingly gorgeous backing vocals from the rest of the cast, in amongst all the screaming laughter, pulling the audience up short. This irresistible smash-up of Saturday Night Live, karaoke (if you can imagine a singalong where the singers and band are world class) and James Cameron’s bloated film has just extended until the end of the year and could, in the right venue, totally repeat it’s success over here.
Another gem is the long-running revival of Little Shop of Horrors, which takes Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical comedy masterpiece back to it’s modest off-Broadway roots, a far cry from the excesses of the movie and the richly imaginative apocalyptic vision at Regents Park in 2018. Having already featured a succession of high profile performers as good hearted, nebbish horticulturist Seymour (Jonathan Groff, Jeremy Jordan, Skylar Astin…and the role’s current incumbent, Rob McClure, is utterly, heartcatchingly wonderful), Michael Mayer’s production, modest of scale but mighty of heart, humour and impact, displays an admirable trust in the material without treating it like a museum piece (Audrey is conceived quite differently from the Judy Holliday-inspired breathless blonde immortalised by the original’s Ellen Greene.) It may be too soon after the Open Air Theatre’s mind blowing version for London to welcome this glorious piece back, but a show this fine is always worth seeing.
A surer bet is Beetlejuice, which has the unique distinction of being a musical that announced it’s intended closure for summer 2020 (although the pandemic interfered with all that anyway) then saw such an upswing in business, as well as the vociferous support of online fans, that it roared back to life (ironically, for “a show about death”, as the giddily sick opening number has it) at a new venue when Broadway reopened. A gaudy, rambunctious distillation of the Tim Burton comedy horror, it features outlandish design and puppetry, a bouncy score by Australian Eddie Perfect, and a barnstorming central turn -equal parts cute, camp and utter revulsion- from Alex Brightman as everybody’s favourite undead bio-exorcist.
The musical positions grieving Goth teenager Lydia (Winona Ryder in the film, Elizabeth Teeter on stage) at the centre of the story to satisfying emotional effect. The whole thing is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and a tumultuously good first half gives way to a sloppier second that loses momentum, but it’s undeniably a hell of a lot of fun and, as with Moulin Rouge, which opened on Broadway in the same season, you can see wherever every cent of your high ticket price has gone. When the inevitable London transfer is announced, expect a considerable degree of hysteria.
Traffic going in the opposite direction, from the UK to the US, has been comparatively sparse. Although Stoppard’s exquisite Leopoldstadt and the Wendell Pierce-Sharon D Clarke Death of a Salesman are soon to start Broadway previews, and Jodie Comer in Prima Facie is slated for later in the season, the only musical confirmed to transfer is the glorious & Juliet arriving at the end of next month following a phenomenally successful Toronto run. One would imagine that it’s “only a matter of time” (and yes that is a quote from the show’s lyrics!) before Back To The Future announces a Broadway bow (the West End show has predominantly American creatives anyway), but no concrete news of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Cinderella getting to NYC as yet, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie so far hasn’t progressed beyond it’s limited run LA premiere at the beginning of the year. However, the state of American musicals on Broadway this coming season has seldom looked healthier with Some Like It Hot, Kimberley Akimbo, Almost Famous, the Neil Diamond A Beautiful Noise, K-Pop (technically Korean, I guess), plus sumptuous revivals of Camelot and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and a boldly reimagined 1776, all confirmed, plus Sing Street and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New York New York all in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, on THIS side of the Atlantic, we’ve also got a lot to look forward to. Fingers crossed.