The Piccadilly Theatre stands as one of many West End theatres to have opened its doors in the first half of the twentieth century, between two world wars and during a time when the West End was beginning to take the shape that we know it today. Like many venues to have existed during this time it has served many uses and continues to flourish in the modern day with many high profile musicals, from the well known “Guys and Dolls” by the Donmar Warehouse to the long-running production of Grease the Musical. Such blockbuster productions have helped it to retain its status as an integral part of Theatreland.
The venue opened its doors for the first time in 1928, from the designs of Marc-Henri Levy and Gason Laverdet and it was soon apparent that it was a venue that would easily stand out amongst the grand structures already found in the capital. For starters there was the extravagant interior, which featured a great blend of colour and art deco design, and then there was the sheer size of the building that initially made it one of the biggest in the capital.
And as the century progressed it would accumulate a wealth of other titles that set it apart from other theatres. Like other venues during the 20th century it would become a cinema for a particular period of its popularity, playing host to a number of talking pictures and attracting many punters along the way. Then, as time went on it would welcome television studios to play host to the setting of some popular television and radio programmes of the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in the last twenty years it has welcomed many well known musicals, continuing in the modern day as one of many venues to be the home of some of the most popular and high-selling productions in the capital.
Perhaps one of the most significant times in its history was in its first twenty years, when the Second World War gripped the world. The Piccadilly Theatre had managed to avoid the horrors of the First World War by opening a decade after its end, but like many venues it would succumb to the destruction of the second. A German bomb struck the building during the conflict and caused a lot of damage to the structure, ensuring that reconstructions were required ahead of its reopening.
Its tenure on Denman Street has seen the Piccadilly Theatre host a number of well known shows during its time, well before the current array of musicals that take to its stage, from “Guys and Dolls” and “Grease” to “Ghost the Musical”, based on the hit Patrick Swayze movie. From plays in its early years to movies as it progressed, with cabarets, television shows and, ultimately, musicals adding to the mix. It has made for a stand-out history and it is likely that there will be plenty further high profile productions in the future.
The first show to appear at the Piccadilly Theatre was “Blue Eyes” from Jerome Kern, a composer who worked on a number of shows for some high profile names, including Oscar Hammerstein II, in addition to famous songs such as “Ol’ Man River”. The musical production starred Evelyn Laye in a lead role and paved the way for a number of follow-ups over the century.
But this was not before it was purchased as a cinema n 1929, allowing it to set a record by becoming the first place in the country in which audiences observed a talking picture. It set this record with a screening of “The Singing Fool” and as a result was able to add another achievement to its list of accolades, ensuring its place in the history books well into the future.
As the 20th century continued it would host other blockbuster shows such as Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”. The show had originally been seen by audiences in Manchester but soon made the transition to the West End, where it broke box office record of the time. Such an achievement would be bequeathed upon future productions, but the Piccadilly still saw some of its shows falter, including an anticipated show “The Love Doctor”.
Following its period of cabarets and then variety shows for television, the Piccadilly Theatre would become the home of musicals such as “Ragtime”, with the acclaimed West End performer Maria Friedman, before continuing with the likes of “Noises Off”. In the last ten years it has welcomed some famous shows like “Guys and Dolls”, “Grease the Musical” and another production that started out life in Manchester – “Ghost the Musical”. As a result it has seen many big names take to its stage, from Guy Ritchie and Ian McKellen to Ray Quinn and Noel Sullivan.
Further Facts about the Piccadilly Theatre
Grease is now the longest running production to have appeared at the venue, overtaking the previous record holder “Guys and Dolls” earlier in the 2000s. Before that, “Blithe Spirit” broke records for its run in the 1940s.
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