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A Brief History Of Musical West End Theatre

Monday, 2nd Nov 2015

Much has changed since musical theatre first started in the West End, but much has remained the same. It doesn't have the old style burlesque performances that dominated for so many years, but from the early days of revue shows, it now encapsulates these in the new guise of the Jukebox Musical. The West End has grown up and no longer stands in the shadow of Broadway, instead standing shoulder to shoulder, more creative and innovative than ever. From small beginnings West End musicals have become self-confident, bolshie even. Dominating the theatre district, there is now a musical to cater every taste from Thriller Live at the Lyric to Wicked at the Apollo.
The first British Musical was probably John Gays Beggars Opera in 1728, but the real shift came with the immergence of the first and by far the most revered of all the burlesque/comic opera writers Gilbert and Sullivan who produced 14 operas between 1871-1896. Richard Doyly Carte even built the Savoy Theatre (which is a stop on my tour), specifically to play their work in 1881, opening with their comic opera, Patience.

The musicals we recognise today were in part due to George Edwardes, manager of the Gaiety Theatre who introduced a new formulaic approach to his stories. Musical comedies, the star attraction was always the gaiety girls, stylishly dressed, young, attractive and much sought after.

In the 1920-30s Noel Coward (The main character on my tour), was in his ascendance producing several revue shows including Words & Music which was performed at the Adelphi, originally called the Sans Pareil in 1806 when originally constructed. Noel was a prolific writer of songs and plays, including an operetta Bitter Sweet in 1928. The 1925 musical No No Nanette at the Palace Theatre was one of the most successful musicals of this decade.

With little else on offer from British Talent, the West End was dominated for decades by Broadway musicals, interspersed with gems such as My Fair Lady by Noel Gay, first performed in 1937 starring Lupino Lane, it ran for 1,646 performances in London. It would be an award winning show again in 1964 staring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews at Drury Lane. Also Notable was Sandy Shaw' The Boy Friend which ran for 5 years at The Wyndham Theatre and Lionel Bart’s 'Oliver' which ran for 2,615 performances at New Theatre (now Noel Coward Theatre) in 1960.

We would have to wait until 1972 and Andrew Lloyd Webber' Jesus Christ Superstar to see a new era of British talent, enthusiasm and creative drive. But with this injection there has been a boom that seems unabating. This was the start of the super musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber would dominate the West End for years to come with hits like Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre and Cats, which has reopened at the London Palladium. And of course let’s not forget Blood Brother which ran for 24 years, starting its West End life at the Lyric.

Other giants have of course dominated such as Les Miserables, currently at the Queens theatre and the longest running West End musical ever. Shows such as Wicked, Billy Elliot and Matilda have a long lasting appeal for young and old alike, with no closure dates in site.

Increasingly more popular has been the Jukebox musical. Witty tales made up of delightful songs we all know and can sing along to. Often biographical as with Jersey Boys and The Commitments, or original stories like Mamma Mia (now in its 11th year) and We Will Rock You.

Whatever your style or taste in musical, the West End has it all in abundance. Who knows what direction it will take next, but with it taking over £600 million a year currently, the only way is up.

Author Bio

This article was written by Neil Maxfield of the London’s Musical Theatre Walking Tour. You can find out a lot more about the history of all things Musical Theatre by joining Neil’s tour together with the opportunity to sing along to some of your favourite hits!

Image courtesy of Deposit Photos   

Article filed under: Theatre News | Articles |