Cars travel along Shaftesbury Avenue past West End theatres in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why musicals are Britain’s elite artform

Musical theatre is one of Britain’s most prized assets; we must protect this unique part of our culture and economy at all costs

I can recall the splash of water on my face more than two decades later: a man is tap-dancing in a puddle on a London stage, and the theatre has created a waterfall of rain to spray the audience like a log-flume ride. Another day, I remember puppeteers waving rags on sticks, and like a sparkler mirage, created an elephant. I was transfixed by the physicality of the two productions: Singin’ in the Rain and The Lion King. At seven years old, I was hooked.

My passion for musicals often puts me at odds with peers, bemused while I try to explain why I think there is no greater work of psychological genius than A Chorus Line. Or when I argue, with complete conviction, that musicals are Britain’s most underrated yet elite artform.

More so than the hospitality or tourism sectors, the arts have been devastated by Covid-19. The pandemic has dimmed the lights of theatres and kept many of its performers from their raison d’etre. With no “show out to help out”, London’s theatre ecosystem is facing a 97 per cent slump. Countless musicians have been excluded from SEIS grants or skewered by nonsensical post-Brexit touring visa requirements. But what the pandemic has also done is shine a spotlight on a long-standing disregard towards the arts, and musicals specifically.

People tend to dismiss musicals as cheesy or silly. Of course musicals are silly. They know they are. This criticism overlooks the self-aware, camp kitchiness of it all. Musicals derive most of their joy from their own whimsy and invite you to do the same. It’s this kind of intellectual snobbery that drives people from the culture pages of certain broadsheets and compels them to keep their Spotify most-played a secret. Only an artform that has achieved total self-mastery can laugh at itself. And so, the audience laughs too. Most arts require some suspension of disbelief: musicals require complete submission.

It’s difficult to estimate the economic power of musicals, both in terms of revenue and as a tourism draw. According to Arts Council England, the arts contributed about £10 billion to the UK economy at last count (2016). That’s more than agriculture. The theatre industry alone brings in about £2.7 billion per year – compared to £1.1 billion for live sporting events. More than 34 million people visit London’s theatres every year. That’s more than the population of Australia – or every Premier League football match combined.

The City is London’s wallet; the West End is the heart

Roughly a quarter of all visitors to London will attend a West End show. People come from all over the world to take a red-velvet seat in the grandeur of these old theatres. It’s a uniquely London experience: a pre-theatre set meal in Chinatown, followed by a show on Shaftesbury Avenue and drinks in Soho, riding a wave of joie de vivre like a rickshaw. The City is London’s wallet; the West End is the heart. But through its veins, money flows into the pockets of hotels, restaurants, bars, even taxis and mini ice creams. And that’s before we ship our musicals abroad.

Maurice Cambridge, one of London’s top orchestral managers, explains that when recording studios started to disappear in the 1950s, most of the best work available for musicians was in musical theatre. The West End was a well-paid, regular gig that still allowed for morning recording sessions or teaching lessons. But it played second violin to a Manhattan thoroughfare known as Broadway. Then came Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, combining rock and musical theatre to create the Jesus Christ Superstar score. The album was a smash, prompting a theatre production to open on the West End in 1972. The stage was set for a London takeover.

Out of the economic recession and political instability of 1980s Britain came Lloyd Webber’s utterly baffling Cats. Critics of Tom Hooper’s universally panned 2019 film might be surprised to learn that it was the 1981 West End production that sparked the ‘megamusical’ phenomenon: globally franchised pop operas that make a mint. (Cambridge actually played in the original production of Cats. Ah, memories.)

Then came Les Misérables in 1985, Phantom in 1986, Miss Saigon in 1989, and London had overtaken New York. And to this day, the West End attracts the best musicians in the world’s music capital, London – ergo, the world’s best musicians. “There are few things left where Britain can truly claim to be world-beating,” says Cambridge. “Theatre, including musicals, is where we lead the world.”

Musical theatre stands out as a testament to pure physical achievement

In a cultural landscape of auto-tuning and Insta-performance, musical theatre stands out as a testament to pure physical achievement. Performers must sing, dance and act – and they must do so eight shows a week, often for surprisingly little money or fame, recreating the magic of the first night, every night. The sheer production value – the lights, wardrobe, sound technicians, staging, and so on – is unparalleled. Every single film or gig I’ve seen pales into insignificance next to the memory of a chandelier crashing down on my head in Phantom.

And what other artform is so sure of itself that it can run uninterrupted for decades? The tenacity of so many productions allow audiences to experience the same shows at different stages of their lives. My parents took me to see the stage production of Mary Poppins in 2004: a fusion of the film and original book. In 2019, I took them. We spent hours in a pub afterwards, dissecting the differences between the two and considering how much had changed in between.

Musical theatre has also long functioned as a safe, welcoming space for LGBT performers and audience-goers alike. Channel 4’s It’s A Sin gestured to the pivotal role the West End played in raising awareness of the AIDs epidemic. Rent took a nineteenth-century opera and transformed it into a tribute to artists’ lives under the shadow of the virus. So why are musicals overlooked in favour of their more serious siblings, straight theatre or cinema? Perhaps it’s because they defy condescension or elitism, given that most are mainstream by default, with universal appeal. But art doesn’t need to be elusive to be meaningful, and mainstream appeal does not equal absence of depth.

Blood Brothers remains one of the more compelling looks at class disparity and predetermination. Even as a child I could grasp that, and I was only there to see Antony Costa from the band Blue. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie might be many people’s first exposure to drag culture, or Caroline or Change to slavery and racial disparity, and both are vital for it. It works both ways, too: Dear Evan Hansen tackles mental health and viral social media in a way that could help the elderly understand what young people truly face today. At least, that’s what the lady sitting next to me said as I sobbed my way through the intermission.

To see a musical is to engage in pure, ecstatic escapism

Musicals allow for artistic reinterpretation and engagement of new audiences to older material, like Spring Awakening: a Glee-tastic update of a (deathly dull) 1891 Wedekind play. I can’t be the only one radicalised as an anti-Wizard of Oz evangelist by Wicked. In what other world apart from musical theatre could audiences find joy in a tragedy such as 9/11, like Come from Away? (Captain Beverly Bass remains my favourite ever interview.) What other artistic medium might let one of the Founding Fathers of the United States rap his way to legacy as in Hamilton? I was so inspired by Six the Musical, which reimagines the wives of Henry VIII, that I wrote a book about it. 

In a major West End musical, you need to fill at least 70 per cent of seats to break even. By keeping audience members six feet apart under pandemic-friendly social distancing measures, you’re likely to only fill 25-35 per cent. So, the only way the West End can reopen is with some significant government support. And for nearly a year, many of our world-class performers have had none at all.

Dan Day, 30, has been working as a musician since he was 18. He played as the drummer for Come from Away and Dear Evan Hanson, and as a dep for Hamilton. He is currently working for a dog-walking camp. He tells me: “I don’t know where most of this money’s gone that’s supposed to have been used to support the arts. I don’t know what’s really been funnelled, finance-wise, to the West End itself.”

He describes a malaise among musicians: “It’s something I’ve done for most of my life and I’ve never done any other job. To suddenly have that stop one night in March, to nothing for this long, is quite a big toll to take.”

Cambridge says one of the best MDs in the world is currently stacking shelves at the supermarket, while his principal trumpet player for Wicked is delivering parcels. “Certain people do jobs to earn a living and musicians do a job because they love it, it’s what they do, it’s part of them. The hardest part of this is that it’s gone, they can’t perform anymore. It’s what they are, it’s how they feel.”

And what about how we feel? To see a musical is to engage in pure, ecstatic escapism. Day compares it to the buzz of a football match; Cambridge says nobody leaves without a smile on their face.

If the West End loses its lustre, if the arts are not better protected, we will suffer more than just a devastating economic blow. We will lose a world where princesses fly on magic carpets and elephants can walk on a stage; a world where men can defy gravity by tap-dancing on the ceiling. Where anything can happen, if you let it.

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