West End Musicals

For years, it was easy to feel that musicals had become homogenous. Although they fell into a number of different camps, popular revivals, big budget US imports and smaller scale UK offerings, the output tended to be all too predictable.

In 2016, although there was a hardly a profusion of new offerings, economics and potential recessions dissuading the fainthearted, the breadth on offer was pleasing.

Leading the way was Andrew (Lord) Lloyd Webber with a return to top form backed by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes and lyricist Glenn Slater. School of Rock is based on a movie that is way inferior to the musical and features a bunch of kids bonding to great effect with a wacky rocker, played by David Fynn.

The music is uncharacteristic for this composer but can take the breath away, particularly when it is delivered by a highly talented cast many of whom are yet to reach their teens. This one will run and run.

It is hard to keep a good Lord down and the Coliseum welcomed British stage newcomer Glenn Close, taking the leading role in Sunset Boulevard, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber once again. This is a dark, gripping stage version of a classic movie that was greatly enhanced by a full orchestra, showing how lush the compositions really are when played by the crème de la crème.

Disney’s Aladdin was another Broadway import on the largest of scales and should also prove a crowd-pleaser. The music and choreography do the business, while, even with Sugarbabe Jade Ewen to entrance, American actor Trevor Dion Nicholas completely steals the show playing the Genie.

Another movie-inspired musical was Groundhog Day, which was backed by most of the production team behind Matilda the Musical. While it was good to see director Matthew Warchus reunited with Tim Minchin, this film translation is good-natured fun but not a patch on their earlier effort.

Motown the Musical does exactly what it says on the packet, scoring highly for the quality of the jukebox music, rather than the plotting.

Dreamgirls had rather more to offer, showcasing an unforgettable performance by Glee favourite Amber Riley, as well as probably the best choreography in town and some catchy songs.

The English were not to be ignored either, with some thoughtful, high quality productions, although the budgets rarely suggested that these were serious competition for the very best that Broadway could produce.

A revival of Guys and Dolls that started out in Chichester had already won British hearts previously but a London revival at the beginning of the year once again proved how compelling Damon Runyon is, not to forget composer Frank Loesser.

With a cast led by David Haig, Jamie Parker and Sophie Thompson, this proved to be an intoxicating delight.

For the same Chichester stable, Half a Sixpence, based on H G Wells’s Kipps, created a sense of period perfectly, while relating a cheering post-Dickensian story in fine fashion. It also featured nice central performances by relative newcomers Charlie Stemp and Devon-Elise Johnson.

Mrs Henderson Presents was the kind of British musical that deserved to be a rip-roaring success on the back of the movie of the same name.

In fact, although the production values were all that one could ask for, the run was sadly short.

The Go-Between was a kind of chamber musical that hit the West End very gently, starring veteran Michael Crawford in the lead. The storytelling was a delight, while the music played by a solo pianist rather than an orchestra proved charming.

If Andrew Lloyd Webber can triumph on Broadway, then there was no reason why Daniel Evans for Sheffield Theatres should not have revived Show Boat, an American classic featuring some great song and dance routines.

Finally, in something of a crossover between rock concert and musical, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds returned to the West End with great power, energy and visual fireworks, if something of a shortage of clarity in elements of the storytelling.