British Musicals

Postcard of Noël Coward, mid 20th century.

Postcard of Noël Coward, mid 20th century.


Ivor Novello, New Theatre, Greenwich, London, October 1929.

Ivor Novello, New Theatre, Greenwich, London, October 1929.

1930s and 1940s

Noël Coward (1899 - 1973)

In contrast to the slick, sophisticated American musicals of the 1930s, Britain evolved the ‘nostalgia’ musical. In 'Bitter Sweet' in 1929, Noël Coward abandoned the witty sophistication of the 1920s for a tribute to the romantic Viennese operettas of his youth. Bitter Sweet is the story of an 18-year-old girl who elopes to Vienna with her music teacher. The London production starred American Peggy Wood and George Metaxa, while on Broadway the English Evelyn Laye triumphed. The 1933 film was to make a star of Anna Neagle. Coward’s 1931 musical Cavalcade was a huge pageant celebration of major events in British history shown through the experience of an ordinary family.

Ivor Novello (1893 - 1951)

In the 1930s, Ivor Novello composed, wrote and starred in a series of unashamedly popular escapist musicals with flamboyantly romantic music and stories. ‘Nobody walks through his own tosh with quite the confidence of Ivor Novello’ one critic noted. Glamorous Nigh', Careless Rapture and The Dancing Years were big budget extravaganzas devised by Novello. To show off the technology of the Drury Lane stage he wrote in spectacular scenes such as earthquakes and sinking ships.

Ivor Novello was an accomplished chorister and began writing songs while still at school. He was known as ‘the Welsh prodigy’ after his song Keep the Home Fires Burning became one of the most popular songs of World War I. It eventually earned him £15,000 (over £500,000 today).

In recent years, his fame has often been overshadowed by Noël Coward. They were, in fact, friends and in 1927 Novello played the lead in what turned out to be one of Coward’s few failures, Sirocco. Because of his youthful good looks he was a natural choice for the cinema. He became Britain’s first great silent film star, hailed as ‘the new Valentino’. He also took more sinister film roles such as the mysterious tenant in Hitchcock's The Lodge.

Vivian Ellis (1903 - 1996)

Although most of his work was for revues, Vivian Ellis produced several successful musicals. In the 1930s he wrote Mr Cinders, a reversal of the Cinderella story with the hero ‘going to the ball’, which included the hit song ‘Spread a Little Happiness’. In 1947 came Bless the Bride, the most successful British musical of the time. Its hit song This is my Lovely Day was a favourite radio request for every bride-to-be in the 1940s and 1950s. Ellis’ success at playing the stock exchange meant he did not need to write as a full-time job - this may explain why he was less prolific than his contemporaries.

Noel Gay (1898 - 1954)

The archetypal cockney musical Me and My Girl was a big hit for Noel Gay at the end of the 1930s. Reginald Armitage was an organist at Wakefield Cathedral when he began writing for Charlot revues in 1926 and assumed the professional name Noel Gay, taken from the names of Noël Coward and revue star Maisie Gay. 'Me and My Girl' opened at the Victoria Place in London in 1937. It starred Lupino Lane as cockney Bill Snibson who inherits an earldom but refuses to leave his cockney girlfriend behind. The big dance number The Lambeth Walk became the rage in dance halls across Britain. The other hit song was The Sun has Got His Hat On. Despite its success, Gay wrote few other musicals and concentrated on writing hit songs including ‘Leaning on a Lamp Post’ for George Formby. In 1985, Gay’s son Richard revived Me and My Girl, with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson in the lead roles. It was an even greater success than the original and ran for eight years. Subsequent casts included Brian Conley, Gary Wilmot, Les Dennis and Su Pollard.

Julie Andrews, photography by Harry Hammond, London Palladium, 1960. Museum no. S.8683-2009

Julie Andrews, photography by Harry Hammond, London Palladium, 1960. Museum no. S.8683-2009


Lionel Bart with singer Shane Fenton (Alvin Stardust), by Harry Hammond, England, 1962. Museum no. S.9014-2009

Lionel Bart with singer Shane Fenton (Alvin Stardust), by Harry Hammond, England, 1962. Museum no. S.9014-2009

1950s and 1960s

The Boy Friend

In the 1950s musical theatre was dominated by the big American shows. Alongside this was the growth of small-scale British musicals. Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in 1953 was a pastiche of 1920's musical comedy. It was a huge success in London and transferred to Broadway where it made a star of its leading lady, Julie Andrews. In complete contrast to the original, Ken Russell’s 1971 film, starring Twiggy, was a huge extravaganza paying tribute to Busby Berkeley musical films of the 1930s.

Salad Days

Even more successful, and eventually out-running Oklahoma!, was Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ Salad Days. This was a fantasy about a magic piano that makes people dance. It was originally devised at the Bristol Old Vic where Slade was resident composer. Salad Days reputedly fuelled the theatrical ambition of a young man called Cameron Mackintosh, now international producer of such musicals as Miss Saigon and Les Misérables.

Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop

Musicals began to reflect the new trends towards realism in the theatre of the 1950s. In 1959 Joan Littlewood, had a huge hit with Lionel Bart’s low-life musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. This was peopled with prostitutes, bent police and small-time crooks and featured a promising actress called Barbara Windsor. Like The Beggar’s Opera in the 18th century, West End audiences revelled in the low-life ambience.

Lionel Bart’s biggest success came in 1960 with Oliver! based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. A major feature of the show were Sean Kenny’s sets evoking Victorian London. Bart had been a successful songwriter before creating musicals, writing hits for Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Anthony Newley. He then wrote Blitz, again with sets by Sean Kenny - four huge mobile units representing London’s East End streets and a massive platform which opened out to reveal an underground station. Blitz heralded a new era in spectacular design musicals, where, as one critic put it, the audience came out whistling the sets.

Jesus Christ Superstar programme, Palace Theatre, London, 9 August 1972

Jesus Christ Superstar programme, Palace Theatre, London, 9 August 1972


Programme for the first production of 'The Rocky Horrow Show', Royal Court Theatre, London, England, 1973.

Programme for the first production of 'The Rocky Horrow Show', Royal Court Theatre, London, England, 1973.

1970s and 1980s

Andrew Lloyd Webber

It was in the 1970s that Andrew Lloyd Webber had his first hit (with Tim Rice) with Jesus Christ Superstar. The show was produced on Broadway and the music available on record before it was ever staged in London; an insight into the future marketing phenomena. Throughout the 1980s Lloyd Webber scored one successful musical after another. Evita opened in the West End in 1978 and made a star of Elaine Page. In 1981 Cats opened at the New London Theatre choreographed by Gillian Lynne and staged by Trevor Nunn. In 1984 Starlight Express designed by John Napier turned the Apollo Theatre into a roller ring at great expense - it was the biggest budget musical to date.

In the 1980s set design and costume became hugely important. Lloyd Webber’s musicals were big budget affairs and immensely popular. He continued his success with Phantom of the Opera in 1987 and Aspects of Love in 1989. Lloyd Webber has continued to bring musicals to the British stage in capacity of producer, including Bombay Dreams written by Meera Syal with music composed by A.R.Rahman. The show is written in the style of a Bollywood movie.

The Rocky Horror Show

If one musical caught the spirit of the 1970s it was the cult hit The Rocky Horror Show. Written by actor Richard O’Brien, it began as a six week workshop project in June, 1973 in the Royal Court's tiny 60-seat Theatre Upstairs. Within 18 months it was an international smash hit and a film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Combining the styles of Hammer-horror films, science fiction movies, comics and rock and roll, The Rocky Horror Show tells the story of two bemused, clean-cut middle-American small-town kids who are confronted by the sexual complications of the decadent 1970s, represented in the person of the mad 'doctor' Frank N. Furter, a 'sweet  transvestite' from the planet Transexual in the galaxy of  Transylvania. Tim Curry played the role at the Royal Court and went on to huge success in the transfer and in the film.

The show rapidly outgrew the Royal Court and transferred first to a converted cinema and then to the 500-seat King's Road Theatre where it sold out nightly. With the 1975 film version and numerous provincial productions, the show has taken on cult status. People dress up in the Gothic style as the actors (black PVC, suspenders, wild hair and glam-rock make-up), leaving auditoriums covered in damp rice, and joining in the songs and dances like the Time Warp. You can even find an 'audience participation script' online.

British musicals since the 1990s

Since the 1990s big blockbusters and West End revivals of hit musicals have become very popular. New trends include the ‘compilation’ musical, which takes the hit singles of a group or band and weaves them into a storyline. These include Mamma Mia which uses the music of Abba, We Will Rock You with music by Queen and Our House with music by Madness. Incidentally, this is not a new phenomenon. In the mid-20th century there was a fashion to build musicals around a piece of classical music - Lilac Time used Schubert, Song of Norway Grieg and Kismet Borodin.

Stagings of popular films, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Saturday Night Fever and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, have also become popular.

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