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.
The interior of Schlick's cafe in Bitter Sweet
The operetta Bitter Sweet was a huge responsibility for Coward, as for the first time he was in complete control of a show, as writer, composer, lyricist and director. It was unashamedly nostalgic, but Coward was reflecting a change in public taste, as the brittle, sophisticated 1920s gave way to the more sober, nostalgic 1930s. London critics gave it a lukewarm reception, predicting that it would only run three months but Coward had judged the public mood perfectly. It ran for 18 months in London and transferred to Broadway. The story is told in flashback. Lady Shayne recalls her elopement with Carl, her music teacher the night before her wedding and their life together in Vienna before he is tragically killed in a duel with Captain Lutte, seen seated in this photograph. The hit song was 'I’ll See You Again'. The song 'If Love Were All', included a phrase which came to haunt Coward. ‘All I have is just, a talent to amuse’ became a cliché used by every journalist ever after to describe his talents.
Flyer for Noël Coward's play Cavalcade
Although Noël Coward felt that the first night performance of Cavalcade in 1931 was shaky, the critics loved it. Some of the critical comments ‘astounding’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘breath-taking’ were incorporated into the advertising flier.Yet Coward felt that the show had been misinterpreted. Far from being a jingoistic celebration of England it was not uncritical and used visual irony similar to that Joan Littlewood later incorporated into her production Oh, What a Lovely War! Cavalcade was produced at the time of a general election and this added to the sense that Coward had written a rousing patriotic play. It aroused such nationalistic fervour that when King George V and Queen Mary came to see it, the audience spontaneously burst into the national anthem and the King was forced to make two appearances in the Royal Box to acknowledge the applause. To get away from the frenzied atmosphere, Coward fled England for South America.
First night audience for Noël Coward's Cavalcade
A Noël Coward first night always guaranteed a high profile audience. The first night audience for Cavalcade in 1931 included not only aristocracy but theatre luminaries such as designer Oliver Messel, the Countess of Dudley, former Gaiety star Gertie Millar and Edna May, star of The Belle of New York. Coward recalled the first night as ‘the most agonising three hours I have ever spent in a theatre’. During a scene change one of the downstage lifts stuck. Some of the audience grew restless and started the slow handclap. Coward was just about to announce that the rest of the show was cancelled when, miraculously, the lift moved and the show continued. All the cast were shaken by the event, but the audience loved the show and Coward was called to make a curtain speech. Taken unawares, he improvised saying that he hoped that the play had made the audience feel that ‘it was still pretty exciting to be English’. This unpremediated remark came back to haunt him in later years, which Coward found especially annoying, as he never intended the play to have a jingoistic message.
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.
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.
Scene from musical Salad Days
Salad Days was written to fill a three week gap in the Summer season at the Bristol Old Vic in June 1954. Julian Slade, the musical director and composer at the theatre, joined with actress Dorothy Reynolds to write this gentle, frivolous tale of a magic piano. The show took on a life of its own, transferred to London and eventually outran even Oklahoma! in a staggering five and a half year, 2283 performance run at the traditionally unlucky Vaudeville Theatre. Two new graduates, Timothy and Jane, fed up with their parents' plans for them, decide simply to get married and fall in love later. A tramp arrives and offers to pay them for looking after his piano for a month. The piano, Minnie, turns out to have special powers. Everyone who hears her is compelled to dance and, of course, by the end of the month's adventures Timothy and Jane are in love for real. Simple but lyrical songs such as 'Look at Me, I'm Dancing' and 'The Time of My Life' made the show a romantic, enchanting success.
Piano stage prop used in the musical Salad Days
Piano stage prop used in the musical Salad Days, 1954. Museum no. S.85-1978
Scene from Oh, What a Lovely War!
This is a 1998 revival of Oh What a Lovely War!, the musical that was one of the most famous productions directed by the extraordinary Joan Littlewood and her company, Theatre Workshop. It was a savage satire based on the World War I. Written by Littlewood in 1963 it ruthlessly exposed the horrors of the trenches and the callous incompetence of the ruling aristocracy that sent 1000s of men to their death. The whole thing was dressed up as an Edwardian music hall show performed by pierrots who were popular in seaside pier shows. Theatre Workshop was a radical left-wing theatre company who aimed to bring theatre to the people. Much of their work was created through improvisation in rehearsal. As part of the process of creating Oh What A Lovely War! the company invited locals to come and see the work in progress and ended up incorporating some of their stories into the production.
Barry Humphries as Fagin in Oliver Twist
Oliver! was Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The brilliant combination of soulful ballads like 'As Long As He Needs Me' and 'Where Is Love?', and rollicking singalong numbers like 'Consider Yourself' and 'Oom pah pah' with the lowlife setting and dark subplots of Dickens's book made it Bart's greatest success. It opened at the New Theatre in 1960, received 23 curtain calls and ran for 2618 performances. The 1968 film version won six Oscars, including Best Picture. Among the original cast on stage was one Barry Humphries as Mr Sowerberry, the Undertaker. By the 1967 revival, Humphries had moved up to playing the lead, Fagin, the seedy sinister crook who trains orphans and street urchins in pickpocketing. Fagin has some of the best songs in the show, including 'You've got to pick a pocket or two' and 'Reviewing the Situation'. Humphries played the role again in 1997, a salutary reminder that he has always been more than just his world famous outrageous alter ego, Australian 'superstar' Dame Edna Everage.
Susan Hampshire as Victoria in Follow that Girl
Following their success with Salad Days Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds collaborated again. Follow That Girl was a re-working of their musical play Christmas in King Street (the 1952 Christmas show at the Bristol Old Vic). It opened at the Vaudeville Theatre, in the wake of Salad Days, on 17 March 1960, closing after 211performances. The show begins in the present day with a young author, Tom, discussing a play he has written in which he and his girlfriend Victoria feature as hero and heroine. The characters Tom has invented appear and the scene changes to Victorian England, where Tom and Victoria play out the plot of Tom's play - a melodrama of long lost sons, unwanted suitors, attempted suicides, and eventual happy endings. In this photograph from the original 1960 production Susan Hampshire as Victoria, in her Victorian persona, receives the attentions of the two shopkeepers her parents wish her to marry. Their persistence drives her to run away from home, into the arms of handsome Police Constable Tom Blenkinsop.
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.
Full orchestral score for Jesus Christ Superstar
Full orchestral score for Jesus Christ Superstar, 1971, ink and pencil on paper. Museum no. S.102-1981
Marcus Lovett in Whistle Down the Wind
Whistle Down the Wind is based on a 1961 British film, starring Hayley Mills, which was, itself, based on a book by Hayley's mother, Mary Haley Bell. It tells of a group of English north-country farm children who believe the stranger hiding in their barn may be Jesus. This photograph shows Marcus Lovett as the Man. It was Hayley's father and Mary Haley Bell's husband, film star John Mills, who suggested the subject to Andrew Lloyd Webber. He and his wife saw an amateur production in Edinburgh and told Lloyd Webber he should see it, as it worked well as a musical. Lloyd Webber said he couldn't go as his wife was expecting a baby. 'You can always have another baby', Mills told him. 'But it's your last chance to see the show. It finishes tomorrow.' Lloyd Webber flew to Scotland, saw the show and immediately signed up the rights.
Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in The Phantom of the Opera
For his hit show The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber took Gaston Leroux's 1911novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, which had already spawned several plays and films, and adapted it into a musical. The story is based on a series of mishaps which actually occurred at the Paris Opera House in the 1880s. It tells of a disfigured musical genius, living beneath the theatre who falls in love with a beautiful soprano. In his desperation to have his love returned, he sets in train some terrifying events, causing chaos, terror and death. The labyrinthine passageways of the vast Paris Opéra, complete with underground lake, were a perfect setting for Leroux's melodramatic ghostly tale. Lloyd Webber's show opened at Her Majesty's in 1986 and received a ten minute standing, stamping ovation on its first night. It is still running, and the 'flamboyant melodious score' (Observer) has taken it on to worldwide success.
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.
Lisa Stokke and Andrew Langtree as leads in Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia! was one of the first of a new trend for compilation musicals, taking the hit singles of a group or band and weaving them (or sometimes forcing them) into a plotline. Mamma Mia! takes the phenomenally successful music of Swedish pop group Abba and fits the songs to two interwoven love stories. One is centred around a girl about to get married, and the other focuses on her mother who is about to confront her past. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the two male members of Abba who also wrote the music for the group were involved in the creation of the show, which has a book by Catherine Johnson. It opened in April 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London and thanks to the melodic and lyrical brilliance of the music, it has spread as far afield as Hamburg, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Korea and is still going strong.
Adam Garcia stage adaptation of Saturday Night Fever
The West End has borrowed from the cinema very profitably in recent years. Shows like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Singin' in the Rain took well loved films and adapted them for the stage, secure in the knowledge that there would be a ready made audience from the films' fans. Saturday Night Fever opened at the London Palladium in 1998 and played for nearly two years. It was based on the 1977 smash hit film starring John Travolta as Tony Manero, a New York Italian roughneck, who falls in love and realises there are more important things in life than his weekly chance to strut his stuff at the disco. The stage adaptation by Nan Knighton used the songs by the Bee Gees which had greatly contributed to the huge success of the film. The infectious disco rhythms of songs such as 'Staying Alive', 'You Should Be Dancing', 'Jive Talking', and 'Night Fever' were just as crucial to the success of the stage version. This sequence shows Adam Garcia as Tony Manero, recreating the famous dance routine which influenced amateurs on dance floors everywhere.
Scene from the musical Rent
Rent is a modern day version of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Set in New York City's East Village, it's an emotionally stirring story of a community of young artists struggling to earn a living and celebrate life. The original idea for an updating came from Billy Aronson as far back as 1989, but was taken on by Jonathan Larson who wrote the music, lyrics and book which eventually became Rent. The final version of the show opened in 1996 and won many awards, most notably the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1996 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. Tragically, Larson died unexpectedly of a heart attack the night before the show’s first performance off-Broadway, ten days before his 36th birthday. The show’s songs incorporated dance, pop, salsa, rhythm & blues and rock’n’roll. The multiracial cast wore their microphones visibly, making the point that the show was as much a rock concert as a musical play.
Ruthie Henshall as Roxie and Ute Lemper as Velma in Chicago
Chicago was first produced in 1975. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb tend to create their musical masterpieces from rather darker subject matter than is usual in musicals. Their 1966 Cabaret is set in a Berlin nightclub in the 1930s, against the background of Nazi oppression and violence. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is set in a South American prison. Chicago is set in a women's prison in the 1920s, the jazz age. It tells in song the story of the overlapping lives and trials of two showgirls Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, as the lawyer they both hire, Billy Flynn, tries to get them acquitted of murder. The choreography by Bob Fosse was an integral part of the show. His raunchy jazz style (first seen in The Pajama Game in 1954) marked a new departure in dance in musicals. It perfectly complemented the sometimes brash, sometimes sensual songs such as 'Razzle Dazzle' and 'All that Jazz';.
Scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang represents a successful recent trend in West End musicals. Producers will mount a stage version of a popular film musical, guaranteeing box office interest from all the fans of the original film. The 1968 film was based on the book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang written, surprisingly, by Ian Fleming, who is more famous for writing the books which introduced Agent 007 James Bond to the world. Crackpot inventor Caractacus Potts buys a dilapidated car called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and he and his two children and Truly Scrumptious, the beautiful daughter of Lord Scrumptious get caught up in an amazing adventure, during which Chitty Chitty Bang Bang turns out to be able to fly and sail. The stage version directed by Adrian Noble of the RSC, which opened in March 2002, features a miraculous piece of theatrical machinery to simulate the car flying.
Programme for the 20th anniversary of Les Misérables
Programme for the 20th anniversary of Les Misérables, Queen's Theatre, London, 2004
The men's chorus performing in South Pacific
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's South Pacific brought new realism to the musical. Opening in New York in 1949, it was set in the South Pacific in World War II, only four years after the war had ended. It told of love, racial prejudice, cultural clashes and the frustrations of that war in a musical at once enchanting and thought provoking. Adapted from two short stories by James Michener, it chronicles two love affairs - Lt Joe Cable with a Polynesian girl and Nurse Nellie Forbush with Emile de Becque, a French planter. The original New York production starred Mary Martin and the great opera singer Ezio Pinza. Mary Martin also starred in the original London production. Here the men's chorus from the Royal National Theatre's 2001 London revival agree that 'There is Nothing Like a Dame'. The men's chorus in the original London production included Mary Martin's son, Larry Hagman, in his pre-J.R. in Dallas days. Sean Connery in his pre-James Bond days was in the chorus of the touring production.
Scene from Cameron Mackintosh's production of My Fair Lady
Cameron Mackintosh's production of My Fair Lady opened at the National Theatre in March 2001, before transferring to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the West End. For such a lavish show it broke even remarkably quickly, covering its considerable costs in less than four months, thanks in large part to the casting of former Eastenders star Martine McCutcheon in the role of Eliza (seen here, very suspicious of Jonathan Pryce's Henry Higgins). Ironically, due to poor health, McCutcheon actually gave fewer performances than her understudies during the run at the National Theatre, and had to pull out of the West End transfer altogether on doctors' advice. The show had a very successful run nonetheless. George Bernard Shaw's story of the flower girl transformed into a lady, plus the superb lyrics by Alan J. Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, had as much appeal for the 21st century as it had for audiences in 1956. Wonderful romantic melodies like 'I could have danced all night' and 'The Street Where You Live', as well as knees-up favourites like 'I'm Getting Married in the Morning' still send audiences home singing.