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.
Lisa Stokke and Andrew Langtree as leads in Mamma Mia!, Prince Edward Theatre, London, 1999, black and white photograph. Museum no. TM 10389-3/10
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 as Tony Manero in Nan Knighton's stage adaptation of Saturday Night Fever, London Palladium, April 1998, black and white photograph. Museum no. TM 10318-1/10
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, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 1998. Museum no. TM 10321/4/7A-8
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 (right) as Roxie and Chanteuse Ute Lemper as Velma singing 'Class' in Chicago, Adelphi Theatre, 1997. Museum no. TM 10291-3/27
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';.
Michael Ball as Caractacus, Emma Williams as Truly and Lauren Morgan and Harry Smith as Jemima and Jeremy Potts in Adrian Noble's stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, London Palladium
2002. Museum no. TM 10576-4/5
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, Queen's Theatre, London, 2004
The men's chorus performing the song 'There is Nothing Like a Dame' in the musical South Pacific, Royal National Theatre, London, 2001. Museum no. TM 10555-4/15
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.
Singing in the Rain, Sadler's Wells, London, 20 July 2004
Scene from Cameron Mackintosh's production of My Fair Lady, Theatre Royal, London, July 2001
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.