Global singing sensation and lead vocalist of Queen Adam Lambert has announced he is writing a new 1970s rock’n’roll musical. This announcement couldn’t have come at a better time. With the earth-shattering effect that the global pandemic continues to have on musical theatre across the world, the development of new musicals appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. But do we really need any more new musicals?
In July 2020, WhatsOnStage announced a list of new musical shows set to appear in the West End during 2021. The list includes new productions of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Frozen, and My Best Friend’s Wedding as well jukebox musicals such as What’s New Pussycat and Get Up, Stand Up! While it is clear that these famous titles will attract large audiences – an incredibly important factor in the post-pandemic recovery of theatre-land – it is hard not notice the lack of completely original work. Perhaps, rather than asking whether we need more musicals, we should really be asking ‘what do we need from new musicals?’
When we look at Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton, which took UK theatres by storm in 2017, audiences were presented with a melting pot of culture and diversity mixed through a thorough exploration of current issues through a historical retelling. The success of Manuel-Miranda’s musical demonstrates that audiences were open to not only watching a musical rooted in history but also had a desire to be educated. it is a complete contrast to the classic, fun-filled escapism associated with the likes of assured hits like Moulin Rouge! and Frozen (although it would be untrue to suggest that musicals had never addressed such issues before a few years ago, Cabaret being the most obvious example). It is a near-assured bet that newly-presented nostalgic titles will get bums on seats. However, there should be more of a focus on how these titles are adapted for a 2021 audience ,as well as making efforts to put completely new work on stage altogether. Hamilton is proof that new shows can be well worth the risk.
I chatted to avid theatre-goer Emma Bennett, who explained her love for the classic shows like West Side Story. She continued by saying that “I guess Hamilton joins the list of political musicals like West Side Story [which explores gang warfare and racism] and even the likes of Spring Awakening [which explores suicide and the impact of a patriarchal society].”
This is not to say however that classic productions or theatrical adaptations of existing stories are unable to have the depth that more contemporary writing can have. Over the last ten years we have been blessed with some fantastic movie-to-musical adaptations, including Legally Blonde starring Sheridan Smith and, more recently, Heathers starring Carrie Hope Fletcher. Both of these musicals explore important topics such as sexism and female empowerment.
However, it feels like there is a need in the current climate, particularly post-pandemic, to allow for work which not only represents marginalised groups within society in commercial theatre, but also to actually have the stories of these minority groups explored on stage. This can – and should – come alongside and within work which provides the whole-hearted escapism we are all craving.
When I asked Emma what she enjoys about her favourite shows she said “my favourites are probably: Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. I guess they are more like classics based on true life events.”
I then asked Emma what she goes to the theatre for; escapism, or to learn something. She replied “I like to learn at the same time, I think it’s amazing when something is a true story and a musical brings it to life. You can get a sense of understanding of what living in that time might have felt like.I definitely like the escape as well. A good combination of both is what makes a musical so powerful for me!”
Despite the majority of the musicals listed on the WhatsOnStage article being musical adaptations of films, there is one new musical that continues to stand out; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new comedy version of Cinderella. This ‘reinvention’ of Cinderella is described by Lloyd Webber as being “about beauty, but it’s about beauty being what you are rather than what you try and make yourself.”
This promising new work from Andrew Lloyd Webber ,along with Adam Lambert’s vision of his new musical, will hopefully pave the way for more new original musicals to be created this year. These two shows in particular can give us something to relish. One is from a known theatre entity who is renowned for his ability to bring sensational stories to the stage. The other comes from an LGBT+ superstar who has the following and imagination to bring an exciting new story to the masses. Creators have an opportunity in this post-pandemic climate to present thought-provoking performances and give a voice to the social eclecticism of 2021 while still providing the nostalgia and escapism we are all desperate to get back to theatres for.
Words by Isabelle Casey.
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Image: © 2020 Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nevis Productions