Show and tell: Broadway vs the West End, Part 1

Anna Hollingsworth 5 May 2016

Since the birth of musical theatre towards the end of the 19th century, Broadway has hosted all the greatest musicals in history. Despite competition from London’s West End, European cities, and East Asia, it has held the number one position as the creative and financial hub for musical productions, and I think I know why.

As the 2015-2016 theatre season comes to an end, there are currently 29 musicals and nine plays showing on Broadway, compared with 20 and 16 respectively on the West End. Could there be financial reasons for this disparity? After all, musicals are renowned for being big money-makers for production companies and they tend to maintain longer runs (see Les Misérables or Chicago), perhaps explaining why Broadway chooses to produce so many, capitalising on its millions of annual tourists. In contrast, one might argue, on this side of the Atlantic putting greater emphasis on commissioning plays allows for more experimental, innovative work as opposed to the lucrative, brash Broadway blockbusters that traditionally rely on extravagant production values, easy crowd-pleasers, and past success.

However, it does seem that Broadway is subverting this stereotype of musical theatre, finally using it as a culturally and socially pioneering art form, like the straight play, having longer-lasting effects on audiences, rather than merely using upbeat dance numbers to momentarily put them in a good mood. There are three shows, all of which enjoyed immense success on Broadway this theatre season, that I believe prove this more than any others, setting a new precedent for future large-scale musicals. The first is Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening which totally reimagined the 2006 musical, featuring hearing and deaf actors, performing simultaneously in spoken English and American Sign Language. If you don’t know the show, this might come across as frivolous positive discrimination, serving no artistic purpose. However, the show is grounded in the fact that communication between teenagers and adults can be taut with grave consequences, and the integration of deaf actors communicating in Sign Language underlines the discordance between rebellious youth and constringent society.

Another ground-breaker was the simplistically staged return of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, starring Jennifer Hudson alongside Britain’s newest superstar, Cynthia Erivo (look her up and thank me later). This tragic story sheds light on the gross mistreatment of African Americans at the start of the 20th century, told in the form of a delightful, modern musical.

Lastly, anyone can guess the third show that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Broadway is our true musical theatre mothership. It is of course Hamilton, the revolutionary retelling of the founding of the USA through hip-hop music performed by a diverse cast, representing contemporary America. I can just picture endless composers throwing down their pens and pursuing office jobs because Hamilton has raised the bar for musicals forever, and it will be fascinating to see what is created in response to its success. Not only were these three musicals commissioned, but they were amongst the most highly acclaimed shows of the year, which is pretty special for productions that break a lot of artistic and cultural musical theatre traditions.

I can’t help but compare these shining, revolutionary shows to the relatively flimsy programme of musicals that London offered in its 2015-2016 season. Whilst the staple favourites such as Matilda, Wicked, and Les Misérables totally merit their place on the London theatre scene, I fail to comprehend why dated shows like Guys and Dolls, Disney films like Aladdin translated directly onto the stage, and jukebox musicals (essentially glorified concerts) such as Jersey Boys, Thriller – Live!, and Sunny Afternoon continue to thrive when the cutting-edge In the Heights is squashed into the miniscule King’s Cross Theatre and Billy Elliot has had to end its magnificent run. (The silver lining to this being that Hamilton is set to replace it, but that’s not the point; can we just keep Billy Elliot and finally give up Mamma Mia! instead?). I’m not denying the quality of older shows, nor the magical enjoyment of Disney productions, or even the nostalgia and accessibility of jukebox musicals. Yet, looking at this London theatre season, you might think that people have simply stopped writing musicals giving producers no other choice, if it weren’t for the fantastical children’s book adaptation, Tuck Everlasting, Sara Bareilles’ new creation, Waitress, and the fresh, country-inspired Bright Star, all starting Broadway runs in the last couple of months.

With the likes of Mrs Henderson Presents and Titanic opening this year on the West End and modern classics such as Kinky Boots and The Book of Mormon going strong, the London musical scene is by no means a dead loss. I am, however, convinced that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to follow New York’s lead when it comes to one of the only art forms that truly originated there, and that the city has evidently nourished so fondly for decades.

Next week I’ll be fighting the other side of the Broadway vs the West End battle in defence of London’s straight theatre scene.