As Les Mis, Phantom and Lion King celebrate London milestones, Betty Blue Eyes closes early. We look at recipes for stage success
By Rebecca Kent
What makes a good West End show? Is it the cast? The story? The music? Or is it the audience? It’s a question to which producers wish they had the answer – now, more than ever.
Currently, London is in a time of theatrical extremes. This month marks the 27th year of Les Miserables, the longest-running musical in the world; the 12th year of The Lion King, which has been seen by more than 60 million people globally; and Phantom Of The Opera celebrates its 25th year, with a box office income of £35bn – more than any other stage play in history.
However, on the flipside of these historical successes are shows such as Betty Blue Eyes. Despite rave reviews, a cast including Kylie Minogue providing the voice of a pig, and being based on Alan Bennett’s screenplay A Private Function, it flopped. Playing to half-empty audiences, the British-made musical closed at the end of September after just a six-month run.
Critics were shocked. Newspapers ran free adverts in an attempt to encourage ticket sales, but to no avail. It even took producer Cameron Mackintosh, who has 40 years of experience under his belt, by surprise. He said: “Something has happened on this show that has never happened in my whole career.“ It came a year after Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies closed early – although that was a little more expected after it received dire reviews.
Watching a West End show is almost a rite of passage for both tourists and locals in London. But how do theatre-goers choose which production to spend their cash on?
“There are 2000 different answers to what makes The Lion King so popular,“ says Rabah Aliouane, the show’s resident director. “Visually it’s spectacular and it’s underscored by a story that people can relate to: a dad trying to guide his son on the right path. The entire production is so multi-layered so people enjoy it for any number of reasons.
“I take the train home after each show and sit among the people who have just been to see it. It amazes me every time how much people have to say about it. Go to the cinema and you can discuss the film afterwards for a couple of minutes, but after seeing The Lion King, people are still talking about it 15 minutes into their journey.“
The show’s foundations in the Academy Award-winning Disney film can’t be overlooked. The story has already lived in homes through the book, the movie and the music. But Aliouane points out that it’s the production’s designer and director Julie Taymor’s influence that gives the theatrical production legs. “It’s been 12 years since the movie was out – that’s a long time for a show to have continued success purely off the legacy of a film,“ Aliouane says.
Taymor has been widely credited for taking a unique approach to distilling the emotional and cultural elements of the film for the stage, with the mechanics very much on show.
Rather than performers being hidden in costumes, they visibly control the animals’ movements using sticks or stilts. The African land and soundscape are also imaginatively portrayed; in one scene, stamping wildebeest are presented as cut-outs on furiously rotating wheels.
The dances are the stuff of ephemeral dreams, the colours evocative, and, thanks to the catchy songs composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, the soundtrack is big, bold and tribal.
It’s a recipe that works. More than 60 million people have seen it worldwide and since its 1997 Broadway premiere, 18 global productions have grossed more than £2.7bn. Last month marked its 5000th show at London’s Lyceum theatre.
It was Cameron Mackintosh’s Cats that set the benchmark for long-running musicals. It wrapped up in 2002 on its 21st birthday, holding the record until 2006 when it was surpassed by Les Mis, another Mackintosh baby.
Following the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption in 19th-century Paris, it opened in the West End on October 8, 1985, to critical reviews; scholars resented what they considered a bastardisation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
But public opinion differed and, to this day, the musical continues to draw crowds into London’s Queen’s Theatre. It has been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries and is now to be made into a film starring Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.
Hot on the tail of Les Mis is Phantom Of The Opera, yet another Mackintosh brainchild, which will have enraptured theatre-goers for 25 long years on October 9.
The white half mask, the crashing chandelier, the descent to the Parisian sewers, the stomping masquerade, and the swish of red curtains in the haunted opera house: these are the show’s insignia, underpinned by a score that is considered a work of genius by Lloyd Webber.
Phantom has played to more than 130 million people in 27 countries and in 14 languages. And if anyone has been a part of the show’s success, it’s John Owen Jones who has played the role of the phantom more than 2000 times. He has also had a long run as the Les Mis protagonist.
He says: “If we could put our finger on the secret behind the success of all these long-running musicals, then there would be more of them. But what I can say from my experience is that Phantom is the most complete theatrical experience you can get. As a novice theatre-goer it’s a great starting point; if you went a
Shakespeare play you’d probably need a bit of education, but with Phantom, Les Mis and The Lion King, it’s just there and it’s self-explanatory.“
They also hit on universal themes, unrequited love, redemption, sacrifice and revenge. “These are things people have always had in their lives, so they can relate. The musicals are such richly textured pieces you could easily go back and see them five or six times,“ Owen Jones adds.
Although even the veteran actor admits not everyone who goes to the show appreciates the talent behind the production. “I’ve done shows where people have literally come straight off their flights, sat down in the theatre and slept through the entire show, then stood up at the end to give a standing ovation,“ he says.
For Terri Paddock, MD of Whatsonstage.com, the West End has become a brand destination in its own right, which is part of the reason for its appeal. But she believes there is an argument for limiting the run times of the behemoths.
“Musicals are the pillars of the West End. They attract the tourists who would then perhaps also go and see something that has only a limited season,“ she says.
“However, they are some of London’s biggest theatres and their long runs are preventing other productions from showing in such highly sought after real estate in the West End.“ And in terms of the serial theatre-goers, who may see the same production five or six times, Paddock says: “People feel such loyalties to these shows that they go again and again and again.“
Whatever the secret to the success of theatre shows, one thing is for sure, if a new production comes to town, the best thing an audience can do is support it, otherwise miss it, and, like Betty Blue Eyes, it might really be gone for good. ?