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Musicals: A London round-up

Judith Elliott

The musical has been an integral part of London theatre since 1727, the year fashionable poet and playwright- about-town John Gay decided the ridiculous exaggerations and mannerisms of Italian opera (all the rage at the time) were ripe for sending up. The result was his smash-hit play with music, The Beggar's Opera - the musical was born. The Beggar's Opera depended heavily on satire and parody and audiences couldn't have enough of it. It made its author the staggering sum, for those days, of 1,600 pounds and ensured that from then on the musical was at the very heart of London theatre. And so it is today, with musicals making up almost half of all shows currently playing in the West End.

Many of these have had phenomenally long runs, for the musical-going public are a notoriously conservative lot and mostly like what they already know. Producers, too, are cautious about new work - best to stick to the tried-and-tested money-making formulae. And so there are revivals: Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward, Evita at the Dominion, White Christmas at the Aldwych. There are musical versions of films: The Bodyguard, just closed after a run of several years at the Adelphi, the two Roald Dahl smash hits, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion King and of course The Commitments, adapted from Roddy Doyle's brilliant book and film. And there's Once, again based on a film, but transformed by a complete theatrical reinvention, entirely set in a Dublin pub (a wonderfully warm and authentic set by the great Irish Designer Dermot Crowley), with the pub's regulars acting as chorus and musicians as the sweet and delicate story of a doomed love affair between a Dublin boy and a Czech immigrant girl is played out. The music is an excitingly original combination of Czech folk and Irish folk-rock. It looks as if Once is well on its way to becoming that stalwart of the West End, the long runner. And none has run longer than The Phantom of the Opera, Tim Rice and Andrew Judith Elliott is a broadcaster and theatre critic. She was an arts producer for the BBC for 28 years. Lloyd-Webber's smash hit from 1986, now in its 29th year at Her Majesty's Theatre. How much London theatre has depended on these two for guaranteed success!

But the successful musical has never been easy to define, and even Andrew Lloyd-Webber, with or without Tim Rice, hasn't always achieved that elusive formula for a long-running West End show. Both of them had unexpected flops last year, with Tim Rice's stage version of the film From Here to Eternity failing to attract audiences at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Stephen Ward the Musical closing after only six weeks at the Aldwych Theatre. Much speculation followed as to what could have gone wrong.

Could it have been that younger audiences neither knew nor cared that Stephen Ward, back in the 1960s, managed to bring down the government of the day with his association with call-girls and spys? Or was it a chamber piece that was given an inappropriately overblown production? Andrew Lloyd Webber's own comment was that he felt audiences these days no longer go to musicals to hear big-hit songs. 'Musicals now have to be bigger than the sum of their parts,' he said. But despite the occasional unexpected early closure, musical theatre is in a healthy state. The latest audience figures released by the Society of London theatres show that the West End musical is booming.

And there are plenty of new shows to see. One of the most interesting and innovative has to be The Scottsboro Boys, transferred to the Garrick after a successful run at the Young Vic. It tells the true story of a group of black teenagers in the US southern states who are wrongly accused of raping two white women. Its writers, Kandor and Ebb (who have given us Cabaret and Chicago as well as a string of other hit shows) have chosen, audaciously, to frame the story round a black-and-white minstrel show, which devastatingly exposes the racist bigotry of the 1930s deep south. It's too early to tell whether the show will appeal to West End audiences as much as it has to the critics, but it's this kind of innovation and invention - succeed or fail - that keeps musical theatre alive in London and always worth going to see.