After a slow 2005 for new musicals in the West End, we are already promised a bumper crop for 2006, including at least four transfers for Broadway hits – Movin’ Out, Wicked, Avenue Q and Spamalot – plus two homegrown revivals courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber, as composer of Evita, and producer of The Sound of Music, and a Royal Albert Hall arena style production of the Broadway classic Show Boat. All that and a pair of jukebox musicals, revisiting the career of Frank Sinatra and the music of disco icons Boney M.

On the plays front, there are new works by Tom Stoppard, Christopher Hampton, Mark Ravenhill and David Harrower, and star revivals of plays by Robert Bolt, Edward Albee, Peter Shaffer, Peter Whelan. Racine and Joanna Murray-Smith, amongst others. Actors set to appear in them include Kathleen Turner, Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons, Diana Rigg, Derek Jacobi, Dawn French, Christopher Eccleston, Clare Higgins, Patricia Routledge and Rufus Sewell. Let the anticipation and partying begin….

THE MUSICALS

The biggest musical of 2006, in every sense, is likely to be one not opening in the West End at all, but thousands of miles away in Toronto in March: British director Matthew Warchus is bringing a musical version of The Lord of the Rings to the stage there, and it is sure to head this way in due course – though not for at least a year, as Toronto have secured the exclusive rights to it for that period. Meanwhile, this year will see Disney’s latest, Tarzan, premiere on Broadway in May, with a score by pop composer Phil Collins and direction and design by British designer-turned-director Bob Crowley.

On the homefront, here’s what’s confirmed, expected and rumoured:

Confirmed…

Sinatra at the London Palladium
What: A new multimedia show marrying rare and never-before-seen footage of the late singer with a live 24-piece orchestra and company of singers and dancers.
Who: British director David Leveaux (whose credits include the current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, and Stoppard’s Jumpers seen at the National and transferred to Broadway) directs; Stephen Mear (Mary Poppins, ENO’s On the Town, Anything Goes) choreographs.
Where: Tried out at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 2003, it now opens at the London Palladium.
When: Previews from 17 February 2006, opens 8 March.

Movin’ Out
What: Narrative ballet set to old songs by Billy Joel gives the jukebox musical a defiant new twist that ran on Broadway for over three years.
Who: With choreography by Twyla Tharp, one of New York contemporary dance’s most innovative dance creators, set to Joel’s songs that are performed live by an onstage singer/pianist and full band.
Where: At the Apollo Victoria.
When: Previews from 28 March 2006, opens 18 April.

Daddy Cool
What: A new musical, set in multi-cultural contemporary London, using the songs of Boney M and including such pop anthems as “Rivers of Babylon” and “Brown Girl in the Ring”.
Who: Harvey – ex-So Solid Crew band member – makes his West End debut in Andy Goldberg’s production.
Where: At the Shaftesbury Theatre.
When: Previews from 26 April 2006, opens 16 May.

Show Boat
What: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s ground-breaking 1927 musical, last seen in London in a transfer for Hal Prince’s Broadway revival in 1998, returns to London as the first-ever full-staged musical in the round at the Royal Albert Hall.
Who: International opera director Francesca Zambello, whose in-the-round production of the opera La Boheme is being revived at the Albert Hall in February, will direct, with Peter J Davidson’s sets filling the arena of the hall and allowing the audience on all sides of it to experience the unfolding drama.
Where: Royal Albert Hall.
When: 18 performances only from 10 to 25 June 2006.

Wicked
What: Broadway’s biggest commercial musical hit of the last few years, where it’s still running at the Gershwin Theater, Wicked rewinds from The Wizard of Oz to tell the 'back story' behind the witches.
Who: With a score by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell) and book by Winnie Holtzman, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, this 2003 Broadway musical is directed by Joe Mantello, who would recreate his production here in his commercial West End debut.
Where: At the Apollo Victoria Theatre.
When: Opens 27 September 2006, following previews from early September.

Expected musicals…

Evita
What: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1979 biographical musical about the eponymous wife of the former Argentine dictator General Juan Peron is revived for the first time since it originally premiered at the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre with Elaine Paige in the title role and became a world-wide hit.
Who: Michael Grandage - artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse where he has previously staged musicals like Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, Privates on Parade and Grand Hotel and who is currently responsible for the Donmar in the West End version of Guys and Dolls - will direct. Philip Quast is rumoured to be playing Juan Peron. Casting for Eva Peron is yet to be announced.
Where: Rumoured to be opening at the Adelphi Theatre (whose current longtime tenant Chicago is expected to move, possibly to the Cambridge).
When: June 2006.

Avenue Q
What: The 2004 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical, Avenue Q is an adult musical that combines puppets and the live actors who manipulate them. Featuring music and lyrics by Broadway newcomers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks and book by Jeff Whitty, it’s still running at New York’s Golden Theater and also currently in Las Vegas at the new Wynn Hotel.
Who: Cameron Mackintosh is reportedly behind the transfer of this musical to the West End. Originally announced to open at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in February prior to transferring, it is expected to open direct in the West End.
Where: At a Delfont Mackintosh Theatre – possibly the Novello (the renamed Strand) or Coward (the renamed Albery).

Spamalot
What: The cult 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail is made-over as a Broadway musical about a search for the holy grail of producing a successful musical on Broadway.
Who: Original Python Eric Idle provides the book, lyrics and co-writes the music with John Du Prez for veteran Broadway director Mike Nichols’ smash-hit production that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005. Running at the Shubert Theater, it currently stars Britain’s own Simon Russell Beale as King Arthur, Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria. It recently set the record by hiking up its regular top ticket price to $110. Will a West End transfer do the same to ticket prices here?
Where: At a Really Useful Theatre.

Rumoured musicals…

Caroline, Or Change
What: Musical about race relations set in the Deep South of the US that opened at the Public Theater off-Broadway in 2004 before transferring for a short season to Broadway’s O’Neill Theatre.
Who: With book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie).
Where: Artistic director Nicholas Hytner is looking to produce it at the National Theatre, where Kushner’s Angels in America received its British premiere.

THE PLAYS: WEST END

Martin Shaw kicks off the West End year early with a 3 January press night for a revival of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons at the Haymarket, in which he plays Sir Thomas More (appearing opposite his own daughter Sophie Shaw’s Lady Margaret More), to be followed there by Judi Dench leading a Peter Hall production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. Another Coward due in the New Year is a tour of Present Laughter starring Simon Callow that will no doubt have the West End in its sights.

Kathleen Turner, last seen in the West End when she starred in the original stage version of The Graduate at the Gielgud five years ago, returns to reprise her Tony-nominated performance in the revival of Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that played on Broadway last year. She’s joined by her New York co-stars Bill Irwin (who took the Tony for Best Actor in a Play for his performance there), David Harbour and Mireille Enos in Anthony Page’s production, that opens at the Apollo Theatre on 31 January (following previews from 20 January).

In February, Diana Rigg will return to the West End, where she was last seen in 2004’s Suddenly Last Summer, to star in a new production of Australian Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour, a play previously produced on Broadway in 1998 and in a different production at the National in 2002 with Eileen Atkins. It now starts performances at Wyndham’s Theatre on 7 February 2006, with Rigg playing a woman who finds her marriage unravelling after 32 years.

Roger Allam will swap his current role as Abanazar in the Old Vic’s Aladdin to reprise his performance in David Harrower’s new play Blackbird, which he first did at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival. He and Jodhi May are a pair who once had an illicit relationship and now meet again after a 15-year gap. Veteran German director Peter Stein directs at the Albery Theatre, opening on 13 February 2006 (previews from 7 February).

Christopher Eccleston, now famous as TV’s Doctor Who, returns to the West End, where he was last seen in 2000’s Miss Julie at the Haymarket, to star as the playwright, poet and spy Christopher Marlowe in a new production of Peter Whelan’s historical thriller The School of Night. Originally produced by the RSC in 1992, it’s now revived under Bill Alexander’s direction at the Comedy Theatre, opening on 27 February 2006 (following previews from 16 February).

Playwright Christopher Hampton, whose early play The Philanthropist was a hit at the Donmar Warehouse last year, will reappear in the West End this year with a new play, Embers, based on the novel of the same name by Hungarian Sandor Marai. Michael Blakemore directs Jeremy Irons in the actor’s first West End stage role for almost 20 years. It opens at the Duke of York’s on 1 March 2006 (following previews from 15 February.

Dawn French and Alison Moyet team up to star in Smaller, Carmel Morgan’s new play with music (written by Moyet). Directed by actress-turned-director Kathy Burke, it revolves around a woman who is devoted to her disabled mother. Following a regional tour, it opens at the Lyric Theatre on 4 April 2006 (following previews from 28 March).

PARTYING AT THE ROYAL COURT

Everyone loves a party, and the Royal Court is throwing a year-long one to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the English Stage Company taking up residence there in 1956, and within a month of arriving, presenting the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. The Royal Court, in turn, has never looked back; but now it can afford to do so, in fondness for what it has achieved as one of the premiere new writing venues not just in the country but also in the world. (The latest play due to go to Broadway from here this year will be Conor McPherson’s Shining City, opening at the Biltmore Theatre in April, under the direction of Robert Falls and the auspices of Manhattan Theatre Club).

As well as looking back over its past, with new student productions of some of its biggest hits such as John Arden’s Live Like Pigs, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, David Storey’s The Changing Room and Christopher Hampton’s Savages and 50 readings of other plays it has premiered, the Court will continue to celebrate new writing. Amongst the offerings are new plays by Stella Feehily (kicking off the year in Max Stafford-Clark’s production for Out of Joint of O Go My Man, opening on 17 January following previews from 12 January, and subsequently touring), Terry Johnson (Piano/Forte, written specifically as a vehicle for actresses Kelly Reilly and Alicia Witt), David Hare and Tom Stoppard.

Stoppard, writing his first play for the Court, has commented: “Some of my best nights of the last 40 years have been spent in the Royal Court’s auditorium. I don’t want to fall under a bus before having a play on its stage.” Let’s hope that's his play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, turns out to be one of those great nights, too. Spanning the recent history of Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, Trevor Nunn will direct a cast led by Rufus Sewell for a 14 June 2006 opening, following previews from 3 June.

NUNN TRAVELS AS AN EX TO THE NT

The always-busy Nunn will also return to the National, for the first time since he was artistic director there, to launch the next Travelex £10 Season in the NT Olivier (where sponsorship has now been confirmed to continue the initiative for the next three years) from 30 March 2006 with a revival of Peter Shaffer’s epic 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun (press night, 12 April), which was the National’s first-ever new play to be staged under Olivier’s regime at the Old Vic. In the words of NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, “The Travelex £10 Season has become an established beacon for thousands of theatregoers, both newcomers and regulars, and it’s great that we can continue to create theatre that is affordable, contemporary and accessible”. (Another Shaffer play, Equus, may be lining up for a West End revival, for which Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe is said to be in talks.)

One of the Travelex productions from two summers ago, meanwhile, Simon McBurney’s Measure for Measure first seen in the Olivier, will return for a five-week season from 10 February 2006 (with press night on 15 February), this time to the Lyttelton. Mike Leigh’s new play Two Thousand Years, currently in the Cottesloe to 31 January, hits the road for a five-city UK tour in February, prior to returning to the larger Lyttelton for an open-ended run from 25 March. Hytner will direct Margaret Tyzack in Samuel Adamson’s new play Southwark Fair (previewing in the Cottesloe from 10 February prior to opening on 16 February). Also in the Cottesloe, a rotating bill of two out of three plays, originally developed by the NT for last year’s Shell Connections programme of youth theatre, will be presented, comprising Deborah Gearing’s Burn, Enda Walsh’s Chatroom and Mark Ravenhill’s Citizenship (previewing from 3 March, opening 15 March).

RSC TRANSFERS & COMPLETE WORKS

The RSC, which launched its new residency last month at the refurbished Novello, continues the transfer of its Comedies season into the new year with the arrival of The Comedy of Errors (from 6 January), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from 2 February) and As You Like It (from 2 March), while at the Trafalgar Studios, the Gunpowder season continues to transfer with short runs of Shakespeare’s ‘banned’ play Thomas More (from 4 January), Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall (from 17 January), Massinger’s Believe What You Will (from 31 January), and Frank McGuinness’ new play Speaking Like Magpies (from 14 February). The company will also present a six-week season of new work at Soho Theatre from 14 March, including: Debbie Tucker Green’s collage of voices concerning sex tourism, Trade (14-25 March); David Greig’s The American Pilot (28 March-8 April); and Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, directed by Antony Sher (11-22 April).

And at Stratford-upon-Avon, the RSC will present its first-ever major, main-stage production of a play by the late Arthur Miller when Dominic Cooke directs The Crucible in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 16 February 2006 (with a press nignht on 1 March); while Middleton’s Women Beware Women is staged in the Swan (also from 16 February, with press night on 23 February), before the RSC gives itself over to its massive year-long Complete Works festival there from April. The Complete Works is the biggest-ever celebration in the RSC’s history, with companies from around the world presenting their versions of Shakespeare’s plays alongside new RSC productions.

THE BARBICAN BITES BACK

Meanwhile, the former London home of the RSC, the Barbican, consolidates its position at the centre of London’s artistic life with the BITE06, with a celebration of the centenary of Samuel Beckett’s birth that for six weeks from 21 March 2006 sees it co-hosting the Beckett Centenary Festival simultaneously with Dublin’s Gate Theatre. The programme includes new productions of Waiting for Godot and a reprise of John Hurt’s performance in Krapp’s Last Tape (a role that will also be taken later in the year by Harold Pinter, health permitting, at the Royal Court).

Other highlights of BITE06 include the returns of visionary theatremakers Robert Lepage with The Andersen Project that he has written, directed and performs (from 26 January), and Peter Brook who directs The Grand Inquisitor (from 21 February). Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, now artistic associates at the Barbican, launch their new relationship here with a production of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling (from 11 May), and reprise their all-male Russian production of Twelfth Night (from 13 June).

OTHER PRINCIPAL PRODUCING HOUSES

Elsewhere around town, the Donmar Warehouse offers the premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut, with a cast that includes Ian McKellen (from 23 February, with press night on 28 February), fresh from his current panto (re)turn in Aladdin at the Old Vic. Michael Grandage’s production, also featuring Deborah Findlay, will subsequently tour to Salford, Bristol and Liverpool in April. It will be followed by the return of Clare Higgins to the Donmar, where she previously played Hecuba, to now star as Phaedra in a new version by Frank McGuinness after Racine (opening on 11 April, following previews from 6 April), before Derek Jacobi stars in a revival of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father, to be directed by the Gate’s Thea Sharrock (previews 8 June, opens 13 June) and Michael Sheen reunites with Grandage, who previously directed him in Caligula there, to star in the world premiere of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon (previews 10 August, opens 15 August).

At the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey’s second season in charge continues with the British premiere of Stravinsky and Ramuz’s The Soldier’s Tale (for 11 performances only from 26 January). The veteran film director Robert Altman helms the British premiere of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues (from 14 February) with a cast that includes Neve Campbell. In the autumn of 2006, Spacey will return as actor to lead the cast of Howard Davies’ production of Eugene O'Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, reuniting star, director and author from their Almeida triumph with The Iceman Cometh that subsequently took Spacey to the Old Vic for the first time and then on to Broadway.

At the Almeida, artistic director Michael Attenborough directs Andrew Lincoln and Brendan Coyle in the UK premiere of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss (from 12 January, prior to opening on 19 January), before Howard Davies also returns here to direct Tennessee Williams’ rarely-seen Period of Adjustment (from 9 March, opening 16 March). Attenborough then also stages a new version of Gorky’s Enemies by David Hare (from 5 May, opening 11 May).

Hampstead launches its new year by hosting Asian company Tamasha’s new production, A Fine Balance, based on Rohinton Mistry’s Booker-shortlisted novel (from 11 January, opening 16 January), before Anthony Clark directs the world premiere of Tim Luscombe’s The Schuman Plan (previews 2 February, opens 6 February), and founding artistic director James Roose-Evans returns to Hampstead to revive Hugh Whitemore’s The Best of Friends with a cast that includes Patricia Routledge, Roy Dotrice and Michael Pennington (from 2 March, opening 9 March). The UK premiere of Marie Ndaiye’s Hilda, first seen in Paris in 2002, follows (from 5 April, opening 10 April), then Crispin Whittell writes and directs the world premiere of Clever Dick (from 18 May, opens 23 May) and the Bolton Octagon co-produce Alan Plater’s Blonde Bombshells of 1943 (from 10 July, opens 18 July).

The Tricycle offers the UK premiere of the late August Wilson’s penultimate play, Gem of the Ocean (from 6 January, opening 10 January) and another new American play Fabulation (from 16 February). Lyric Hammersmith collaborate with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice to stage Nights at the Circus (based on the novel by Angela Carter, from 20 January before opening on 26 January), before artistic director David Farr stages Homer’s The Odyssey (from 24 February). At Notting Hill’s Gate, Wally Sutcliffe directs Strindberg’s final play The Great Highway (previews from 8 February, opening 13 February), Claire Lovett and Thea Sharrock direct a triple bill of short plays under the title In Celebration of Harold Pinter (previews from 27 March, opening 30 March), and then the Gate co-produces Hear and Now with the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town (previews form 16 May, opens 19 May).

ALSO ON THE FRINGE

The new year will also see the London premiere of The Exonerated, the off-Broadway play about living on death row in the US that was seen at the last Edinburgh Fringe, and will now play a season at Riverside Studios from 21 February 2006. At Wardour Street’s Sound Theatre, Toby Frow directs a revival of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing (opening 12 January, following a preview on 11 January). At Hampstead’s New End, Lynn Redgrave writes and directs Caroline John in Nightingale, running from 17 January. At Hackney Empire, Peter and the Wolf will be presented in a new production directed by Douglas Fitch and featuring a live orchestra, from 1 to 16 April.

THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS!

As ever, this isn’t, of course, all that’s happening this year in London – this is merely a taster of some of what to expect. As usual, Whatsonstage.com will be reviewing most of these shows and more, arranging visits and special offers to many of them, and breaking the news as it happens, so make sure you keep visiting this site regularly – your one-stop guide to everything in theatreland.

Though this feature has concentrated on what’s happening in the capital, there’s a wealth of fantastic theatre beyond London, too, so try to venture further afield – Whatsonstage.com is also here to keep you abreast of life in the regions as well, with in-depth listings, a strong network of regional critics and regular news reports.