West Side Story and The Color Purple marks a new direction for Birmingham Hippodrome in its 120th year
As the theatre celebrates its 120th birthday this year, Diane Parkes finds out what has changed in the leadership of the venue
Birmingham's Hippodrome turns 120 this year and the theatre, which originally opened as a circus space in 1899, is one of the largest in the country with just under 2,000 seats in its main theatre. But, rather surprisingly, it's not yet produced shows for that stage.
That all changes this year, when the venue, which programmes a mix of opera, dance, theatre, musicals, comedy and pantomime, is marking its birthday with a series of events including two landmark shows actually produced by the theatre. The Hippodrome's chief executive Fiona Allan says it marks a new direction for the theatre: "In July we are staging The Color Purple which is a co-production with Leicester Curve so it's our first co-production for the main stage. If people like it we would love it to have opportunities to go further."
While The Color Purple is a professional production, the theatre's version of West Side Story – which joins several other productions of the musical opening this year, including at Royal Exchange Manchester and Leicester Curve – will be a youth theatre production.
"The Hippodrome has never done a major community piece," explains Allan, "Now we have our own youth companies and are doing youth work, we have a mass of young talent and can create a main stage show."
Over 1,000 people were auditioned for the production, with around 30 appearing on stage this coming summer. But Allan is at pains to point out that there will be a lot more people involved than those audiences see on stage.
The theatre continues its usual receiving house programming, which features the likes of Kinky Boots in March, an almost sold-out run of Les Misérables in April, Annie in July and Grease in August as well as Matthew Bourne's new work Romeo and Juliet in September.
But the production of West Side Story demonstrates how Allan has, since she took over three years ago, worked to ensure the space's reach beyond the main auditorium. The programming has been extended to include the venue's small theatre space The Patrick Studio, which hosts dance, comedy, theatre and children's shows. And she has built up an impressive programme of free outside theatre which includes being a partner in Birmingham's Chinese New Year, a weekend family festival Summer in Southside and the hip-hop festival B-SIDE.
And this May's B-SIDE will be better than ever, Fiona promises. "This is our fourth B-SIDE festival," she says, "We've home-grown that festival and it has now become significant in Europe. It's a fantastic and growing festival with people travelling from all over the world for it."
But what about the celebrations surrounding the anniversary of the venue's founding? "We'll have a birthday party in October – a big free open day," says Allan. "We're just finalising details but we're hoping we can have circus in the theatre which would be lovely as circus is what we opened with 120 years ago."
For Allan, the anniversary is an opportunity to look forwards as well as to the past. "So much about this year is about connecting with broader communities," she explains. "We are using the 120th birthday as a hook to be able to tell our story to wider audiences through productions like The Color Purple and West Side Story.
"I want to throw the doors open and make the theatre much more relevant to a broader community. We are a great theatre – but we are actually way more than a theatre."