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Hair today, Jukebox/Film musical tomorrow

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When the Broadway smash hit and Tony Award winning revival of Hair announced it was coming to the West End, I could not have been more excited.  A brilliant production on Broadway with a pitch perfect cast and a vibe that breathed so much life back in to the art form of musical theatre that tends to be on life support at the moment.

My excitement was doubled when they made the historic move of bringing the entire Broadway company over (the cast are jaw-dropping) and I breathed a sigh of relief when the UK critics gave the show great reviews (except Quentin Letts in the Mail whose reviews for Hair and Legally Blonde were the only negatives out of the bunch, someone replace him), yes Hair looked set to be a hit.

Flash forward a few months and this Broadway transfer has announced it will close in London in Sept playing for just under 6 months. Whilst Hair may not be to everyone’s taste it’s a show that pulsates with energy, passion a great score and plays now as a perfect retro piece, so why did audiences stay away?

Some will argue that the high ticket prices are to blame but I think that’s silly. Whilst Hair’s ticket prices were a whopping £60 for top price seats, you could find tickets far cheaper available everywhere, also the high ticket prices are the same as some other major musicals in London.  No the truth is that as I reported in one of my first articles for What’s on Stage the West End is in trouble when it comes to its musicals.

I’ve always defended the West End since I was 17 and working in West End musicals but now at 31 I feel ashamed at the dreadful amount of shows which clog up the West End and the great shows we get bowing out after only a few months. The simple fact is that Broadway stand head and shoulders above us in terms of creative output for musicals and audiences being open to trying new things.

Can you imagine if Next to Normal first opened here in the UK?  The show would have opened and closed in the blink of an eye because it would appear the West End has now become a home for hen parties and non theatre goers who want to watch a familiar name. You would expect that Broadway would be plagued with the same problem, after all New York is far more of a tourist city than London is so surely the tourists would be seeking out the Phantoms and Mamma Mias to spend their holiday money on, and they do, the difference is however that New York theatre fans, especially young theatre fans will give everything a go that opens, in fact most of the young theatre fans seem to embrace the new and interesting, you only have to look at Broadway theatre message boards and West End theatre message boards to see that.

Next to Normal, Fela, American Idiot and Memphis are all doing very well from this season and last, none are shows that you would expect to be doing well as the commercial appeal for each is limited, but theatregoers gave them a try, spread the word and turned shows about mental health etc. into hits.  When our new shows open like Dreamboats and Petticoats, All the Fun of the Fair, Grease etc. these are the shows that our audiences go and watch, but why?

It’s quite simple. Audiences here for musical theatre seem to want to be able to watch something with:

(a) A star name (All the Fun of the Fair, all the reality shows casting musical etc.)
(b) Something with a familiar score of pop hits that they can sing along to (Dreamboats and Petticoats, Priscilla) or
(c) A recognisable name/brand (Sister Act, Grease, Flashdance).  

That’s the West End, folks!

You only have to look at what’s playing in London and what’s playing on Broadway, it’s a poor state of affairs when home-grown musicals Blood Brothers and the newly opened and critically panned Paradise Found (kind of) are the only shows that are playing that have an original score, and are not based on a movie or an album or artist.  Is that really what West End theatre has become?

Hair even though it’s a revival is an original book and score and follows the likes of the Drowsy Chaperone and Spring Awakening, all 3 Tony winners, all 3 did great runs in New York, all 3 died a quick death here.  It’s sad because American’s have seen this pattern now and comment on it on message boards, they say we have no taste, that US shows should not go to the West End and tarnish their reputations, and now I’m starting to agree.

The sad thing is that we ship so many of our revivals of Broadway Musicals back to the US and they embrace them (La Cage and A Little Night Music have racked up around 15 Tony Award nominations between them) but when they give us some great shows we reject them.  Yes, Legally Blonde has done well (it’s based on a film) as has Wicked (a teen dream) and Jersey Boys (Jukebox Musical) but whenever it seems to come to something original we just turn our backs on it, it’s not familiar enough.

It’s bad enough that the UK seems incapable of writing a decent musical at the moment (Imagine This anyone?) we can say we are in a slump, but when we outright reject original musicals which are being sent to us it’s just sad.

Box office receipts for the West End may show that it’s more than healthy at the moment, but healthy is not a word I would choose.  I’m sure the creators of Thriller Live, Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You are happy that their artistically bankrupt shows are selling well, but the real creative people with a vision and talent are left on the sidelines scratching their heads asking why their shows can win so many awards but not find an audience here.

The real theatregoers, who have a passion for theatre, need to start demanding more from the West End, shun the shows which clog up the theatres to purely make money and seek out original pieces or wonderful revivals. Give the shows you may not know anything about a chance, it’s the best way to be surprised, instead of watching a show 4 or 5 times save some of that money and seek out something new, you will be glad you did.

As for Broadway producers and writers I say to you, don’t allow your shows to come here if they’re original and unique pieces. Save yourself the embarrassment and just enjoy the success they deserve in the US. It’s far too heartbreaking as a theatre fan to keep seeing these shows die a death here, I also pray the team at the national don’t send Fela to an early grave by transferring it to the West End.

And to the cast and crew of Hair I say, you gave it your best shot, your passion and energy which lit up the theatre was astounding and your production beautiful. I wish all the cast well back in the states and just know that the failure of Hair in London has nothing to do with you, it has to do with us, and for those 2 hours a night you did indeed let the sun shine in.

A shift needs to happen in London’s West End where we can embrace the interesting, the new and the exciting musicals, we need to start to match the standard set by our brilliant plays, until that day comes (which seems a long way away) I fear that Musical Theatre in London is more for the casual audience and than a theatre audience.

I for one have washed my hands of the West End musical scene for now, I find more interesting stuff going on regionally.

- A very disheartened Craig Hepworth.


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