The BBC broadcast a big night for modern musicals – and the future of theatre
The National Lottery funded the giant arena event
Last January, in the deepest and darkest despair of the third lockdown (when we were blissfully unaware of words such as delta and omicron) the theatre community was gifted with Musicals: The Greatest Show – a stagey bonanza taped inside the epic London Palladium. Light amidst the darkest gloom of closed doors and empty auditoria.
Celebrating the majesty of musicals, the acts on offer ranged from the long-running icons (Les Misérables, Phantom) to the modern disruptors (Six, Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody's Talking About Jamie). It was a reminder of the power and draw of the West End community.
Saturday's Big Night of Musicals with the National Lottery – taped at the Manchester AO Arena, was a radically different offering. Only two shows (Hansen, Tina) from last time around performed here – and while both were young whippersnappers at the Palladium, at the AO Arena they felt like familiar friends.
If last year's event was about showing the capital's theatre heritage in all its vibrant power, then this weekend marked a big night for modern musicals. Of the 14 productions performing (putting aside John Owen-Jones' spellbinding "Bring Him Home"), ten were penned in the last eight years while three others – Beauty and the Beast, The Wiz and Dreamgirls – have all been given flashy new productions. The Lion King, part of a Disney medley and currently on tour, felt like something of an outlier.
The evening was about celebrating, therefore, the range, diversity and breadth on offer. This was a celebration of what popular musicals can be now. As was remarked by many, the diversity of the evening was a major victory – especially the presence of Black-led shows (producer Ameena Hamid, interviewed by host Jason Manford, made an outright appeal for more Black joy on stage). It was also exciting to see rising star performer, A Chorus Line's Beth Hinton-Lever, give an insight into being the first performer to professionally take on the role of Bebe Benzenheimer.
Just as importantly, the arena event celebrated the fact that theatre was for everyone, everywhere. Of those on stage, six are currently touring, and a further four had previously played out of London. These were shows filling venues near you.
Only three, Tina, Hansen and Frozen have never played outside of London (though that might change for some soon). It was also particularly exciting to see Matthew Xia's revival of The Wiz, which garnered rave reviews, transported with ease from a 100-seat venue at the Hope Mill to a majestic arena space: surely a way of convincing anyone that the show needs a further life, (outside of the capital, if possible, is looking more likely I'm told).
The theatre community had a prime opportunity – a gigantic arena spectacle followed by a prime-time TV slot – and seized it. As we see the pandemic transform into something deemed less severe and audiences numbers and confidence levels return, there couldn't be a more glowing