When I see a musical I feel a surge of energy, even if I had a terrible week it always rejuvenates me. I have real appreciation for the sheer talent that goes into creating a show. It ranges from performers who sing and dance so seamlessly, to the costumes or set designs. Let us not forget the talented directors and producers of the play, or indeed the orchestra.
As a child, I wanted to be an actor because one can become a new character. You get to be whisked into your own fantasy world detached from our reality for a brief amount of time. I must admit the idea still appeals to me, but a lack of coordination and nerves has always been my Achilles heel. Thankfully, I was soon swayed to fiction when I learned I could become an entire host of characters when reading or writing.
Nevertheless, the theatre holds a special place in my heart because there is something special about watching a live performance. It is not matched by the splendor of the CGI or the dazzling effects of Hollywood. Indeed, when watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I felt more at awe by stage magic then I had ever felt watching the films. Of course, I have seen the occasional show I did not enjoy but this a rare occurrence. Personally I enjoy all incarnations of theater from cabaret to the pantomimes or even the obscure low-end productions.
What is great about loving the theatre in this day and age is how much more accessible it is to the average person. TodayTix does fantastic deals across the world for a variety of shows. They have a daily lottery and rush ticket options to get prime seats at cheap costs as well as offering you a range of seat options for you to pick at your own discretion. What is genius about this app is that it works internationally. Once you download the app all you need to do is select the city you are in and book accordingly. I have used the app in NYC and London interchangeably. However, I have a particular liking for the London system as it allows you to see where exactly where you will be sat. By comparison, New York bookings only allow you to get a general idea of where you might be seated, and not the precise row or number. I personally like to have an idea of what view I will get for the stage prior to the show, so I like to see the row and seat number.
In honor of London Theatre Week week, (which enabled me to book some new shows at a great price), I wanted to list my top 10 shows of the West End. This was not an easy task having seen a wide array of shows over the years. This also excludes productions I have seen touring in the UK, and the mind-blowing Broadway productions I viewed in New York. My list is naturally subjective and bound to change as the year progresses. Make sure to make the most of the London Theatre Week deals which end on the 08th of March.
1.Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Despite the sheer length of this production is truly magical and takes the audience right back into the world of Hogwarts. It follows the story of Harry’s son Albus and his unlikely friendship with Scorpius Malfoy. The story unfolds over several years at Hogwarts.
Although this is not a musical it embodies the same spiritual essence using stunning sets and incredible special effects (Also it is in prime west end location). I have yet to see a show since that had me in such awe by the onstage stage witchcraft. The magic used by the young wizards and witches on stage surpassed the magic of CGI. I particularly wowed by real fire shooting from the wands. The show is divided into 2 parts, the audience can decide if they wish to watch them consecutively or on different days. Having seen the show twice I can assure you the cliffhanger at the end of the first part, will make you yearn to see it all in one sitting.
This show holds a special place in my heart as I was able to watch the show during its premiere openings. This was during a time when even the script was not available to purchase in book format. #keepthesecrets. It was also a show that helped me find happiness in the darkest of times for as Dumbledore says all one need do is switch on the light. I had had a difficult year in 2016 and the show enabled me to escape into a different world rising my spirits again.
Wicked originated on Broadway in New York and opened in London in September of 2006. I watched the show during the opening run with Idina Menzel who had graciously reprised her role for the London audiences. Little did I know that this sensational singer would go on to become Elsa in Frozen. During the end of act one, the audience was stunned by her vocals. Nevertheless, I have seen the show many times since this and each Elphaba is incredibly talented.
The show works as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. It follows the story of Elphaba who shall one day become the wicked witch of the west and her unlikely friendship with Glinda the good witch of the north. There are strong themes of political injustice and the complex notion of what wickedness is.
The stage itself is beautiful; working as the clock of the time dragon, from the book of the same name. Let us not forget the costumes are particularly stunning, especially during the scenes in the Emerald City. However, what really makes the show so incredible is the soundtrack. The songs are so powerful that they manage to create a skin prickling reaction from the audience, most notably, Defying Gravity. I love the entire soundtrack, but my personal favourites from the show are ‘Popular’ and ‘For Good’.
As an avid fan of The Wizard of Oz, I was dying to see the show long before its debut on the west end. I had heard of the existence of the show in New York but that was not a possibility for me to see it at the time. When I was told I was going to see the show in London in 2006, I was overcome with joy. For those who have read my blog post, ‘The Importance of Oz,’ it will be evident why I was so happy.
3. Mary Poppins
This is show is practically perfect in every way! If you are going to see a show in London this is the most befitting for its setting and ambiance. I recently watched the revival (2020) and the cast was exceptional. Having watched the show during its initial run in 2004 I wondered if it would hold up with modern theatre staging and special effects. Needless to say, I was astonished all over again. The staging is simply beautiful and managed to bring me back into my youth all over again.
The sets are reminiscent of a victorian pop-up book, they manage to take you into the world of Mary Poppins and the Banks family of Cherry Tree Lane. The show utilises the memorable songs of the 1964 movie whilst bringing their own spin to the story. Adding a spoonful of new songs the musical brings the audience more characters from the P.L. Travers books series. I personally like the song ‘Practically Perfect’ and ‘Brimstone and Treacle’.
I had recalled loving the show as a teenager and having revisited the show can affirm its rightful position in my top 3. I would strongly recommend booking this show.
4. Everybody’s talking about Jamie
This is a fantastic queerest that celebrates diversity and drag.
The play is based on the true story of Jamie, a teenage boy who wishes to become a world-famous drag queen. The show celebrates overcoming prejudice and bullying despite being different, be that being Muslim, gay, etc. The show has since gone on to host famous drag stars from RuPaul’s drag race, including Bianca Del Rio and Michelle Visage. I personally enjoyed watching Michelle Visage attempting to do a UK northern accent.
The musical manages to mix the teenage angst of secondary school and the fierce strength of drag. Two songs that particularly manage to get a tear from my eye are ‘He’s My Boy’ and ‘It Means Beautiful’. Whilst the show resonates strongly with me as a gay man, I feel it speaks to anyone who feels like a social outcast.
The show always manages to get a great audience reaction from crowds making people applause with sheer joy.
5. Kinky Boots
Kinky Boots can be defined in one simple word: fabulous! The show came to London fresh from its success on Broadway, and it captured the UK audience. It was not hard to gain loyal UK fanbase given the musical is set in Northampton and based on the British film of the same name.
Kinky Boots tells the story of a man named Charlie who inherits his father’s shoe factory which is on the brink of bankruptcy. However, Charlie forms an unlikely alliance with a drag queen to create a line of high-heeled-boots for men that might save the company. The story emphasis themes about the family you make as an adult and following your dreams/passions. For good measure we learn a thing or two about prejudice and how ‘The sex is in the heel’.
Lola the drag queen steals the show drawing the attention of the audience every time she is on stage. She has the right amount of sass that leads you to cheer continually and feeling uplifted after the show ends.
It is not surprising to know that Cyndi Lauper wrote the songs for this musical. In fact, I could almost hear her voice during ‘The history of wrong guys,’ her uplifting music leads you to dance at the end of the show. My favourite songs include ‘Not my father’s son’ and ‘The history of wrong guys’.
6. The Wizard of Oz
Perhaps I am biased here given my love of all things Oz! However, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Wizard of Oz was wonderful. Given the timely process of casting for Dorothy on the BBC show Over The Rainbow, it was a given that the show would have high production value.
Andrew Lloyd Webber takes the classic MGM film to the theatre adding some new songs to the mix that bridge some gaps left in the movie. The scenes in Kansas were particularly impressive looking and feeling eerily similar to the movie itself. The lurid colours of the stage and moving yellow brick road give the land of Oz a new vibrancy. My favorite additional song was the ‘Red Shoes Blues’ but I am a sucker for a ballad sung by the villain. The flying monkeys were also terrifying and filled the auditorium.
I was lucky to see this production for my 20th birthday and was astounded when Andrew Lloyd Webber himself came on stage to give a bouquet to the actress who played Dorothy. Thus far it is the only time I have viewed a standing ovation from the entire audience.
7. Bend it like Beckham
Bend it like Beckham was one of those unique discoveries where you enter with little expectation and are pleasantly rewarded. I had no intention of going to see this west end production despite enjoying the film as a child. However, the show was a toe-tapping celebration of multiculturalism and music. The show emphasises generational clashes of Punjab Indian and English.
The football choreography, from what I recall, was a little bit corny and the special effects are certainly tacky. Thankfully, the colourful array of music and actors makes up for it. In a post-Brexit world it is important to remember the struggles of immigration and assimilation through different generations.
The highlight for me is the Punjabi wedding song, ‘Sadaa Chardhdi Kalaa.’ Aside from the song being embedded in my brain forever the song managed to do a superb mashup of Bollywood choreography that merges into energetic sports drills.
8. The Phantom of the Opera
There is a reason some shows stand the test of time; The Phantom of the Opera is a great example of a musical with longevity. Whilst the music does hold an 80s style undertone the sheer magnificence of the show still manages to hold up. I challenge anyone not to be impressed by a live version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, if the sheer ingenuity of a boat floating across misty water does not impress you, the vocal operatics of Christine will!
The story is about an opera house in Paris plagued by a mysterious figure coined as the phantom of the opera. The phantom is a musical genius, obsessed with a beautiful soprano Christine who he engineers to become a star of the opera house. However, things take a turn when he lures her to his hidden labyrinth beneath the opera house and she discovers the disfigured madman behind the mask.
The visual aesthetics and romantic subplots make this musical as endearing now as when it opened in 1986. The performers always manage to leave me feeling awed from there talent. My favourite songs/ scenes in the play are ‘Masquerade’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.
9. The Grinning Man
This gothic musical originated in Bristol and moved to London Trafalgar Studios during 2017. The show works as an adult folklore with at Tim Burtonesque staging. Whilst the music managed to be chilling and moving at times it was certainly not the driving force behind the show. In fact, I struggle to remember the songs, perhaps this is the reason for its limited run. However, the production still stands out vividly in my memory with rude and dark humour used throughout the story.
The story is about a horribly disfigured boy whose mouth was sliced at the edges by an unknown villain. The child Grinpayne is raised, in a traveling freak show with a blind girl named Bea. As the story unfolds they will discover their true identities as they sought to justify their painful past.
The show combines inspiring puppetry and a set of quirky characters that dark humour to this otherwise Shakespearean tragic tale. The mixture of crazed queens, kings, lustful princesses and a creepy jester make the show worth your time. It was an underrated theatrical wonder that stands out unique from the regular west end contenders. If it ever returns I will certainly go to see it.
Matilda the musical adapts Roald Dahl’s work taking his ingenuity for words and creating catchy and ingenious lyrics. Whilst the show lacks some of the stage production value of recent west end shows, it holds the trumps on a memorable score from Tim Minchin. The performances are always impressive especially given the age of half the cast. Miss Trunchbull manages to be as fearsome and humorous as ever, acted by men on most occasions for extra laughs.
The song that stands out for me is, ‘When I grow up,’ which manages to capture the innocence of childhood expectations whilst showing the inner child of adults. I personally wish ‘I could eat sweets every day on the way to work’. However, I am always prone to enjoy a villain song and thus enjoy ‘The Hammer’ as sung by Miss Trunchbull.
One cannot compare the musical with the 1996 film because they both take different approaches to adapt the story. Matilda the musical adds further backstory to Miss Honey and Matilda’s family are incredibly British, but just as mean and hilarious. The show originated in London and has since been on broadway for a short spell. The idea that we can write our own story and rebellion will defeat bullies is a timeless message.