'On the Town' success confirms musical revival

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The Independent Culture

A bold experiment by the English National Opera to stage a forgotten Leonard Bernstein musical has royally paid off, with the company's lavish production of On the Town breaking all box office records at the London Coliseum.

A bold experiment by the English National Opera to stage a forgotten Leonard Bernstein musical has royally paid off, with the company's lavish production of On the Town breaking all box office records at the London Coliseum.

And the success of the show, which sold an unprecedented 45,000 tickets, is fuelling what has been termed the biggest West End revival in musical theatre since the 1980s heyday of Cats and Les Miserables. This week Guys and Dolls, starring Ewan McGregor, opened to rave reviews, while Billy Elliot - The Musical, with music by Elton John, another West End show, is sold out until the autumn.

ENO operas usually run for 10 to 12 performances, but the company scheduled 17 performances of On The Town, adding an extra three due to the unprecedented demand.

By its close last Saturday, the show, which boasted a cast of 55 as well as a 48-piece orchestra, had grossed £1.7m and played to houses that were 95 per cent full.

Achieving the ENO's aim of attracting new audiences to the company in the hope that they will return to more traditional pieces in its repertoire, 61 per cent of ticket buyers were first-time attendees keen to see the first London production of the show in 40 years.

In the same week, Michael Grandage's production of Guys and Dolls opened at the Piccadilly to almost universal acclaim. The Independent's critic Paul Taylor described the revival of the 1950s classic as "utterly elating". It has already sold out until August and it is nigh on impossible to get a seat at weekends until September.

Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot - The Musical opened at the Victoria Palace on 11 May and has already announced an extension of its run from October to April 2006. Three boy actors play the central role of Billy, the boy from a Northern mining town who longs to become a ballet dancer. There are reports of people coming out after seeing one boy in the part and booking to see one of the others.

The ENO's chief executive and artistic director, Sean Doran, said the sheer spectacle of On The Town appealed to audiences.

"We were able to realise the scale of the original production. Having a 48-piece orchestra playing that sort of work is such a rarity. It's the first musical that we have done in 20 years. It articulates something that is at the heart of our ethos, it's a very eclectic house style. A large proportion of the audience was coming within these walls for the first time. Part of our design was that they would feel comfortable in the space and come back," he said.

He believes it is by chance that the popularity of On The Town has coincided with the fanfare over the revival of Guys and Dolls as well as new musicals like Billy Elliot.

"The intention was serious. Bernstein is a serious 20th century composer. We had two very serious pieces either side - Wagner's Twilight of the Gods and Alban Berg's Lulu," he said.

Mark Shenton, who writes about musical theatre for The Stage newspaper, believes the genre is undergoing a revival.

"It's a golden age for musicals. We've had several terrific shows over the last few months - Mary Poppins, The Woman In White and The Producers, all of which couldn't be more different - and now continuing with Billy Elliot and The Big Life," Mr Shenton said.

He added: "In the early 1980s the British musical went global. Shows like Les Miserables, Cats and Phantom of the Opera created all that excitement. Then there was a bit of a lull in British musical theatre and suddenly there seems to be this genuine excitement again, both with new shows and revivals."

Taking the West End by storm

On The Town London Coliseum

The ENO added an extra three performances to an already extended run of 17, owing to unprecedented demand for the Leonard Bernstein musical which sold a record-breaking 45,000 tickets.

Billy Elliot Victoria Palace

Stephen Daldry's musical with a score by Sir Elton John has just announced it is extending its run from October to April 2006, with Friday and Saturdays virtually sold out until October.

The Producers - Theatre Royal

Mel Brooks's Broadway musical based on his 1968 film has gone down a storm in London, although it is still relatively easy to get tickets. A remake of the movie, fuelled by the popularity of the stage show, is already in production in the States.