Some enchanted evenings! The rise of the musical

As a hit revival of 'South Pacific' arrives in London from Broadway, Michael Coveney separates the classics from the rest

An acclaimed, award-laden new production of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, coming from New York, is about to open in London, at the Barbican Centre, and you can already sense people going around town singing "Some Enchanted Evening".

Why is this so? Why do we look forward to seeing one of the legendary Broadway musicals more than, say, the new stage version of Shrek or the latest play at the National Theatre?

It is because the best of musical theatre seeps into our lives, and then lifts us right out of them, in a way that no other form of entertainment can rival.

For many, the nearest things to this trick of popular transcendentalism are Les Misérables, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, both still running strongly in London.

But even these musicals, hugely successful though they are, do not occupy the unassailable place in the nation's heart of the old Broadway classics.

Why? There are disputes about the sentiment, and the music, of both Les Mis and Phantom: it's quite common for people who like Puccini and Verdi to draw the line at Lloyd Webber, and his credibility with the rock generation is insecure, despite having written one of the best-ever rock scores in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Towards the end of his life, Dmitri Shostakovich, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, visited London and saw Jesus Christ twice. He said he would have liked to have written like that had he been free to do so. Lloyd Webber was – still is – investigating the dividing line between operatic high culture and new rock idioms; Wagner, he often says, would surely have composed on a Yamaha synthesiser had he had one.

All musical theatre activity, even today, is still referred back to that period of about 15 years after the Second World War when the Broadway musical was at its peak, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip went to see Oklahoma! shortly after they were married in 1947. (Sure, they are said to have seen War Horse, but I don't think they've bothered with Legally Blonde.) Oklahoma! was Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's first big hit, in 1943, and allowed people to dream of "a bright golden haze on the meadow" in the middle of wartime. The show created a new world on the stage, with music that spoke to people in a language they understood and with cultural references relevant to their lives.

As in South Pacific – which contains a plea for interracial marriages as well as the indisputable assertion that there is nothing like a dame – Oklahoma!'s songs constituted the nation's popular music, in the concert halls and on the radio. And with those songs – "I Cain't Say No, People Will Say We're in Love" and "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" – came the joy of new life, and of hope springing eternal.

In South Pacific itself, the character Nellie Forbush leads the dance as a cock-eyed optimist, and the nation adopted "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "Happy Talk" as part of their everyday conversation. Both of these shows became enormously popular films in the 1950s and so were even more irrevocably sewn into the tapestry of our lives, or at least into those of the generation who had fought in the war and won.

That decade produced three more epic musicals that are seen as the high point of the Broadway show: My Fair Lady, by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, in 1956; West Side Story, by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, in 1958; and Gypsy, based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and once described as the American musical's answer to King Lear, by composer Jule Styne, with Laurents and Sondheim again. Just the titles reverberate, and so, for millions of us, do the memories of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in the first; the Jets and the Sharks staying "cool" in the second; and, in the third, Ethel Merman sounding the trumpet call in what the critic John Lahr terms the American musical's authentic, celebratory note of vindictive triumph.

What of the productions currently playing in the West End and touring the country?

The Phantom of the Opera, achieves its 25th anniversary at Her Majesty's Theatre in London this October and is the biggest-grossing entertainment, on film or stage, of all time. Does it qualify as a classic? I believe it does – but in the romantic category of My Fair Lady rather than the ground-breaking, "issue-based", political category of Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

Phantom has Lloyd Webber's most personal and heartfelt score; it is both a wedding mass to his second wife, Sarah Brightman, for whose unique rock coloratura voice it was written, and a requiem for his late father, the composer William Lloyd Webber, the "spirit of music". The show struck an immediate chord with the public, with two of its best songs featuring in the Top 10.

But unlike Jesus Christ Superstar – which completed the very slim collection of genuine rock operas instigated by Hair in 1968, at a moment when the counterculture almost nosed its way into the mainstream – Phantom harks back to another world of Viennese and French operetta, of romantic excess and forbidden love, of period costume and gothic fable, of bodice-ripping yarn and murder mystery.

So, how does the musical shake out in today's theatrical climate? We are unlikely to see anything on a par with South Pacific any moment soon – or indeed an audience for one – but from the innumerable movie adaptations to bolder, more challenging musical theatre, there is life in the orchestra pit yet, and, as you can see below, a few stirrings have been sighted beyond the chorus line...

Movie adaptations

No popular movie is safe from transposition to the stage these days, but neither Shrek nor Legally Blonde is much of an improvement on the original big-screen version; Hairspray (which recently completed a national tour) might be, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a camp travesty of itself without the saving grace of Terence Stamp. Billy Elliot is the market leader, adapted by Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry from their own movie, although Alan Price might have written better new songs than Elton John managed.

Potential classic: Hairspray

Jiving with the jukebox

The execrable We Will Rock You is a huge, long-running popular hit, but the equally resilient Mamma Mia! (based on the Abba back catalogue) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), do have very strong libretti and the songs are all top of the pops. Michael Jackson's death was a good career move for Thriller.

Potential classic: Jersey Boys

The curse of cultural nostalgia

Movies again, but this season's Chichester Festival revivals of 42nd Street and Singin' in the Rain remind audiences of the real thing – one critic even said that Adam Cooper, below,was better than Gene Kelly in the second. Wicked is another mediocre long-runner, a nonsensical Gothic prequel to The Wizard of Oz which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have tarted up with a few new songs at the Palladium, not to the movie's advantage.

Potential classic: None

New forms and new audiences

It's often said that the leading musical theatre experimentalist of our day is Stephen Sondheim. But the public don't like his stuff all that much. The Royal Shakespeare Company's knockout version of Roald Dahl's Matilda, with a score by Aussie bad boy Tim Minchin, looks set to be an invigorating smash when it transfers to the West End later this year. Meanwhile, there are two outstanding new musical theatre pieces in London Road, about the Ipswich prostitute murders, at the National Theatre, and former Soft Cell front man Marc Almond in Ten Plagues at the Edinburgh Festival, written by playwright Mark Ravenhill and composer Conor Mitchell as an oratorio of lament for plague and Aids victims. Which only goes to remind us that, ever since Show Boat in 1927, musical theatre has always been about a lot more than high kicks and fixed grins.

Potential classic: London Road

Musical comedy strikes back

We've always had much-loved musical comedies, from Salad Days to The Boy Friend. Lend Me a Tenor, though it flopped recently in the West End, was that rarity, a really good musical farce. Crazy for You, a hybrid Gershwin concoction, is a summer treat in the Open Air, Regent's Park. But the delightful Betty Blue Eyes, (with Sarah Lancashire) based on the film A Private Function written by Alan Bennett, directed in the West End by Richard Eyre, could be Broadway-bound after a rave review in The New York Times.

Potential classic: Betty Blue Eyes