Top hat! Return to the golden age of the musical

Forget the recession – moonlight and music and love and romance are back

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers cheered cinematic audiences expecting "trouble ahead" by urging them to "face the music and dance". Fast-forward 75 years and theatres across the country are staging classic musicals to provide escapism during a different era of austerity.

Josef Weinberger, the UK agents for Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company, which owns the rights to musicals by the songwriting duo, and represents musicals by Irving Berlin and others, has seen a "strong uptick" in licences for classic titles, with The Sound of Music its most requested musical.

Directors and producers say that, while the current glut of classics is partly down to the availability of rights, the financial climate is fuelling a market for older musicals. Theatregoers with less money to spend want to play safe by opting for shows they know.

The first stage adaptation of Top Hat premiered in Milton Keynes in August, 76 years after the film. The new production, which features 14 Berlin tunes, including "Let's Face the Music and Dance", as opposed to the film's eight, is touring the UK for 17 weeks, arriving in the West End in April.

The show's producer, Kenny Wax, said there was a "feel-good factor and nostalgia factor that can't be underestimated" during this economic climate. He argued that while it was often said audiences wanted to come out of musicals humming the songs, "now they want to go in humming the tunes".

Top Hat stars Tom Chambers, who won Strictly Come Dancing in 2008, in Astaire's role of Jerry Travers. Jonathan Church, artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre, whose production of Singin' in the Rain opens in the West End in February following a sell-out extended run in Chichester, said TV programmes such as Strictly and Glee had helped bring classic musicals to a younger audience. Glee screened a mash-up of the title song from the 1952 movie – one of many MGM musicals being celebrated at BFI Southbank throughout November and December – with Rihanna's "Umbrella".

Musicals are expensive and risky ventures: Cameron Mackintosh's critically acclaimed Betty Blue Eyes has closed after six months; it played to half-full houses. But many classics do well: Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific became the highest-grossing two-week run at Milton Keynes Theatre when it played to 92 per cent capacity last month.

Opera North, which has had a £1.75m cut to its annual budget, has brought forward its production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel in anticipation of its popularity. General director Richard Mantle said the musical, which opens in Leeds next May, could bring more people to the company.

Leicester's Curve theatre stages 42nd Street from Friday and, in March, revives 1959's Gypsy for the first time in the UK since 1973. Its tour of The King and I – another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit – opens at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre next month.

But Paul Kerryson, Curve's artistic director, warned that the musical art form would "struggle and die" unless there was a "quest for something new".

High notes

Top Hat First stage adaptation of the 1935 film, now touring before West End run.

Crazy for You West End transfer from Regent's Park Open Air Theatre – packed with George and Ira Gershwin songs.

South Pacific Rodgers & Hammerstein hit. Touring, following a Barbican season.

White Christmas Musical based on the 1954 film, getting another festive tour.

Gypsy Leicester Curve's March revival will be first in the UK since 1973.

Carousel Opera North takes Rodgers & Hammerstein to Leeds, Salford and London next year.

Singin' in the Rain Chichester Festival Theatre sell-out hits the West End in February.

The King & I National tour opens at Edinburgh Festival Theatre in December.

The Wizard of Oz Andrew Lloyd Webber West End spectacular based on the 1939 MGM film.

42nd Street Leicester revival opening on Friday, nearly 80 years after the story appeared on the big screen.

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