David Lister discovers a tuneful trend about to hit the West End with a series of new shows and revamped oldies. And not just from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Last year, prior to the triumph of Chicago, we heard many times that the West End musical was an endangered species. The obituaries were trotted out as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard closed, Cameron Mackintosh finally pulled the plug on his expensively revamped Martin Guerre and even gave notice to Oliver at the London Palladium. The brief run of Always showed that the public may be fascinated by the romance of Edward and Mrs Simpson, but they didn't want to hum it. And the plight of Maddie was cruelly summed up by compere Ned Sherrin at the Evening Standard Drama Awards when he nominated it for the best direction award - the best direction he added, being the exit sign at the side of the stalls.
So who'd be crazy enough to stage a musical in 1998? Just about everybody it seems. With one exception. Sir Cameron has had his hands full in trying to cope with the demands and cancellations from Peter Mandelson and the Millennium Dome for a Mackintosh grand spectacular. So no West End show from him this year. But few others appear deterred by last year's problems. Teen pin-up Philip Schofield will talk to the animals in a revival of Dr Dolittle (it's not true that there is an adage among animals never to act with children or Philip Schofield).
Andrew Lloyd Webber will return, combining with Meatloaf guitarist and lyricist Jim Steinman, on Mary Hayley Bell's gentle novel Whistle Down the Wind. He is transposing the story of the children who mistake an escaped convict for Jesus to Louisiana. The show did badly in Washington, skipped Broadway, but has been reworked and opens here at the Aldwych in June - minus party, he promises. Lord Lloyd Webber has declared attention- grabbing first night parties to be an extravagant waste of the investors' money - a New Year's resolution that I predict will disappear round about June.
Then it's brush up on your John Travolta dance steps. Saturday Night Fever comes to the London Palladium in May. This is, believe it or not, the first stage adaptation of the movie, and so a world premiere. The score features nine number one hits from the most successful soundtrack of a movie ever, so the prospects look good. But just in case of accidents, The Bee Gees have written two new numbers for the show, "Immortality" and "First and Last". Sing the titles with intense frowns and window-cracking falsetto to get the full Seventies Bee Gees effect.
Their former manager and guru Robert Stigwood is producing it in company with David Ian and Paul Nicholas who co-produced Grease. And 24-year-old Australian newcomer Adam Garcia plays the Travolta role. David Ian assures me that we are in the midst of a "huge Seventies revival".
Why stop at the Seventies? The Pyjama Game, The King and I, Showboat and Bells Are Ringing - the last with Twiggy, who has been under-used as a musical actress playing the lead role - are all of a somewhat older vintage, but are all booked to transfer from Broadway to London this year.
Alongside all of these are two productions I expect could be the most interesting. Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre is directing a revival of Oklahoma, a revival that might well bring out some of the darker aspects of the story as well as its glorious score. The choreography will be by Matthew Bourne, the man behind Adventures In Motion Pictures' Swan Lake and Cinderella. One of the fascinating aspects of Nunn taking over as artistic director at the National is his love of musicals. He did of course direct Cats, Sunset Boulevard and Starlight Express, and tells me he wants during his tenure to commission a new musical.
"You won't imagine," he declares, "that I'm going to be a timid apologist about musicals. I detest the terminology in New York that talks about musicals and legitimate theatre."
Whatever the terminology, New York is where one of the key musicals of the year hails from. Rent, which opens with the main members of the original cast at the Shaftesbury Theatre in May, has been dubbed the Hair of the Nineties. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as a host of other awards during its Broadway run.
Inspired by Puccini's La Boheme, it is a turbulent musical that celebrates a community of young East Villagers as they struggle with life in contemporary New York. The show proved a youth cult on Broadway, with people sleeping outside for tickets and watching the show many times. You may remember that nanny Louise Woodward during her televised trial told how she had seen the show repeatedly.
Now that would be a publicity-grabbing guest to have at the first night party.