Musicals turning drama into a crisis, say producers

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AN UNPRECEDENTED invasion of musicals into the West End of London is harming the quality of British drama, say producers and playwrights.

What could be the biggest glut yet of musicals hits theatreland this summer and autumn. Attention has focused on Disney's The Lion King, a blockbuster from Broadway, yet a flurry of home-grown musicals will arrive onstage.

Some are small affairs imported from the fringe. Others hope to be blockbusters, shows akin to Sir Cameron Mackintosh's production of The Witches Of Eastwick.

The Independent understands Sir Cameron approached Robert Lindsay to take the role played by Jack Nicholson in the movie. And there are said to be plans to mount a new production of My Fair Lady with Elaine Paige.

But even with the possible addition of acting talents such as Lindsay and musical stars such as Paige, the predominance of musicals is alarming theatre stalwarts. There are 19 playing in the West End, and a dozen or so more expected in a few months.

The playwright Simon Gray had rave reviews for his most recent play The Late Middle Classes, directed by Harold Pinter and starring Harriet Walter, when it played in Watford. But a proposed transfer to the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue was called off in favour of the pop musical Boyband.

Simon Gray said he was "very sad", adding: " I think it [The Late Middle Classes] is a very beautiful production, but what you would call serious theatre is unlikely to make it to the West End except through prescribed routes, such as starting at the National."

Fellow playwright Peter Shaffer, author of Amadeus and The Royal Hunt Of the Sun, has said mainstream popular theatre was in danger of becoming "moribund," because its core "no longer consists, as it once did so vigorously, of a running stream of new plays ...The quasi-immortality of today's musical shows fills me with dismay."

But other leading figures are worried not so much by the quasi-immortality of musicals, but their quick turnaround, and short seasons. Some musicals, including Forbidden Broadway which opened last night are scheduled for mini-seasons that will not even see out the summer.

Thelma Holt, who has brought Shakespeare to Shaftesbury Avenue with Rufus Sewell playing Macbeth earlier this year, and who is shortly to co-produce Nigel Hawthorne in King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company, said yesterday she was depressed by the new trend.

"I'm rather disturbed by the number of shows coming in as fill-ins," she said. "If you constantly do this with these tiny musicals then the quality of what comes in can't be that high. If a show is worthwhile why is it on for only six weeks? It's rather concerning." The big new arrivals include The Witches of Eastwick, the next big project from Cameron Mackintosh, based on John Updike's novel, which will replace Miss Saigon at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane; The Lion King, with masks and African chants augmenting the Elton John-Tim Rice score, which starts performances at The Lyceum next month; another Broadway hit musical, Fosse, about the director/ choreographer Bob Fosse, which begins its run at the Prince of Wales in January.

In addition, Simon Callow's production of The Pajama Game with Leslie Ash and Anita Dobson opens at the Victoria Palace in October after a run at the Birmingham Rep; Barbara Dickson stars as pools winner Viv Nicholson in a new musical Spend Spend Spend opening at the Piccadilly Theatre, also in October; a new musical comedy A Saint She Ain't starring Barry Cryer, opens at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue next month.

And the latest in the line of rock n roll bio-musicals Great Balls Of Fire about Jerry Lee Lewis comes to the Cambridge theatre, London, in October.

Also planned for London runs in the near future are: Notre Dame de Paris, a sumptuous rock-opera by French Canadian lyricist Luc Plamondon and Italian composer Richard Cocciante; Napoleon, a bio-musical by two Canadian newcomers Timothy Williams and Andrew Sabiston; Lautrec, a musical life of the artist composed by French singer Charles Aznavour; a musical tour through the songs of lyricist Don Black of Sunset Boulevard fame, called Black Goes With Everything.

The West End publicist Lynne Kirwin, who is looking after The Lion King and has also promoted many straight plays, including works by Tom Stoppard and seasons at The Donmar, admitted there was a problem for serious drama with the influx of musicals. "I think there is a clear lack of quality commercial drama," she said. "You need to create an event to get people in.

"Obviously we can do that with a musical like The Lion King or a play about the life of Lenny Bruce because it has a star, Eddie Izzard. But it's hard to put serious drama on in the West End unless there is a big star." The Society of London Theatre welcomes a mix of plays and musicals in the West End. Its spokeswoman, Emma de Souza, said: "Nobody would want to see the West End dominated by serious plays.

"And whatever else, shows like Boyband are getting 14-year-olds into the theatre. If they're going to scream at the group, maybe they'll come back for something else."

A New Wave of Stage Shows: The Critical View

THE LION KING: In transfer from Broadway to The Lyceum, with performances starting next month

"Disney chose Julie Taymor, a mainstay of the theatrical avant-garde, to oversee this $15m [pounds 9.5m] production, the most expensive show ever. The result is a fusion of commerce and art. She is a master showman as well as a stage magician of incandescent imagination... the curtain rises, suddenly the theatre's aisles are filled with a procession of animals, or rather life-sized animal puppets... a landmark event in American entertainment" Newsweek

FOSSE

Run due to begin at the Prince of Wales Theatre,

London, in January

"Fosse's singular strength is choreography, which when seen in the theatre at its best, cuts to the quick. It can make us laugh and sometimes without warning it can become unaccountably moving. Fosse is a rich, bewitching show" The New York Times

THE PAJAMA GAME

Opens at the Victoria Palace, London, in October after a run at the Birmingham Rep

"The much-vaunted choreography by Birmingham Royal Ballet's David Bintley is frequently blurred... and it seems to me a case of you don't go to a plumber when you need a dentist. There are very good people in the company and they light up the stage" The Birmingham Post

A SAINT SHE AIN'T

Performances start at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, next month

"Directed by Ned Sherrin... this is a hit-and-miss musical based on Moliere's minor comedy Le Cocu Imaginaire... This show has some dire features. The commedia dell'arte-cum-music-hall acting is a drag... Sherrin's production feels like homely fun" The Daily Telegraph

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