Leading article: The sound of musicals

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The Independent Online

The West End has never seen anything like it. A new hit musical seems to be opening in London every other week at the moment. Some are uncomplicated entertainment. The Sound of Music opened this week at the London Palladium. Dirty Dancing, another unabashed crowd pleaser, is playing at the Aldwych.

Some are more challenging. Caroline, or Change, by Tony Kushner, is a thoughtful tale of a black maid in Alabama in the Civil Rights era: hardly traditional territory for the musical genre. Meanwhile, Rufus Norris's Cabaret mines the dark themes of Christopher Isherwood's original stories of the rise of Nazism in decadent Weimar Germany more daringly than previous interpretations.

Some new productions defy classification. Gerswhin's great opera Porgy and Bess has been radically reduced in length and adapted for non-operatic voices by Trevor Nunn. And then, of course, there's the Monty Python pastiche Spamalot, which toys cleverly with the audience's expectations of what a musical should be.

But they have one thing in common: they have all sent the critics into raptures of praise. Some have gone so far as to proclaim that it is a new golden era. But critical plaudits are not enough for musicals. If they are to stand any chance of making money and maintaining a long run, they also have to be popular with the public. And they certainly have been. Houses have been packed and bookings are cascading in.

This is quite an achievement. Successful musicals are notoriously difficult to stage. They tend to require more preparation and co-ordination than conventional plays. And nothing bombs quite so spectacularly as a failed musical. That makes the fact that so many successful productions have opened in the same year all the more remarkable.

Cynics may carp. But we should be pleased that so many people are visiting the theatre and that this vibrant art form is thriving. With any luck, these musical goers will also feel inspired to see one of the straight plays of the West End too. For there is at present a very decent crop of these, with Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll and John Mortimer's A Voyage Around My Father our pick of the bunch.

In the wake of last year's terrorist bombings, there was talk of a crisis in theatreland. On 7 July itself, the theatres closed for the first time since the Second World War. Producers were bracing themselves for a steep decline in customers in the wake of that atrocity. But instead the West End is enjoying a renaissance. Whatever the reason, this can only be beneficial to the performing arts in Britain. Long may the show go on.

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