By Alex Kingston
Thursday 17th August 2023
Throughout West End history, it has been a long-standing tradition that we revive our most beloved musicals in an attempt to introduce a classic show to a brand-new audience. This year alone has already given us an abundance of new revivals, including Crazy for You and The Wizard of Oz. West End musical revivals are renowned for having innovative ideas and big budgets, and some have been so popular that they have even transferred to theatres across the globe. There is nothing like a musical revival in the West End!
When a producer takes it upon themselves to put on a musical revival, they have one of two options. They can either stay faithful to the original or reimagine the show for a contemporary audience. Both approaches are legitimate, and each has enjoyed immense success on the West End stage.
Staying True to the Original: Honouring Tradition
There are many revivals in recent memory that have chosen to honour tradition, recreating the essence of the show’s original production. A revival may try and achieve this by using similar costumes or sets, and in some cases, the original designer is brought on board to help make this dream a reality. Productions such as these are often impactful, due to the way in which they unleash a wave of nostalgia upon the audience. Theatregoers suddenly find themselves catapulted back in time, transported back to the Golden Age. This is particularly powerful for those who had actually seen the original production, as it may bring about a connection between that time and the individual’s emotional memories.
A recent example of this being done to great effect is the revival of Mary Poppins, which opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in 2019 and closed earlier this year. Fifteen years after it had first opened in London, this revival reunited the original creative team to recreate what had once been. Director Richard Eyre returned, alongside co-choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear. The musical even returned to its old theatre, with the Prince Edward having housed Mary Poppins during its original run. Young children who saw the show in its original iteration were now given the opportunity to return to the show all these years later in adulthood, some even with kids of their own.
Another example is the 2021 revival of Anything Goes, which took the West End by complete storm. Anything Goes is one of the oldest musicals of all time, having been written in the 1930s. With an amusing rom-com story, a massive cast, and a lavish orchestra, you would find it hard to discover a new musical that is styled in the same way. As the old saying goes, they don’t make them like they used to! After a difficult year in lockdown, people flocked to Anything Goes as a reminder of simpler times. It reminded people of the good old days and brought about warm feelings of joy at a time when it was most needed. And therein lies the magic of a West End revival!
Reimagining for a Contemporary Audience: Fresh Perspectives
The other approach to putting on a West End revival is to completely reconsider the original source material and stage it in a completely new setting. A lot of old classics were written under completely different contexts, so producers often take it upon themselves to re-evaluate the piece to ensure it can resonate with modern sensibilities. This may include altering the setting to a different location or shifting the focus to a whole new era entirely. The advantage of this approach is that it can breathe new life into a familiar story, keeping the piece fresh and relevant to the present day. This is particularly important for younger generations, who find that a re-imagined revival can speak to their struggles and life experience more so than an old-fashioned classic.
One of the most ground-breaking revivals to have played in recent memory is Company, which opened at the Gielgud Theatre in 2018. This production completely turned the show on its head, with the male-lead Bobby being turned into a female lead called Bobbie. The script was also revised to feature a same-sex couple, with hysterical bride Amy transformed into cold-footed groom Jamie. The revisions to the text do not feel forced in any way; instead, they just update the piece in line with contemporary logic in order to give the show a new lease of life. There have been numerous productions of Company produced both in the West End and on Broadway, but this was an entirely fresh take that stands out above the rest.
Flashing forward to the present day, the new production of Oklahoma currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre is quite possibly one of the best musical revivals to have ever graced a West End stage. Oklahoma is often presented as a splashy and dance-filled spectacular, as was the case in the most recent revival. This new production however presents the show in a completely different light, without having even changed one word of dialogue. Director Daniel Fish re-examines the characters and tone of the piece, turning the protagonists into quite sinister figures. By putting emphasis on certain words, altering the pace, and changing line delivery, the characters feel completely different to previous iterations. Oklahoma serves as a great example of how a talented director can completely reimagine an old classic for a contemporary audience without having to edit the original text.
Impact on Audiences and Theatre Industry
As shown above, there has been a wide range of revivals over these past five years, catering to audiences of all different backgrounds. Whether people were looking for a fresh interpretation, or simply a traditional theatre experience, the West End has had revivals galore to ensure that there’s something for everyone. Audiences have responded positively to this, as shown by the financial success enjoyed by many of these shows. Anything Goes, for example, broke box office records and became the highest-grossing show to have ever played at the Barbican. Considering that this was during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is all the more impressive. The success of this production signalled that theatre was back with a vengeance, acting as a beacon to inspire others at a time marred by uncertainty. This just goes to show the power of a West End revival!
Looking ahead into the future, we are already destined for one more major musical revival before the end of the year. In September, Sunset Boulevard will be opening at the Savoy Theatre, starring singer Nicole Scherzinger. Director Jamie Lloyd has already confirmed that he plans to reimagine the show for a new generation, so we can expect it to join the likes of Company and Oklahoma in providing a fresh perspective.
Beyond Sunset Boulevard, only time will tell what our next big revival will be or what it will look like. No matter which shows are chosen or what approach is taken, however, we can be certain that the musical revival will be a staple of the West End for many years to come.