A brief history of musical theatre in the West End covering the past four decades


Post World War Two, the West End was very much playing second fiddle to Broadway, appearing to be trapped in a time warp of pre-war nostalgia, completely unprepared for a new breed of musical emerging from America.

The 1970s would prove to be the most radical evolution of the British musical yet. The transformation began when Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber released the album Jesus Christ Superstar which fused rock with opera. They had hoped if the album proved to be a hit, a stage musical would follow.

The two aspiring young songwriters would each bring very different qualities to the British musical. While both fans of rock music, lyricist Rice knew next-to-nothing about musical theatre while Lloyd Webber lived and breathed it.

The album struggled for sales in Britain but became a number one sensation in America. Logically, it was decided to launch the show, based very loosely on the Gospels' accounts of the last week of Jesus' life, on Broadway first. Despite the shaky start on Broadway, producer Robert Stigwood had plans for an opening in the West End. Allied with a contemporary soundtrack and modern staging, the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, starring Paul Nicholas and Stephen Tate, opened in the West End in August 1972 to universally good reviews, the radical interpretation of the gospels moving audience, critics and even the cast.

By 1978, the British musical had reached a high watermark with the production of Evita, the real-life story of a South American dictator's wife featuring the memorable anthem "Don't Cry For Me Argentina". The show begins with Eva Peron's death from cancer, and then charts her entire life through flashbacks. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's collaboration helped to bring the West End back into contention with Broadway and the highly successful show made stars of Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone.

The following year, Evita opened on Broadway for a four-year run, cementing Lloyd Webber and Rice as not just stars of the West End, but also the first British talents to triumph in New York for 15 years.

Evita ran for 7 years in the West End but proved to be the last major collaboration between Rice and Lloyd Webber. The show ushered in an era when for over a decade, Britain effortlessly dominated musical theatre all over the world with international hits including Cats, Phantom, Les Mis and Miss Saigon.


By the start of the 1980's, Britain was in recession and the West End was facing rising costs and falling audiences. It hardly seemed like the ideal time for Andrew Lloyd Webber to attempt a musical about his favourite pet, but the production Cats was utterly pivotal to the future direction of musicals and would signal the birth of the "megamusical".

The show's fate was far from guaranteed. Britain had never had a successful dance musical, the strength of West End shows were traditionally in singing or acting. Attempting a show that required all three was unprecedented.

Judi Dench, one of Britain's finest post-war actresses had agreed to play the key role of Grizabella, but an injury to her Achilles tendon meant she was replaced by Elaine Paige who stepped in with just three days left before previews began.

Andrew Lloyd Webber commented "working with a dead poet; with a whole load of songs about cats; asking us to believe that people dressed up as cats are going to work; working with Trevor Nunn from the Royal Shakespeare Company, who's never done a musical in his life; working in the New London, the theatre with the worst track record in London; asking us to believe that 20 British people can do a dance show when London had never been able to put together any kind of fashionable dance entertainment before. It was just a recipe for disaster. But we knew in the rehearsal room that even if we lost everything, we'd attempted something that hadn't been done before."

Critics regarded the venture, based on T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, as "suicidal" when it opened in 1981, but it turned into one of the greatest show business success stories, running in London for 21 years until it closed in May 2002 after nearly 9,000 performances.

Cats kick-started a major change in the fortunes of British musical theatre, with Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber taking central roles on an increasingly global stage.

The early '80s were a time of economic troubles for many, with a growing social divide between the rich and poor, the North and South. Liverpool playwright and composer Willy Russell had reflected these ideas in plays like Educating Rita and in 1983, he turned his hand to writing a musical.

Blood Brothers was written at a time of terrible social turmoil and told the story of twins separated at birth, one raised by a middle-class family, the other working-class. However, the tale of northern poverty did not attract large enough audiences and Blood Brothers closed after a short six month run. It would later return and prove to be a huge success.

If Cats had pushed its cast to a new standard of performance, Starlight Express would demand even more. Opening in March 1984 at the Apollo Victoria, the show was a fantastical story of toy trains racing to become the fastest engine in the world.

The production created history by being the first West End show to be performed solely on roller skates. The simplicity and spectacle of Starlight was attractive to children, but in an era of cheap air travel, it also appealed to a new kind of audience that was arriving in the West End. By the mid 1980s, 44% of theatre tickets were purchased by tourists.

With its colourful costumes, elaborate make-up and roller skates, the show was performed 7,406 times to audiences of more than 8 million before it closed after an 18 year run on 12th January 2002. But with Andrew Lloyd Webber seemingly the only British composer around with killer tunes, to find a hit, rival producers started looking to the past.

Noel Gay's Me And My Girl was a successful musical from 1937. 50 years later, it became a hit again, after an update by aspiring young comedian, Stephen Fry. The show starred Robert Lindsay as Bill Snibson, Emma Thompson, and Frank Thornton. It opened at the Adelphi Theatre London in 1985 and became an instant hit. It was warm, and it was funny, and it had the killer tune of The Lambeth Walk.

Where Cats and Starlight had brought dance and spectacle to the musical, Les Miserables would, for the first time, bring the Royal Shakespeare Company 's expertise in high drama from the stage direction through to the set design. One of the reasons the show still remains one of the most current, contemporary pieces is because the story and the characters are recognisable in society today just as they were 150 years ago.

In April 1986, the West End witnessed a gamble on the most ambitious show yet. Time, which starred Cliff Richard as Wilder, had broken new ground with its extraordinary sets, but without the gripping music and storylines of a Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh show, but it failed to live up to its contemporaries and closed after two years.

Chess opened in London's West End in 1986, a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Bjò²® Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA. The show told the story of Russian and American grandmasters, battling it out against a backdrop of the Cold War - an ambitious premise for a musical. By the late 1980's, a musical set against a backdrop of the Cold War suddenly seemed horribly out of date and it closed in April 1989.

On its launch back in 1983, Blood Brothers had struggled to find an audience, but producer Bill Kenwright was convinced he knew how to make it a hit. Baulking at a mega musical style launch in the West End, Blood Brothers would take an altogether more slow burn route. Following a series of tours, where it started off with very small audiences, it soon grew and grew and a West End revival opened in 1988. Blood Brothers would go on to become the third-longest-running musical in West End history.

In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh reigned over the West End with their international mega hits. Their latest phenomenon, Phantom of the Opera, was quite literally a labour of love for Lloyd Webber. His then wife, Sarah Brightman helped inspire him to write the musical and she originated the role of Christine Daae.

Phantom opened in October 1986 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The sumptuous score, fabulous setting and the celebrity pulling power of Michael Crawford all combined to ensure that Phantom would go on to become the most successful musical of all time.

At the end of the 1980s, the West End was conquering the world with a new brand of big, bold and fabulously expensive musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber's hits had involved dancing cats, roller-skating trains and a grand Gothic horror romance.

Some surprise then when he announced his next show would be based on an intimate story of romantic entanglements. Aspects of Love opened in April 1989 to sell-out audiences with its most well known track being "Love Changes Everything". It ran for 1,325 performances before finally closing on 20th June 1992.


By the early 1990s, Britain was in the grip of the longest recession for 60 years. To attract an increasingly cash strapped audience, producers would need to find new ways to entice them in. With Aspects Of Love failing to live up to the success of Phantom or Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber embraced a more commercial formula - the world of celebrity.

Lloyd Webber remarked "Producers love bums on seats, the maths is very simple. People fell in love with Scott Robinson. People fell in love with Jason Donovan's pop career, why wouldn't they fall in love by coming to see a show that represented all those things and more."

Jason Donovan was chosen to play the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which opened at London's Palladium in 1991. The union of pop star, soap star and tried and tested musical proved to be a winning combination. After Donovan left, children's television presenter Phillip Schofield took over. The celebrity turnstile proved to be a model that others would quickly follow.

Set in 1975 during the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon ran in the West End throughout the decade of the 1990s, closing after 4,264 performances on 30 October 1999. The show portrayed the epic love story about the relationship between an American GI and a young Vietnamese woman.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Sunset Boulevard was not his finest hour. The production opened on July 12, 1993 but closed early. Starring Patti LuPone, the show received a mixed response from critics and is best known for its backstage dramas, enormous running costs and the loss of several leading ladies.

Cameron Mackintosh had avoided celebrity cachet for the musical Martin Guerre which opened in July 1996. Instead he continued the model of the epic scale mega-musical. But even after extensive rewrites, the quintessential love story failed to draw an audience and suffered from miserable reviews from critics.

Although still giants of the West End, the failures for Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh meant they could no longer guarantee a hit with their names alone. Instead, pop music was the rising star of the West End.

In the late 1990s, unknown producer Judy Craymer would harness the power of pop to completely re-write the rulebook of what a successful musical could be.

Using the music of ABBA, one of the most fondly remembered bands of the 1970s, Mamma Mia tells the story of a single mother reuniting with three former boyfriends, any one of whom is the father of her daughter. It turned what was the normal structure for successful musicals on its head. Usually, musicals take a pre-existing story and shape new songs around it. With Mamma Mia, it was exactly the opposite - existing songs, new story.

On opening night in April 1999, Mamma Mia took the West End by surprise, returning a sense of fun to musical theatre, largely absent from the days of the 80s mega-musicals. Mamma Mia became the poster child for the jukebox musical.

The Lion King was the smash hit of 1999. The show was not just popular with the traditional Disney audience of children - with its groundbreaking use of puppetry and dynamic staging it also impressed critics initially sceptical about the ability of a film studio to do live theatre.


In the wake of Mamma Mia would follow a musical inspired by the music of Queen. For the first time since Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, rock music would once again be enticed back into the theatre.

Initially planned as a Queen biography, former band members Brian May and Roger Taylor brought in comedian Ben Elton as writer, the story quickly changed into a work of fiction.

We Will Rock You opened on 12th May 2002 and tells the futuristic story of a group of youths searching for the legendary guitar that can bring back the power of rock. The jukebox musical took pop culture and turned it into a formula for hit musicals.

Composer Richard Thomas turned pop culture into an acerbic stage show that showed that the musical could not only entertain, but satirise. Opening in 2003 Jerry Springer The Opera received positive reviews and particularly striking was the show appealed to a new audience with 50% of ticket buyers being first-time theatregoers.

It became such a hit phenomenon that the BBC took the unusual step of broadcasting it in its entirety. However the decision was a controversial one, prior to it being broadcast there was a massive internet backlash and thousands of people complained the show was total blasphemy. Whether for commercial or controversial reasons, six weeks after the BBC broadcast, Jerry Springer: The Opera closed and plans for a UK tour were cancelled.

But the most successful British musical of recent years has come from a low-budget British drama. With music by Elton John, Billy Elliot opened in May 2005 to overwhelmingly positive reviews, becoming one of the greatest musical success stories of the last ten years. Like many of its contemporaries, it benefited from its film and pop star credentials but Billy Elliot also brought back the tradition of a musical where the story, not just the creators, were British.

In 2006, Andrew Lloyd Webber was looking at ways to attract a new audience to musical theatre. Before his revival of The Sound Of Music he came up with an idea that would draw on the power of television. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? ran for eight weeks on the BBC and was an audition process like no other, with the star being chosen by the British public. Eventual winner, Connie Fisher, took the lead role in a new production of The Sound Of Music.

Following the success of "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?", Lloyd Webber searched again in 2007, this time for an actor to play Joseph in a revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and again in 2008 when the BBC aired another search for a star. "I'd Do Anything" was the title and Lloyd Webber was looking for actors to play the roles Nancy and Oliver in a new production of Lionel Bart's Oliver.