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The International Writers Magazine: London Theatre

The Rise of Popular Culture in Musicals – Theatre’s saviour or Theatre’s downfall?

• Rebecca Felgate
During the latter half of the 20th century London’s West End theatre business was booming. With musicals like Cats, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon drawing in audiences for decades, the new musical was being celebrated across countless stages in Theatre Land.



However, today’s generation is a different story. With iPhones and iPads making visual entertainment more accessible than ever, why would somebody leave the house, much less pay in excess of £50 to see a new musical they have never heard of?  


Many West End producers and directors seem to think the answer is to provide the audience with something familiar, coming up with the idea of drawing from popular film and TV culture in the hope of luring audience members.


The show that sparked it all was the Lion King, opening in London’s West End in 1999, proving a roaring success. Perhaps the triumph of this show is due to the originality in costumes and spectacular stage puppetry, that makes this show feel like a far cry from the two dimensional Disney classic.

Lion King


DreamWorks’s Shrek, however, is not such a spectacular realisation, sticking rather closely to the popular 2001 animation of the same name. Whilst enjoyable, this musical offers little creativity and demonstrates the power of star casting (for example TV’s Amanda Holden and Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh as different Princess Fiona’s) to bring in the crowds.


Speaking of star casting, this seems to be Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s only method for success these days. Most recently, Sir Andrew launched a televised nation wide search for Dorothy to star in his stage revival of the 1939 film classic, The Wizard of Oz. Here Sir Andrew created his own TV star to draw in the punters at the production that opened at the London Palladium in February 2011. However, although the creative juices that produced Phantom of the Opera may have dried up, preventing him for an entirely new show, he did still write a great deal of new music for the production, which is some relief for the innovation hungry.


Perhaps the most blatant attempt to draw in a new crowd of theatregoers with the film to musical technique is Ghost the Musical. Despite the only recognisable music of the original 1990 film being The Righteous Brother’s Unchained Melody, somehow a musical adaptation was created. Although there are some perky new musical additions and some brilliant technical elements to the show, one can’t help but see throw the shows guise. A Film to musical tends to equal world tours and opening night sell outs.


Bodyguard Ready to echo this sentiment, the announcement of the forthcoming The Bodyguard Musical was neatly tied up with the death of the late Whitney Houston. The show opens at the Adelphi Theatre in November and will depict the story from the 1992 Oscar winning film. The clue is in the blurb as the press poster claims the show to be “based on the smash hit film which starred Kevin Costner and Witney Houston”, thus name dropping to grab attention and audience members.


Yes – I agree that these popular culture inspired musicals have helped raise the perhaps previously dwindling profile of new musicals and drawn in a whole new demographic of people, who may not have previously been interesting in theatre culture. However, I feel that creativity and innovation have been neglected for what will sell in the immediate future. It’s a sad thought that the only successful original new musical of the last five years I can think of is Wicked.  Is the rise of the pop culture musical stifling new talent?


The question I pose is: where will these ‘new’ film musicals be once fans of the film have seen the show? Is there enough substance to keep these shows afloat for the next 20 years? Are they the Cats, Les Miserables or Miss Saigon’s of our time?

I don’t think so.



© Rebecca Felgate June 2012


Rebecca Felgate is a theatre writer who lives in London. Rebecca writes for a theatre information, news, reviews and discount ticketing site
Rebecca’s favourite place in London is the Southbank. Rebecca loves the combination of a glass of chardonnay and a great piece of theatre. She is also partial to a good bit of cheese.

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