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Saturday, 11 May, 2002, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Changing face of West End musicals
Starlight Express
Starlight Express closed after 18 years
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By Keily Oakes
BBC News Online entertainment staff
line

There seemed a time when the musical world seemed in a state of inertia as the old favourites just ran and ran.

It was taken for granted that shows like Cats, Starlight Express and Miss Saigon would be around for ever and one day you may get round to seeing them.

But first went Miss Saigon and then Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber pulled the rug out further with the shock announcement that Starlight Express would finish.

This was shortly followed by news that Cats would follow in its wake, ending after a record-breaking run of 21 years.

What next the curtain falling on The Mousetrap for good? Never.

Although fans will be able to catch Cats and Starlight Express as they tour regional UK theatres, the landscape of the West End musical is changing.

There are still the options of firm favourites like Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Phantom, but the choice has become more diverse.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang received critical acclaim when it opened
And recent newcomers are proving there is a still the taste for a good musical, despite its image as the more downmarket cultural option.

Kiss Me, Kate has been a huge hit at the Victoria Palace Theatre, picking up rave reviews and, more importantly, bringing in the crowds.

The Cole Porter classic had long laid dormant, destined to be performed only by am dram groups.

But its Tony Award success in the US ensured there was already a buzz around it before opening in London.

But the US witnessed the fickle nature of the musical when Kiss Me, Kate was forced to close in the wake of the 11 September attacks because of a sharp fall in audiences.

Extended run

The same is true of The Full Monty, which although based on the very British film was set in New York on stage.

There has been such a demand for tickets that its UK run at the Prince of Wales Theatre has been extended.

The West End has seen its share of successes and failures in recent times, thankfully more triumphs than disaster.

Recent hits which look like staying the course include My Fair Lady, which gained massive attention because former EastEnder Martine McCutcheon was making her stage debut; and Chicago which has benefited from a changing celebrity cast such as Denise Van Outen and Claire Sweeney.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, based on the classic film, has been the latest successful opening and with great reviews and full houses it looks like become a stayer on the West End circuit.

Tourist slump

But several high-profile big openers struggled to stay the distance and the plug was pulled early on.

Among the early closures was Peggy Sue Got Married, which featured Ruthie Henshall, which was blamed on the slump in tourists following 11 September and the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Another casualty was The Beautiful Game, from the usually safe hands of the Lloyd Webber camp and Ben Elton. A slide in tourists was also blamed for its premature demise.

Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber took the decision to close Cats
But 2002 appears to have seen the art form of musical theatre turn the corner, with new openings looking strong.

But a real indicator will be the success or otherwise of two new shows due to open soon.

We Will Rock You is set to be an extravagant affair featuring the hits of Queen.

Departure

The 7.5m venture is backed by film star Robert De Niro so all eyes will be on it when it opens at the Dominion Theatre on 14 May.

And then all the attention will be back on Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber as he prepares to open Bombay Dreams in June.

It is expected to be a huge departure not only for Sir Andrew but for the musical genre in general.

Sir Andrew promises the show, which is based on the Bollywood film industry, will give London theatre a much-needed "shot-in-the-arm".

But as theatre fans mourn the loss of the crowd-pleasers like Cats, will they be ready to embrace a new generation of musical with a completely new storyline and unfamiliar songs?

See also:

15 Jan 02 | Showbiz
Record-breaking Cats bows out
05 Feb 02 | Arts
Critics' kisses for Kate
07 Feb 02 | Showbiz
Lloyd Webber's musical Dreams
17 Apr 02 | Showbiz
Stage Chitty goes with a bang
26 Mar 02 | Showbiz
De Niro to rock with Queen
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