This episode looks at how British musical talent in the 1980s stormed the West End with hits like Cats, Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Phantom of the Opera.
Browse content similar to Episode 2. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
This programme contains some strong language
Theatreland. London's West End.
One square mile of musical talent
worth over a quarter of a billion pounds a year.
One of the cultural epicentres of Great Britain and the world.
But it wasn't always this way.
65 years ago, the West End was parochial,
trapped in a time warp of pre-war nostalgia,
completely unprepared for a new breed of musical
emerging from America.
This is the story of the rise of the British musical,
how the British fought back against American domination
to not only reclaim the West End
but to become a driving force behind musical theatre around the world,
turning it into a global industry worth over £1.5 billion a year.
It's a tale of titanic shows...
Half of it wasn't written.
And the bits that had been written were far too long.
Nobody in our team had done it before, except for me.
This was a sort of a musical phenomena.
..a story of prodigious talent...
All the talent that was being invented were all in Britain.
We just thought, "This is working quite well."
And that was the day my life changed for ever.
..and phenomenal daring...
After the reviews, our box office was shredded.
They got to see some ass!
They took him off screaming. We never saw him again.
That's how difficult that show is.
# Don't cry for me, Argentina... #
In 1978, the British musical had reached a high watermark with Evita,
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's partnership helping to bring
the West End back into contention with Broadway.
But with that relationship coming to an end,
the British musical had stalled.
By the start of the '80s, Britain was in recession.
The West End was facing rising costs and falling audiences.
Even American imports were having a tough ride,
finding critical acclaim but disappointingly short runs.
Not the ideal time, then, for Andrew Lloyd Webber
to attempt a musical about his favourite domestic pet.
Everybody thought we were mad to do a show about cats.
Everybody thought we were raving mad.
The number of people who asked me
with an embarrassed smile on their face,
"Doing a show about pussycats? Really?"
Cats are not pussycats in my book. They're street animals.
They're earthy, they're athletic,
and this is a show that's going to be very much about dance.
Really pull and pull yourself out.
That's it. And be surprised to see your own leg.
Britain had never had a successful dance musical.
Its strengths were traditionally in singing or acting.
By attempting a show that required all three was unprecedented.
It's the sort of show we are told at birth
it's impossible to do in Britain
which is precisely why we are doing it here.
But Lloyd Webber had never had a successful musical
without lyricist Tim Rice, and the lyrics for Cats would all come
from a collection of poems by the dead poet TS Eliot.
I had auditioned, along with Gillian, to find a group of people
who would want to join a group where, at the outset,
there was no definitive story and there were no assignable characters.
I mean, that's a tall order.
It was a musical based on a poetry book that were poems and letters
sent by TS Eliot to his nephews, nieces and godchildren
as little newsletters as such.
So, how were they going to piece all this together?
While Trevor worked out how to piece the poems into a story,
choreographer Gillian Lynne set to work instilling
a sense of catness into the cast.
Is everybody here? Is there any rotter hiding behind a seat?
'I had to teach them how to become a cat
'and I had to find how to become a cat myself.
Not easy to get the muscles to work and to get your hands being paws
and thinking different and thinking with your ears and all of that.
It was a whole different realm of work.
His brow is deep. Hold it there. Boom. Right?
'She really tried to create this unusual cross between ballet,'
jazz and this sort of animalistic approach.
It was hideously hard for all of us, and thrilling.
# Macavity, Macavity, there's no-one... # Like a stomachache.
# No-one, da-da ba-ba, ba. #
# Macavity, Macavity There's no-one like Macavity
# He's a fiend in feline shape
# A monster of depravity... #
'We really had to build up our stamina.'
And generally, something would happen.
There were a lot of injuries
because it was a very difficult thing to dance
and, of course, in the space you had,
people were falling over and it wasn't an easy birth, let's say.
What made Cats all the more challenging
was that many of the creative team were unused to the demands
of a commercial West End musical.
'Nobody in our team had done it before except for me.'
Certainly, Trevor Nunn hadn't, Gillian Lynne a little bit
but not to the same degree, but the team picked up on it pretty fast.
Listen, can you give a message to David, please, Linda,
from Marina Martin that she thinks that the frills round the bed
look like old knickers and, worse,
they look like out-of-period old knickers,
so could you look at it, thank you.
For producer Cameron Mackintosh,
whose reputation was in staging revivals,
finding financial backing for a new musical with no story
by a dead lyricist about dancing cats, was proving to be a challenge.
'The finance was impossible. That was the difficult bit.'
We both had a terrible time getting the money.
For me, it was less surprising, but bearing in mind
so many people had made an absolute fortune out of Andrew
through Superstar and Joseph and things like that
and of course, Evita. You know, they wouldn't cough up.
I remember standing on the steps of the New London with Trevor
and Cameron and Andrew, and Andrew said, "We'll all have to go out
"and try and find our rich friends."
And very famous people in the theatre I will not name
when, who were offered, even during previews,
a quarter of the capital - we were still that short -
went, "No, this will never work."
In desperation, Mackintosh even turned to those
he hoped would recognise the full potential of the show.
I don't think I'd have invested in it. I'd have given it three months.
And he's asking me, and I'm in it!
Have you got any money to put in the show?
So, the only thing I was aware of was that he was looking for money,
and I didn't put it in, and I've hated myself ever since.
It wasn't so much whether Andrew would lose money
or Cameron would lose money. What they would lose was kudos.
If all that had gone into this big production
and they had all those names of Trevor Nunn,
Andrew, Cameron, Gillian and all the stars that were in it,
if that didn't succeed, how would they have felt?
It was their kudos at stake, not so much, I think, the money.
The combination of money worries, lack of story
and exhausting dance rehearsals meant tempers were often frayed.
'Everybody was very tense and confused.'
There were lots of tantrums went on.
There was a big argument, just before the show opened...
Andrew comes running through the auditorium
with Cameron not that far behind,
screaming, "This is the worst piece of music I've ever written!
"This show is not going ahead."
It's always a good sign when Andrew withdraws the score!
It's happened on every show I've ever done with him.
I thought, "Well, if THEY'RE doubting what's happening
"and they're producing it,
"maybe we're in for a disaster here!"
It did cross my mind.
Throughout all the difficulties, there was one ray of hope.
One of Britain's finest post-war actresses had agreed to play
the key role of Grizabella.
But this being Cats, acting wasn't enough.
Judi Dench would also have to sing and dance.
I was rehearsing with Judi Dench. And she went, "You kicked me!"
And I said, "I didn't, actually." I said, "Are you all right?"
And she couldn't walk.
Well, what had happened was that that her Achilles tendon had snapped.
So, she could no longer do the show, which was terrible for her.
I hate to say this, but, in some ways, a blessing for the show
because it meant that they had to bring in Elaine Paige.
And Elaine Paige has a fabulous voice.
Paul Nicholas came up and said to me,
"What are you doing in this pile of..." You know.
They were all intrigued as to why I had agreed to join the company,
because they, I think, they were pretty fed up with it.
Elaine stepped in with just three days left before previews began.
With a world-class singer on board,
all they needed now were some lyrics.
They rehearsed me, I think, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,
and for ten previews from that Monday on,
I sang a different lyric every night.
I think Don Black wrote,
# Good times!
# I must wait for the good times! #
I did a lyric for it, I think Tim did a lyric.
A whole bunch of people did a lyric to that tune of Memory.
Tim Rice wrote Streetlamps and the Spaces Between Them.
I did write a lyric for Memory.
It went into the show for a couple of nights in previews,
and then it was taken out
and given to a lyricist chosen by the director.
Frustrated with the efforts of the professionals,
director Trevor Nunn had written his own set of lyrics,
cobbled together from lines of TS Eliot.
I showed it to Andrew on the Monday morning.
And he just said, "That's it."
And so, it went into the show.
# Turn your face to the moonlight
# Let your memory lead you
# Open up, enter in... #
But even with the inclusion of Elaine Paige and Memory,
as the show headed precariously to opening night,
it was still far from certain that Cats would work.
'We went on stage really not knowing
'whether we were going to be the biggest success or the biggest flop.'
Whether it was brilliant or laughed at,
it would be extreme.
I was sitting in the stalls, and I heard the whispering
around the theatre, as we heard the cats whisper the first words.
I had a chill throughout.
I had a tingle,
because I hadn't experienced anything quite like it before.
The audience were going crazy,
and it was elating, it was extraordinary.
"Well," I thought, "now dance has arrived in England. Hallelujah!"
I think for the British musical it was utterly pivotal.
It absolutely raised the bar as to what the triple thread was
and you could no longer have actors who sang, dancers who danced
and singers who couldn't do either. You know?
Everyone had to do everything.
And from that point on,
you saw the rise and rise of the British performers.
# Jellicles do and Jellicles can... #
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.
To our surprise, people didn't just want to rent the script,
the music, they wanted us
to actually put on our version of the show,
which started sort of a global enterprise.
I remember Cameron saying to me,
"I don't want to get involved with all of this business
"about musicals and other things. We can get local producers to do it."
I said, "Cameron, Cameron, you've got to do it yourself,
"you're a producer, that's what you do.
"You've got to produce it yourself."
Their attention to detail extended far beyond the walls of the theatre.
For the first time in a musical,
the power of merchandising and advertising came to the fore.
We always saw it more as the person buying the T-shirt -
we wanted them to then be a walking advertisement for us.
It started a whole new form of brand marketing
that hadn't been around before.
# Jellicle songs for Jellicle cats! #
The marketing and success of Cats
epitomised the prevailing ideals of Thatcherism.
But for many, the early '80s were not a time of success, but hardship.
There was 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.
In 1983, he turned his hand to writing a musical.
Blood Brothers was written at a time
of terrible social turmoil in this country.
Although it doesn't deal with that,
it's not aiming to be a Political play with a capital P,
a Political musical, that is the backdrop against which it is written.
# Living on the never never
# Constant as the changing weather... #
Blood Brothers told the story of twins separated at birth,
one raised by a middle-class family, the other working-class.
I must have my baby. We made an agreement. A bargain.
You swore on the Bible.
-You'd better see which one you want.
-I'll take him.
Don't tell me which one, just take him. Take him.
Whereas Cats had started life in the heart of the West End,
Blood Brothers had much more humble beginnings -
in a school hall in Liverpool.
Originally, I'd written Blood Brothers for a small group
of five actors called Merseyside Young People's Theatre Company,
who went into a school with no props, no lights,
no scenery, and did a show for 70 minutes
to truculent, reluctant kids
who had been told to form their chairs into a circle in the hall
and sit and shut up for 70 minutes -
the most difficult audience of all. And it worked like a dream.
Did you ever hear the tale of the Johnstone twins?
As like each other as two new pins.
How one was kept, one given away.
They were born and they died on the selfsame day.
But once the play became a musical,
the themes that made the story so compelling
to a captive audience of schoolchildren
became a very hard sell to a West End audience.
I'd be trailing around doing pre-publicity for the show
and going into radio interviews and newspaper interviews
and they'd say to me, "What's the show about?"
I'd say, "Well, it's about death," which didn't sell many tickets!
But, you know, it's kind of what it was about.
With tickets not selling,
Willy had to turn things around or face being shut down.
# Tell me it's not true... #
'And it was only when there was a one-sided acetate
'of Tell Me It's Not True made for purely promotional purposes -
'it wasn't for sale...'
And Terry Wogan picked it up.
And Terry Wogan started to play this beautifully sung song
from the end of the show.
# Though it's here before me
# Say it's just a dream... #
And within three to four weeks of Terry Wogan playing the track,
we were rammed, but by that time, the die had been cast
and we'd been given our notice for six months hence.
At a time of increasing economic disparity,
the tale of northern poverty was not what audiences were easily drawn to.
Blood Brothers closed after just a six-month run.
# Lead us not into temptation
# All I desire
# Temptation... #
It seemed for many the order of the day was excess,
and Andrew Lloyd Webber had an idea for a show which would deliver
unprecedented levels of excess, scale, and above all, spectacle.
I do remember Andrew saying his next show
was going to be this thing about railway trains.
You know, you kind of go...
With no clear idea
how a musical with singing trains could be pulled off,
Lloyd Webber had just two stipulations
to director Trevor Nunn -
it had to appeal to children and it had to be visually exciting.
I was in New York, staying in a hotel with John Napier.
And on a Sunday morning, we took a little walk into Central Park
and saw, quite soon, a huge crowd of people.
And for the first time in my life, I saw
people dancing on roller skates.
Skating backwards, skating on one leg, carrying their music systems,
spinning endlessly around.
Sensational things happening on roller-skates.
And I just said to John, "I think we've just found it."
"I think we found this musical about railway trains."
If Cats had pushed its cast to a new standard of performance,
Starlight would demand even more.
I knew that casting Starlight was
an almost impossible task.
How could you find people who could actually sing Andrew's music,
dance, act, and do it all on skates?
We started auditioning actors and singers who came in
with their brand-new roller-skates they'd bought that morning.
They rolled across the stage, hit the piano and fell over.
Smash into the directorial table,
coffee cups everywhere.
I mean, there was quite a lot of that.
We got a rule after a bit that anybody who didn't hit the piano
might be up for a recall.
In desperation, the team widened the net.
Now it wasn't just West End performers they would audition,
it was anybody.
One guy came in, he was a kitchen fitter from Crawley.
He said, "Are you ready?" And we said, "Yes."
He said, "Right," and he went across the stage,
jumped over the piano, landed the other side and turned round
and said, "Would you like me to sing?"
At that moment, we thought, "Hey, maybe we can do this show."
It was magic.
We knew if you could do that in a theatre
and, let's say, have somebody jumping over a line of bodies...
How exciting would that be?
Two, three, four, five.
But for those performers unused to being on wheels,
there was one major drawback.
It was dangerous!
In fact, one guy, I can't remember his name,
he came in, first day of rehearsal,
and they were trying to teach us to jump backwards
and land on our stomachs. I said, "I ain't doing that."
He turned around and he was facing this way
and his foot was facing the other way
and that was the first day of rehearsals.
They took him off screaming, we never saw him again.
So I said, "They are not going to kill me."
I seemed to be spending quite a lot of time
like a St John's Ambulance man -
I mean, sitting holding somebody's hand.
Set designer John Napier was also faced with a major challenge
in bringing Lloyd Webber's musical spectacular to life.
How do you stage a musical
where the cast are travelling at up to 40 miles per hour?
We completely reshaped the Apollo Victoria
into a sort of roller derby
and it was completely risk-taking and barking mad.
# Only you
# Have the power within you... #
The design, which was John Napier,
was astonishing piece of engineering.
Really difficult to rehearse,
because the show had almost no flat surfaces at all,
it was all curves up at the back and this magnificent bridge at the top.
We named the bridge the Jeff Shankley Memorial Bridge,
because they hadn't got it settled, and Jeff turned around when skating
and went bang into that thing, nearly knocked himself out.
NEWSREADER: 'Starlight Express
'is the most eagerly awaited production since Cats,
'and a lot of theatrical reputations are riding on its success.'
On opening in March 1984,
those reputations took a bit of a bruising.
The story of toy trains
racing to become the fastest engine in the world
failed to excite the critics.
The reviews for Starlight were what they call mixed.
That's to say, some people thought it wasn't very good
and some people thought it absolutely appalling.
One critic, I remember, wrote,
"It has all the intellectual content of a peanut."
But the answer was, yes, that's exactly right.
We are doing a show fundamentally for young people,
a show that's got a huge amount of fun involved in it,
so there's no apology that it's got a small intellectual content.
# There are dark days ahead When the power goes dead... #
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-80s, 44% of theatre tickets were bought by tourists.
If you're doing a show for the West End,
it behoves you to do a show with terrific music
so that you don't have to understand the words very well.
And that is a serious point -
that, actually, an awful lot of the audience,
after the first year, are not going to have English as a first language.
They have to be moved by romanticism and excitement of the score
and by the lighting and all of the production values.
Actually, for somebody who writes the words,
particularly if you try and write jokes,
it can be very frustrating popping in to see one of your shows
and see the jokes whoosh over the head
of the entirely Japanese stalls.
# Starlight Express Here's your distress... #
The visual excitement of Starlight
helped accelerate the success of the British musical.
The changing West End audience could still be drawn
to less extravagant shows if the music was upbeat enough.
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.
# Any evening, any day
# You'll find us all
# Doing all the Lambeth walk... #
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 an aspiring young comedian.
It just somehow became a show that was very hard to dislike
and very easy to like. It was warm, and it was funny,
and it was delightful, toes tapping,
and it had the killer tune of The Lambeth Walk.
# Every little Lambeth gal
# With her little Lambeth pal
# You'll find 'em all
# Doing the Lambeth walk... #
And so, really, fresh out of university,
couldn't have been luckier.
These cheques started hitting the doormat
that made my eyes wobble and I was never quite the same person again.
# Once you get down Lambeth way
# Every evening, every day
# You'll find us all
# Doing the Lambeth walk, oi! #
In 1937, Me And My Girl never transferred to Broadway
because it was thought too British.
In the era of Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber,
Britishness was no longer a problem
for the powerful American producer Jimmy Nederlander.
The famous Mr Nederlander who owns much of Broadway said...
GRUFFLY: "You know, the thing about a show, it's got to have a heart.
"It's got to have a heart.
"I've seen your show ten times now. It's got fuckin' heart!"
And so because it had "fuckin' heart,"
it seemed suitable for Broadway.
# Me, I'm for the top of the tree
# Just you look on... #
But Nederlander and his co-producer Terry Allen Kramer
still had one major reservation about their transatlantic cousins.
She had it in her head that the British couldn't choreograph
and that only American choreographers knew how to put out a show.
There is this very odd fact that if you get a line of chorus girls
and they kick simultaneously,
an American audience will just wet themselves.
We didn't have one of those because we thought,
"It's a bit cheesy," to be honest. "Where's your line kick?"
I was told that the American producers
wanted to use an American choreographer.
It wasn't all that clear why.
I think they were trying to spare my feelings,
but obviously the two American producers
didn't think it was good enough.
Jimmy Nederlander gave me his wisdom.
He said, "You see, men do not want to go to shows.
"They do not want... Their wives want to go to shows.
"So, we've got to give something that men like.
"They've got to see some ass!"
And I said, "Of course, of course, what was I thinking?"
But there was one other producer on the show -
Noel Gay's son, Richard Armitage.
He refused to allow Gillian
to be replaced with an American choreographer.
You know, we had a very British show
and he knew that, he recognised that.
And if you suddenly bring in an American choreographer
who does razzmatazz, does he understand what this is all about?
Their resolve paid off.
Cats had put British choreography on the Broadway map,
but it was Me And My Girl that became the first British musical
ever to win the Tony Award for choreography.
Can you imagine how I feel
being an English actor holding this on Broadway?
It is quite an extraordinary feeling.
After dominating the post-war musical, Broadway was now in crisis.
With only one home-grown hit in the last five years,
the Americans were becoming increasingly dependent
on hit musicals coming from Britain.
London was becoming the centre of the musical universe,
attracting talent from across Europe,
including two unknown Frenchman,
inspired by a Cameron Mackintosh revival of a British classic.
I went to see that musical
and suddenly I saw on stage the Artful Dodger,
who was fascinating to me,
because from that second I started to think of Gavroche,
who is the young hero from the novel of Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
And he came back to Paris and he said, "Why don't we write
"a kind operatic musical of Les Miserables?"
And after five minutes, I said, "Yes, let's try to do it."
# Quand t'as pas ce que t'aimes Aime ce que tu as... #
In 1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
had kick-started their career with a concept album.
Boublil and Schonberg adopted the same strategy.
# Continuer a vivre. #
The concept album they had done in France was brought to me
and I had a listen to it. And within four tracks of it,
even though it was in French,
I went, "Wow, this is something completely different."
# J'avais reve d'une autre vie
# Mais la vie a tue mes reves... #
I was already a great lover of Oliver! so the period attracted me
and also the social background of it attracted me.
The first phrase Cameron told us was,
"You do not realise what you have written."
# J'avais reve d'une autre vie
# J'avais reve d'une autre vie... #
Mackintosh wanted to adapt the album for the stage,
but only on one condition.
He said, "It must be you. You have to rewrite it."
And that was very bold from his point of view,
because we knew nothing about the tradition of musical theatre.
He said, "This work is so peculiar, that only you can redo it.
"I will introduce you to people helping you to reshape the work."
I think it was Tim Rice who suggested "How about Kretzmer?"
And we were very lucky
that Herbert Kretzmer was free at that moment.
He joined the team and from there on, worked day and night
on all the existing material, obviously,
and on these new songs, which are Stars and Bring Him Home.
# Bring him home
# Bring him home. #
Mackintosh needed the very best director.
Trevor Nunn had not only directed Cats and Starlight Express,
he'd also just completed a major stage adaptation
of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC.
I said, "If I am to work on a show
"which is an adaptation of a hugely famous 19th-century novel...
"..I have to use the same team,
"because I'm going to be using the same techniques."
And, therefore, the show would have to begin life at the RSC.
Where Cats and Starlight had brought dance and spectacle to the musical,
Les Miserables would, for the first time, bring the RSC's expertise
in high drama from the stage direction through to the set design.
The great genius of John Napier's sets is that people think
that they watch an elaborate spectacle
but actually it's very simple. There's nothing on stage at all,
really, until the big barricades come on.
It's all done with sleight of hand
and with moving people around the revolve.
Basically, it's two things that go up and down,
and go round and around, and the rest of the set is just grey walls
that are there the whole evening.
I mean, very sort of...
RSC, National Theatre work
put into the musical.
Working at the RSC also allowed access to all of its
world-renowned acting talent.
Of course, all the actors in the RSC
wanted to play the leading characters.
But your average Shakespearean actor isn't much of a singer.
It's just like opera.
You can forgive somebody for not being a brilliant actor.
If they don't hit the top note at the right moment, you don't forgive them.
So, we had to go outside the company
and cast people who could really sing it.
# A heart full of song
# I'm doing everything all wrong
# Oh, God, for shame
# I do not even know your name
# Dear mademoiselle
# I am lost... #
When we turned up to do the show, half of it wasn't written
and the bits that had been written were far too long.
So, we had this beast
that probably only
Trevor and John could have tamed.
The first preview at the Barbican was three hours and 50 minutes long.
It was WAY too long.
# The very words that they had sung... #
Fortunately, the publicly funded RSC
allowed a longer rehearsal time than a normal West End show.
Every minute would be needed in cutting down a 1,200-page novel
into an evening-sized musical.
God bless him, he's no longer with us, Ian Calvin.
His part kept getting cut and cut and cut
until the only thing he had left to say was,
"Monsieur le Maire, I have no words." HE LAUGHS
He was the funniest guy.
Cos a show like this had never been done before,
so no-one had been in a show like it to be able to compare.
We were up the barricade, banging away with our guns
and he looked at me and went, "I don't know, dear,
"I'm more of a Hello Dolly person, really. Ooh! Ooh!"
As part of the arrangement with Trevor Nunn, the plan was for
the show to open at the RSC's home in the Barbican before transferring
to the West End, but only if the Barbican run was well-received.
The performance ended over an hour ago. The music is very simple,
full of instantly likeable tunes - the audience loved it.
-I thought it was tremendous.
-You enjoyed it?
-Very much indeed.
-Just a wonderful thing.
-One of the best we've ever seen.
The audience may have loved it.
Unfortunately, not everybody felt the same way.
# At the end of the day... #
There is a tradition for Cameron after an opening night,
that the following day, we have always a lunch.
We had bottles of champagne, with Les Miserables labels on,
but nobody wanted to drink it
because we had the reviews in front of us!
People were just...shell-shocked.
For the tabloids, it was not a musical because we had 30 dead bodies
on stage at the end, no tap dance, nothing.
Some of the critics so hated the idea that the RSC should do a musical
that they were almost vindictive. They wanted to hurt us, I think.
No-one was saying it, but it looked like the answer
was going to be, "It's the end of the road".
I thought, I'll get rid of all the bad news at once
and find out what's happening at the box office,
and I eventually got through and they said, "How did you get through?
"We've already sold 5,000 tickets
"and it's the biggest day we've ever had."
I still to this day don't know why it happened so quickly.
He tapped his glass and said, "I've got something to tell you.
"The audience is going wild. I'm going to transfer it."
The theatre is littered with stories like that -
the most revolutionary shows...
simply isn't in the mindset of the movers and shakers
and sometimes, the audience is ahead of...
Well, quite often, the audience is ahead of the critics.
# Do you hear the people sing?
# Lost in the valley of the night... #
On its move to the Palace Theatre, tickets to Les Miserables became
the most sought-after in London, providing another hit for Mackintosh
and much-needed income for a cash-strapped RSC.
It has gone on to play in 37 countries around the world,
been translated into 21 languages
and has celebrated 25 years on the West End stage.
I don't think anybody ever expected Les Mis
to be the massive global success it became.
Why did it work? Because it is musically absolutely thrilling.
It's absolutely believably something that's in the 19th Century
and yet it hits you right in the chest,
it hits you emotionally, as something completely contemporary.
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.
They never date, and they never will date,
because human nature doesn't learn from itself.
# Join in our crusade
# Who will be strong and stand with me?
# Somewhere beyond the barricade
# Is there a world you long to see? #
It's to do with the last number of the show,
directly sung to the audience - Will You Join In Our Crusade?
"Do you want a better tomorrow? Tomorrow comes."
People just used to stand up like, "Yes! Yes, I do believe in that,
"I don't know how it's to be accomplished, but yes!"
THEY HOLD FINAL NOTE
The success of the West End musical
was generating huge amounts of money.
By the end of the decade, Broadway's biggest export
would have earned just £5 million at the box office.
Cats and Les Mis, with their global reach,
would take over three quarters of a billion.
With such vast amounts of money to be made,
others attempted to join the party, but were found wanting.
In April 1986,
the West End witnessed a gamble on the most ambitious show yet.
We were the first high-tech musical in the West End
and it was amazing to me that we didn't at least
receive a good critique for our stage, because it was amazing.
Once again, the designer was John Napier.
There weren't half some good stuff in it, oh yeah.
I mean, we had people floating around,
people didn't know how it happened.
The whole stage lifts up and you realise that it's a spacecraft,
and these platforms pull out, and I remember thinking,
"I'm going to fall off these,"
but in the end, you think, "This must look wonderful from out front."
It broke the boundaries of excess
in almost every department!
Time had broken new ground with its extraordinary sets,
but without the gripping music
and storylines of a Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh show, it failed
to live up to its contemporaries and closed after two years.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's old writing partner Tim Rice
had also found success hard to come by with the musical Blondel.
But when he teamed up with one of the most successful
songwriting duos of the '70s,
it appeared his fortunes might be changing.
As with Evita, Tim had come up with a radical idea.
Both Benny and I were intrigued,
because the backdrop was the Cold War.
And we were, you know, very close to the Soviet Union.
The threat was very tangible from Stockholm,
much more so than from London, I think.
Chess told the story of Russian and American grandmasters,
battling it out against a backdrop of the Cold War -
an ambitious premise for a musical.
The story became convoluted
and I think a lot of people didn't quite get it.
Chess can be pretty terrifying to a lot of people,
just the mention of the word.
One of the problems Chess had
was it is a complicated story, a grown-up story, I like to think.
And really it needs,
at times, subtitles,
because when you get more than three or four people singing,
it's very hard to hear the words.
-# Wasn't it good?
-Oh, so good
-# Wasn't he fine?
-Oh, so fine... #
But on opening, Chess did perform well,
and with the show pulling in the audiences,
Rice, Benny and Bjorn spied a chance to follow in the footsteps
of Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh.
After the show's success in London,
the Broadway production of Chess opened in a blaze of optimism.
Is there a new word on Broadway for success?
But this weekend, after only two months,
Chess is expected to close, killed, it's claimed, by the critics,
who, with one or two notable exceptions,
didn't like what they saw and heard, and said so in savage manner.
A lot of critics were very pissed off with the fact
that the British invasion -
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh -
dominated, you know, the Broadway scene
and he, they... certainly did not like that.
And so, here comes a musical that's from Europe
and very vulnerable and a musical that's easy to kill!
Derided by the critics as "turgid and overblown",
Chess had another problem - its timing.
By the late '80s, a musical set against a backdrop
of the Cold War suddenly seemed horribly out-of-tune.
I think Chess was clobbered by the fact that the Cold War ended.
We kept worrying about what was going to be in the papers and we'd go,
"Oh, my God, terrible news,
"the Berlin Wall's come down, this is awful! This will ruin our show!"
-'And then they forced open another gate and piled through it.'
The bloody Iron Curtain had to come down
and ruin the whole thing for us!
So, it was bad timing.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Chess ultimately failed in its ambitions,
just as another musical with gritty themes was finding its feet again.
# Tell me it's not true... #
On its launch back in '83,
Blood Brothers had struggled to find an audience.
But producer Bill Kenwright thought 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.
We toured for a year, and during that time,
the audience found it.
It started off with very small audiences,
but it built and built and built.
I said, "Willy, can I bring it back into town?" He said, "No. No."
Willy's very... "No." "OK, fine."
So I said, "Can we take it out on tour again?"
The following year, we did another tour.
I think it toured for more than two years me saying,
"No, I don't want it to go back to the West End,
"I don't want to go back to the West End, I don't want to go back..."
And in one sense,
I think I was protecting a rather treasured memory.
We made it much more epic, musically,
than it had ever been before,
but we kept the story small.
It was a real labour of love.
And...the end of the second tour,
I said, "Can we have a go in London? "No."
"Fine, OK, fine." So, we did a third tour.
# Tell me it's not true... #
Finally, on that third tour, Russell sneaked in unannounced
to see the production in Manchester,
and was stunned by the audience reaction.
I sat in the back of the stalls at the Palace Theatre
and saw 2,000 people just go mental for this show.
And I had to accept that it was ridiculous of me to go on denying
a London audience the chance to react the way this Manchester audience did,
because of trying to protect the memory - what a stupid thing to do.
So, I didn't even go back after the interval.
I just called up and said, "Look, take it in".
Blood Brothers would go on to become the third-longest-running musical
in West End history.
The show that had started life as a humble play for schools
had grafted its way back into a London
now dominated by the latest Lloyd Webber-Mackintosh blockbuster.
In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh
reigned over the West End with their international mega-hits.
For their latest phenomenon, Phantom of the Opera,
Lloyd Webber first turned to Starlight lyricist
Richard Stilgoe, before finally settling on a complete unknown.
I remembered a talented young lyricist
that I'd seen earlier at the first Vivian Ellis prize.
I'd never written a professional show.
In fact, I'd never completed an entire musical.
I'd written music and lyrics for about half a musical
which was submitted to a new competition.
So Andrew and I said "All right,"
so we gave him the music of Think Of Me,
and he wrote the lyric, and he wrote Think Of Me and he got the gig.
And I was signing on. I was on the dole, you know.
So, it was a lovely...surprise.
And then the tune, on its own...
The reason Lloyd Webber was so particular about lyrics
was that Phantom was quite literally a labour of love.
# Say you'll share with me
# One love, one lifetime
# Say the word and I will follow you... #
Andrew wrote the Phantom of the Opera for Sarah.
Wonderful thing to be able to say, isn't it,
that somebody wrote such a beautiful show out of love?
# Say you love me
# You know I do... #
Andrew falls in love with a soprano who can sing high D flats,
and the story of Phantom of the Opera
about this young soprano who comes from nowhere
and suddenly becomes famous, I mean, there are obvious resonances in that,
that haven't escaped anybody in the history of the show.
Even though Phantom was written for her,
director Hal Prince wasn't going to take it on Andrew's word alone
that she was the right person to star in it.
I said I'd like her to audition and Andrew said,
"My God, you're not asking the person I wrote it for to audition?"
I said, "Yes," and she auditioned.
# Sing, my angel of music! #
There were some high Es in the score, you know.
Very difficult for any singer to hit a high E,
but Sarah, that was one of her specialities - she could do that.
# Sing for me! #
# Ah! #
With Sarah confirmed, Lloyd Webber next had to cast his phantom.
On earlier musicals, he had avoided star billings.
But for Phantom, he changed tack.
I was in a cafe with Andrew having lunch,
and the soup spoon was on its way to my mouth and he said,
"I have asked Michael Crawford to play the phantom, Gilly."
And it never got to my mouth, the spoon! It went straight back down.
Because like everybody, at that time, when you thought of Michael,
you thought of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.
That was a very shrewd piece of casting
because it attracted a lot of media interest,
it was perfectly logical, because Michael had a lot of experience
of musical theatre already, but was not widely known for it,
so it was a slightly surprising idea,
and because he's such a dedicated worker, you know.
You get your money's worth with Michael.
# Close your eyes
# And let music set you free
# Only then
# Can you belong to me... #
He understood it's a very, very sexual role.
He exudes weird sex in it, slightly dark sex, but you know,
that's all the more perturbing for her
and that makes the story, actually.
# Trust me
# Savour each sensation... #
But he was thrilling to work with, he totally understood that role.
Before we start, bear this in mind.
-The whole first section of this is an opera.
With cast complete,
the task of staging such a massive spectacle as Phantom
proved surprisingly straightforward.
It was one of the easiest shows to put together
that any of us have ever worked on,
I mean, compared with putting Cats together,
for instance, it was a piece of cake.
Hal staged it I think in three weeks, and he only worked mornings.
I worked from ten till one.
BOTH: # Past the point of no return... #
A little girl in the company, a dancer, raised her hand and said,
"I've been delegated to ask you this question."
And I said, "What would it be?"
And she said, "What do you do in the afternoon?"
-What DID you do?
Well, I made a joke, said, "I see Coronation Street,"
but really what I did in the afternoon was wander the West End,
read books, sit in Green Park.
Phantom opened in October 1986
to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
The sumptuous score, fabulous setting
and the celebrity pulling power of Michael Crawford
all combining to ensure that Phantom would go on
to become the most successful musical of all time.
The real cachet Phantom had is that it was pre-booked for a year,
you couldn't buy a ticket,
so it became an incredibly sought-after thing.
So, by the time tickets DID become available,
it had sort of become a self-sustaining entity.
On New Year's Day 1988, Phantom opened on a Broadway
now totally humbled by the new breed of musical coming from the West End.
Andrew Lloyd Webber took on Broadway, returning to it
the kinds of melodies and spectacles it no longer produced for itself.
The story was the same in all the theatres.
Some said if it wasn't for the British,
there wouldn't be any more Broadway.
And it wasn't just Broadway.
Phantom and its ilk have been exported to countries
far beyond the twin centres of London and New York.
From unpromising beginnings at the start of the '80s,
in less than a decade, the West End had conquered the world.
I think it happened to be that all the talent that was really
being invented were all in Britain at that point - as simple as that.
You know, and we happened to all want to do stories
which had a worldwide appeal.
None of us knew that upfront. We were only too grateful
to get through an opening night without being stoned.
Next time on the Story of the Musical,
how the giants of the West End seemed to stumble
and a new kind of musical entered the world of the theatre.
# The heat is on in Saigon... #
"It was vile. There was not one redeeming feature,"
he said, in the whole evening.
I got so incensed, I told them all to bugger off.
We were onto something really, really big.
Producers love bums on seats, the maths is very simple.
# How are you doing there, John? #
# I got the hots for Yvonne
# We should get drunk and get laid since the end is so near
# I tell you, buddy, I've had it
-# I don't want to hear... #
-Get out of here!
# The heat is on in Saigon
# But till they tell me I'm gone I'm gonna buy you a girl! #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
This episode charts how British musical talent in the 1980s stormed the West End with hits like Cats, Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Phantom of the Opera. There are first-hand accounts from the extraordinary individuals whose tenacity and creativity ensured these shows became mega-hits despite often precarious beginnings. And it reveals how the titantic shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh became global phenomena, securing Britain's reputation as the powerhouse of musical theatre.
With contributions from Lord Lloyd Webber, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Sir Tim Rice, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Stephen Fry, Trevor Nunn, Sir Cliff Richard, Elaine Paige, Gillian Lyne, Paul Nicholas, Bonnie Langford, Richard Stilgoe, John Caird, John Napier, Bill Kenwright, Willy Russell, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Anthony Pye-Jeary, Arlene Phillips, Charles Hart, Don Black, Harold Prince and Michael Ball.