Each month we are asking a theatre blogger to write an exclusive article for London Theatre Direct. First up is Olivia Edmonds who, as well as being a full-time English teacher, runs theatre blog ‘Thoughts of a Blue Eyed Girl’
Not only does Olivia write articles about her theatre trips and opinions on various theatre-related matters, but she also interviews some of her favourite West End stars. She has kindly written an article for London Theatre Direct about her three favourite West End shows…
"You've seen that show HOW many times?"
It's a conversation that occurs about every 6 weeks (or so) in my household.
As a teacher and a self confessed theatre geek, I always try to use school holidays to get away from the stress and tension of work by spending a few days in my home away from home, London's West End.
But it's when it comes to booking my tickets and which shows I will see, that the question and shock arises as I happily announce to my family that I will be seeing a West End show that I have seen before (on numerous occasions!) yet again.
Their response? "But why? You've seen that show HOW many times?"
And it made me wonder - why do people go back and see the same shows over and over again? Is it to show support for a certain performer? Is it the magic of the story? The enchanting music? The special effects? Or just because it makes you smile?
As theatregoers we are very blessed to have such a rich and varied industry that appeals to so many different tastes. From the new musicals looking to break down barriers such as "The Light Princess", the huge Broadway imports such as "The Book of Mormon", the concert-esque spectaculars such as "Thriller Live" or modern takes on classic stories such as "A Midsummer Nights Dream" - there is something out there for most people's tastes!
But for me, there are 3 shows that have that special something - that little touch of magic that keeps me coming back again and again: "The Phantom of the Opera", "Les Miserables" and "ONCE - A New Musical".
The stage of a Parisian Opera House. An auction of props, posters and costumes. A Persian monkey, playing a very familiar song. A reconstructed Chandelier. Welcome to the "strange case" of The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber's epic tale of love, power and freedom has been wowing audiences at Her Majesty's Theatre for over 28 years and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
The touching story of a young ballet girl, Christine, who is taught to sing by the mysterious and unseen Angel of Music, who she believes has been sent by her late father to guide her through life. What Christine does not know, is that her "Angel" is really The Phantom - a deformed composer and maestro living beneath the Opera House, who hides in the shadows and only longs for someone to show him love and tenderness. Add into this mix a suave and debonair Vicomte, Raoul, who is determined to rekindle his childhood love for Christine and protect her from this Angel, as well as a host of larger than life characters who have to deal with the Phantom in their own ways, you have one of the most enchanting and emotional stories ever to be brought to the West End stage.
There are so many things that stand out to me when it comes to my love for Phantom. I was first introduced to this show many years ago when my parents, after a weekend away, bought me a black t-shirt adorned with a white mask from "the show they'd been to see". From that day, this mysterious story has always intrigued me. However it wasn't until August 2011 that I saw the show live in London for the very first time - and I still remember every moment of that special day as if it was only yesterday. The stunning atmosphere that hits you as soon as you step into the Auditorium, the majestic scenery and props that are used throughout the show - where else can you find an elephant, a Gondola and a Chandelier all on the same stage? - and the most enchanting variety of songs that you will have ever heard! After seeing this show so many times, those songs still give me goosebumps without fail!
However, I feel that the beauty of the story and the way it is performed by such amazing casts is one of the biggest reasons that I love this show. As an audience member, you become totally invested in the story and lives of the characters on stage in front of you. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, be prepared for an outpouring of emotions every step of the way - from both the cast and the audience! I am very proud to say that, including the recent UK tour, since that fateful day in August 2011, I have seen "Phantom of the Opera" 19 times - with my 20th visit already booked for the end of the month - and, as this show has such a special place in my heart, I don't plan on slowing anytime soon!!
The same can be said for the legendary "Les Miserables" which continues to wow audiences at the Queen's Theatre. Based on Victor Hugo's original novel, the musical tells the story of Jean Valjean - a convict who is freed on parole from the chain gang after many years by the cunning Inspector Javert. After a chance encounter with a Bishop, who shows him how good people can be, he goes on a journey of self discovery, aiming to make his life the best it can be. However, Javert follows him every step of the way, and as they encounter stories of love, passion, despair and treachery, their paths cross on more than one occasion.
My introduction to "Les Miserables" was also in part due to my parents! (They have such good taste!) After a visit to see the show in September 2011 which had been arranged to coincide with Alfie Boe's run in the show, I remember their exact words when I asked them what they thought!
"You know how we always told you that Phantom was the best thing we'd ever seen? Well, this was better!"
That's quite an endorsement coming from them! And in January 2012 I got to see for myself what they meant. I had booked a visit to see the show based on a particular cast member - Ramin Karimloo. Ramin was best known to me as having been The Phantom in the show’s 25th Anniversary celebrations the previous year. I had also been to one of Ramin's solo concerts, not long after it had been announced that he would be taking over from Alfie Boe in Les Miserables - where he sang "Bring Him Home", one of the best known songs from the show. And I was blown away! I had never heard a song performed with such beauty, passion and raw emotion - and I knew I had to see him in this show!
There was a true hidden blessing to buying this ticket though, other than seeing Ramin perform live - which was beyond amazing, by the way! That night in January 2012 that I will never forget also introduced me to an array of phenomenally talented performers - including Hadley Fraser, Craig Mather, Lisa Anne Wood, Adam Linstead, Alexia Khadime and Cameron Blakely -amongst many others, that I would never have come across if I had not gone to see the show - and for that I am so thankful! Despite many cast changes since then the talent has kept on coming, with names like Tam Mutu, Geronimo Rauch (who is now at Phantom of the Opera), Rob Houchen, Carrie Fletcher, Celinde Schoenmaker and Wendy Ferguson making these classic roles their own. Put these stunning performers together with some of the most enchanting and heart wrenching songs you have ever heard (I defy anyone not to be brought to tears at the inspirational "One Day More") and you cannot fail to be moved to the very deepest part of your soul by this timeless story. My current visit count to Les Miserables is 11 - and yet again I am very pleased to say visit number 12 isn't far off - and I'm sure visits 13, 14 and 15 won't be far behind either!
Finally - something very different. For someone like me whose musical heart belongs to such legendary, large scale shows such as Phantom and Les Miserables, I was probably more surprised than anyone when my heart was won over by a musical that revels in its simplistic beauty.
ONCE has had a very different journey to the West End. Starting its life as a film, featuring an Oscar winning song, ONCE opened on Broadway to a phenomenal response and won every award going. It was THE show that everyone was talking about - but it was one I had NEVER heard of!
When it was announced that the show would be transferring to London, as part of a conversation with a very good Aussie friend of mine, I shared the fact that I knew nothing about the show, and well - you would have thought by her reaction I had just given her the most shocking news ever! She was stunned - but was adamant that I had to at least listen to the soundtrack and that when I did, I would be totally hooked! And you know what? She was exactly right!
Then the night came when I was to see the show for the very first time! With only knowledge of the soundtrack to help me, I entered the auditorium and I was surprised by what greeted me. An old Irish pub, people buying drinks, and a group of musicians playing a range of Irish and Czech folk songs. There was no doubt in my mind - this was going to be something very different.
What followed in the next 2 and a half hours was one of the most beautiful pieces of theatre I have ever seen in my life. One guy, one girl - joined together by their stories of pain, heartache and the need to start again, all through their combined love of music. It sounds so simple - almost too simple - but it is that simplicity that makes it so enchanting.
A special mention must be made to the Ensemble cast members, who not only play their individual parts so beautifully, but also act as musicians/stage hands/prop managers/dressers - they are one of most unique features of this show. The undeniable breath-taking talent on display, both from the Ensemble and the phenomenal leads Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cveitsic, is enough to warm the heart of even the hardest soul - and to look around at the shows finale and see how many people are in floods of tears is a testament to how much people can relate to this story. After first seeing it in April this year, I am heading back for my 8th visit to the show very soon for this very reason - the show is so beautifully simple, that it is simply beautiful. A must see for any visitor to London's West End.
Whether it is the stunning stories that pull at your heart-strings, imaginative scenery and props that leave you speechless, the most enchanting music you have ever heard or the most breath-taking performances by the best talent you have ever seen, there is always going to be something that will pull you back to certain shows. And no matter how many times you visit, if it makes you smile and brings you joy, surely that is the most important thing, right? At least that's my excuse anyway!
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