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BLOG : Harriet's West End Top Ten - Part 2

Tuesday 19 January 2016

By Harriet Wilson

Out of the various shows that I have seen in London over the last year, I have compiled a 'Top Ten' of my personal favourites. This is Part 2, you can read Part 1 here: Harriet's West End Top Ten: Part 1

5. Miss Saigon

Out of the various shows that I have seen in London this year number 05 is Miss Saigon. Miss Saigon is based on Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, with music written by the legendary Schönberg (also the composer of Les Misérables). Set during the Vietnam war, Miss Saigon follows the heartbreaking story of Kim and Chris, two ill-fated lovers.

The best thing about Miss Saigon is its music. The music is absurdly catchy, stunningly touching and absolutely epic. But the staging on Miss Saigon is also exceptionally impressive: the full-sized helicopter has become an icon of the show. If you like  Schönberg, you will like Miss Saigon. It is, however, one of those shows that you will either love, or not really engage with. I would listen to the music a bit before seeing the show (the music, by the way, grows on you the more you listen to it). The 2014 live recording is particularly good to listen to.

Miss Saigon is very much what you would expect from one of  Schönberg's musicals: addictive; tragic; epic.

Miss Saigon opened in the West End for the first time in 1989 and ended that run in 1999. The show's revival came to London 2014, and ends on the 27th February 2016.

4. The Phantom of the Opera

In my opinion, The Phantom of the Opera is, by far, Lloyd Webber's best musical. It is an epic tale of love, with a little fantasy mixed in, featuring an absolutely breathtaking score.

It felt strange putting The Phantom of the Opera as low as number four in my top ten – this really is a production of epic proportions. From the moment the overture erupts into the theatre, Phantom is spectacular. You'll find yourself holding your breath throughout most of the show. Phantom's biggest downfall is that is doesn't appeal to as many people as other productions might. Whilst I adore the show, I think that it is the sort of thing that a lot of people would struggle to click with. Whilst I am not that keen on the film (I'll come onto that), I would say that watching it before seeing the production is a good way to judge whether or not you're going to be a 'phan'.

The music in Phantom is simply amazing. The beautiful, recurring motifs carry the production along, and some really epic songs bring the production to a whole new level. There are countless CDs from this show: in my opinion, the CD from the Royal Albert Hall 25th Anniversary Performance is a particularly good one, as is the Original London Cast Recording.

The film of Phantom is, in my opinion, a bit flat. The cast seem to lack the powerful, West-End-worthy voices that the score of Phantom requires, and some of the best bits of the show are cut out. As I have already said, however, watching the film can be useful when trying to decide whether or not to see the stage production.
The Royal Albert Hall 25th Anniversary Performance has also been recorded live, and you can buy this on DVD. This live recording surpasses the film in every way. Even so, watching the production live makes even this live recording pale in comparison.

If you haven't seen The Phantom of the Opera, you're only half a Thespian. Phantom is absolutely definitive, and you really must go and see it – if you've already seen it, see it again.

Phantom opened in London in 1986. It is the longest running Broadway musical, and the second longest running West End musical. So don't worry, because Phantom isn't going anywhere.

3. Kinky Boots

Kinky Boots is the most feel-good production that I think I have ever seen. Even now, I am listening to the music and struggling to concentrate on actually writing! The show is based on the true story of two men – one owns a flagging show factory; one needs some more sturdy heels.

A strong part of me wanted to put Kinky Boots at number one in my top ten, but I had to reserve that spot for another show. I cannot speak highly enough of this show. It is simply fantastic. I would happily take any of the people I know to see Kinky Boots: my brother, friends, grandparents … Unless you have no sense of fun at all, you will absolutely love this show. It would be impossible not to.

If you want a taster of Kinky Boots, listen to 'Raise You Up / Just Be'. The music is dangerously addictive, and superbly feel-good. There isn't a UK cast recording yet, but the Original Broadway Cast Recording (despite the questionable British accents) is brilliant.

Kinky Boots premiered in Chicago in 2012, but it is new to London, having opened as recently as August. And yet, nearly everybody who is remotely interested in theatre will have heard about Kinky Boots which, I think, summarises how incredibly popular the production has become, in no time at all.

Honestly, missing this show would be insanity.

2. Wicked

I will forever have a soft spot for Wicked, the production with which my passion for theatre began. But, attempting to put that huge bias to one side, I really do think that Wicked is a production in a league of its own. It has everything: a twist on a well known story; plenty of humour; epic proportions … Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked is really quite spectacular. You can read my review for Wicked here: Wicked: Do Not Miss This Production; Do Not Miss This Cast

I was in a dilemma about where to put Wicked on my Top Ten, but it just had to be second. As I mentioned in my Kinky Boots profile, I had to reserve number one for a particular show, but Wicked was right behind it. Wicked, contrary to popular belief, is not just for young people. Whilst it is based on The Wizard of Oz, the story is a lot more character-led, and I don't really think that there is any reason for children liking this production any more or less than adults. Having said that – if you're a bit of a cynic, you might not be a huge Wicked fan.

I am sure you will have heard of songs such as 'Defying Gravity' already and, if not, the Original Broadway Cast (featuring Idina Menzel as Elphaba) is a great listen. The music in Wicked, composed by Stephen Schwartz, is wonderful, moving from funny, to devastatingly powerful, to tragic.

Wicked really is a must-see. You will find yourself 'under its spell' from the moment 'No-One Mourns the Wicked' starts playing, and you will leave the theatre still in that spell.

Wicked opened in Broadway in 2003, and came to London in 2006. It is still going strong, making it the 10th longest running production in the West End. It is booking all through next year, so you have plenty of chances to catch it.

1. Les Misérables

Les Misérables is beyond epic. I am not sure that I am able to do this show justice – suffice to say, there is a reason for it having been seen by over 70 million people, in 44 different countries. Set during the French revolution, with music by Schönberg, Les Misérables is absolutely legendary.

I have said in a couple of my other profiles that I had to reserve this place at number one for a specific show – that show being Les Misérables. There is something about Les Misérables – maybe it is the scale of it all, or the music, or that moment when a red flag flies on top of a barricade … who knows? It is probably all of them – but, there is something about the show that is so moving, so powerful, that it makes an impression that is impossible to forget. This show broke me before the first act was over.

The only downfall of Les Misérables is that, much like Miss Saigon, it is unlikely to appeal to everybody. With not one spoken sentence in the entire show, Les Misérables is intensely musical. Whilst, for me, this was one of the best things about Les Misérables, people who are not that keen on musicals might find it a bit too much.

As with Miss Saigon, I would say that listening to the music of Les Misérables before going to see it is well worth doing.

The music of Les Misérables never stops. Luckily, it is a stunningly good score. I cannot listen to some of the songs from Les Misérables without getting goosebumps, or tearing up a little. Can anybody? The film of Les Misérables on the other hand, is a bit of a contentious subject. Whilst it does do some things well, and some of the cast members are fabulous (Samantha Barks; Helena Bonhem Carter …) it is pretty dismal when compared to the stage production. That is, if they can even be compared.

Just take my word for it; go and see Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre.

Les Misérables recently celebrated its 30th anniversary; it is, by far, the longest running production in the West End. Surprisingly, the show received a bit of a shaky reception at first, but it began to snowball and, today, has to be one of the most, if not the most, popular production in London.

tags: Classics, West End Favourites, Drama


By Harriet Wilson

Please note: Opinions expressed on the londontheatredirect.com blog are those of the relevant contributors, not of London Theatre Direct Ltd, its owners or staff. London Theatre Direct Ltd is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by contributors.

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