If you were to pitch some of the most famous musicals on the planet right now, from Hamilton and Les Miserables to The Lion King, to someone who had never heard on them, you’d have to try really hard not to make them sound a little bit bizarre.
How would you like to go see a musical about the founding fathers of America told via rap music? That would probably sound crazy even if you were from the US and studied this history at school. What about a musical about the French Revolution, but specifically the part that failed? Can you imagine if producers only funded musicals in which the subject matter related closely to the audience? Musical theatre has never been formulaic in the slightest and the idea that you can create a hit musical by responding to “gaps in the market” often doesn’t work.
A case in point is Viva Forever; as jukebox musicals flourished on stage, producers began to look for things that hadn’t been done yet. Unlike other shows, a musical about a young girl and her band with the music of the Spice Girls sounds fantastic on paper but flopped spectacularly when it actually got in front of audiences. It doesn’t matter if there’s a large group of people who will be interested in the premise of the show or if you throw millions of pounds at it, it will never amount to a hit on its own. What you really need is a whole lot of heart and soul poured into a project and for the main focus to be on the actual show rather than the profit it might make or whether there is a target audience. If the show is good, people will come. That’s the only formula you can count on in the West End and it’s worked like that for decades.
Although many see big musicals as products to be created for profit, theatre is still a creative industry, one that won’t always respond to supply and demand but will respond to inspiration or passion. Try not to think too hard about what the public wants and just create something unique, nobody asked for a musical purely about cats but we’re so grateful for that creative risk being taken. A musical about Mormonism doesn’t exactly scream “profitable” but the result is so clever and funny that you wonder why nobody thought of it before.
The West End is such a jumble of all different types of musicals, it’s so rare that we see two musicals that are even remotely similar on stage at the same time and that’s what makes it such a vibrant and exciting place. If the West End was like Hollywood where we see the same type of films being made over and over again because that’s what “sells” it wouldn’t be as amazing as it currently is. I love that we can see such a varied range of productions that don’t exist because they fit into a gap in the market; they exist because someone felt strongly enough that there was a story to be told.
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