Spotlight on ‘West End Live 2019’!

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  • Sarah Jessica Darley

What is it like to attend ‘West End Live’, and not just watch the performances on YouTube via ‘OfficialLondonTheatre’? This is a question I have asked myself many times over the years, but, as of the 22nd and 23rd of June 2019, I finally have my answer.

Before getting too deep into my thoughts upon attending this amazing event, I must admit that my experience is somewhat filtered from the norm. I was fortunate to have been granted priority access, in the form of a semi-horrendous neon-orange wristband, which allowed me to skip the queues and enter Trafalgar Square before the general public. From scrolling through the #WestEndLIVE hashtag on twitter, I know that (especially on the Saturday) queuing was ridiculous, poorly handled, and often required you to be waiting for upwards of three hours before the gates opened to guarantee a decent spot. Although I am a little guilty that I didn’t have to queue, and was probably infringing upon the view of someone who had, having such a wonderful view of the stage throughout the weekend was something I would never have traded.

As we entered the square – to the speakers blaring ‘Breaking Free’ from High School Musical – the effort and love invested into the event was clear. After all, ‘West End Live’ is a free event hosted by London Theatre and the Mayor of London, although they probably turned a small profit through merchandise sales. Furthermore, every single performance, performer, and presenter was upon the stage with only the incentive of the crowd’s enthusiasm. As if we needed any further proof that ‘West End Live’ is an event born out of a love for live theatre.

On the Saturday, performances were due to start at 11am – with the event allowing entrance from 10am onwards – beginning with the current London Cast of ‘Aladdin’. As we waited to be transported to the “whole new world” of Agrabah, the square became packed with eager fans. However, already, even before the stage was truly set, the sun was already causing issues. There are two different views to take upon the weather we experienced: 1) It was a beautifully sunny and warm day; 2) It was too hot, especially for standing in direct sunlight for upwards of six hours. If I had to name the biggest downside of attending ‘West End Live’ this year, instead of sitting behind my computer and vicariously living through YouTube, it would be the heat. On the Saturday my joy and enthusiasm for the performances quickly shifted to an awareness of how ill-equipped the event was for the weather. At about 3 o’clock – after lasting five hours stood in a single spot under the sun– I finally conceded my prime view to go in search of shade and water.

I had arrived at the event with plenty of sun-cream and water, but still found my preparations lacking. As I escaped the crowd, I began to feel the effects of sunstroke set in. I desperately needed to get out of the sun. However, each of the sponsor Marquees, the only areas other than the stage provided with cover, possessed a long line of people waiting to try their luck at the tombola or have their face-painted. So my mind turned to water, the vendors of which were all located on one side of the square. For approximately 30,000 people, there were only three places to buy water from. This felt a huge design flaw. Especially as the queues of dehydrated people proved the overwhelming need for more, and the extra profit that could have been made had they provided them. Eventually I gave up on my search and ended up having to leave early to find respite inside the National Gallery.

Now that I’ve ran through the bad parts of the Saturday I can turn to the good. The parts that made it all worthwhile and guaranteed my returning the next day. The parts that cannot be captured by a camera, no matter how determined I was to try.

The experience of live theatre upon a festival stage.

There is nothing quite like it. Not even London Theatre’s expert videos, which I do recommend watching if you want to see even a fraction of the brilliance of ‘West End Live’. There is a strange sort of flattening experienced through the recorded performances, the reduction of the crowd to a murmur behind the microphone, the clipping of the day into palatable pieces instead of an overarching extravaganza, the removal of Magic Radio’s presenters stumbling their way through mispronunciations and musical puns.

The festival set up afforded the shows a strange sort of freedom, the chance to decide just how they wanted to present themselves to an audience. The casts came forward in varied states of costuming and setting, working as an ensemble or singing solos, dancing, blocking, performing however they saw fit. Because of this, each ten-minute song selection was given an element of the unexpected, a new perspective for the talent and material of each West End show.

‘Aladdin’ opened the festival, with London’s very own Genie – Trevor Dion Nicholas – comparing their set. Although the cast performed out of costume, its absence was not felt, instead Menken’s iconic score soared unimpeded by the show’s famous theatricality. ‘Aladdin’ tends to be received as a show devoid of individualised performers, taken as an extravagant whole, where the actors are interchangeable without much effect on presentation. However, the stripped back appearance of their ‘West End Live’ set allowed for the current principals (Matthew Croke, Courtney Reed, and Trevor Dion Nicholas, respectively) to establish themselves as individuals, creating the space for their voices to rise above Disney’s classic soundtrack recording. Their performance set the tone for the day, with astounding sweeps of emotions, and the accompaniment of the crowd’s accumulative voices.

Following ‘Aladdin’, we were treated to a performance from the new musical: ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾’ – based on the coming of age story by Sue Townsend. The show had been on the West End for less than a fortnight when they performed. Whereas many of the shows set to perform took the stage with the reassurance of an established fanbase standing within the crowd – the reassurance of thousands of people cheering and singing along – the cast of Adrian Mole had no such reassurances, requiring them to convince us that we should see their show and learn all the songs by heart. Their performance was aching with energy and enthusiasm, brought together brilliantly by one of the most diverse casts to walk the ‘West End Live’ stage. Jumping around to a song proclaiming them to be “just a bit misunderstood” gave the show the immediate likeability and relatability of any good coming-of-age story, suggesting the score to be reminiscent of the Broadway hit ‘13’.

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As well as new Musicals, the ‘West End Stage’ welcomed performances from well-established and well-loved West End staples. ‘Wicked’, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, and ‘Les Misérables’ reminded us all just why they are some of the longest running shows upon the stage – with each showcasing the great depth of emotion and lyrical skill of their respective scores. It was during these performances that the communal love and knowledge of the crowd for the genre of Musical Theatre truly became overwhelming. There are moments I will never forget. The great sigh exhaled by all as the opening bars of ‘For Good’ filled the air. The haunting chorus we provided for the beautiful titular number of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. Or the perfected harmonies of ‘One Day More’ simultaneously shattering and rebuilding our hearts. Never has my belief in the magic of Musical Theatre been so strong as during these moments.

A show I would include within the category of emotionally turbulent and unforgettable with the staples of the genre – if not for its current status as ‘A New Musical’ – is ‘Come from Away’. Performing only two songs from the overwhelming score – ‘Welcome to the Rock’ and ‘Me and the Sky’ – the cast stood in a simple line, wearing their show t-shirts, letting their characters speak through the lyrics alone. As the deafening beat of ‘Welcome to the Rock’ drummed through Trafalgar Square, echoing in my chest, I knew I was instore for something extraordinary. Like many people present, I had listened to the Broadway cast recording many times before – it is one of the few soundtracks that can bring me to tears every single time I listen without fail – and, therefore, thought I knew what to expect. I did not. I am still unsure of how to put into words what I felt listening to their voices, and the voices of so many around me, singing with the strange sort of uplifting sorrow associated with the show. One thing I am certain I can say with no mistakes or regrets is that ‘Come from Away’ is here to stay.

Throughout the day, it became strangely apparent which shows could claim themselves to truly be this year’s stand-out favourites. To a certain degree the top three are unsurprising. All are contemporary shows with pop elements to their scores. All three work fantastically on a festival stage. ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, ‘Waitress’, and (above all others) ‘Six’. The popularity of these shows reflects the atmosphere of the event, which was largely attended by under-35s. They are new, and shiny, and amazing. However, it did leave me a little disheartened to overhear a lacklustre or non-knowledgeable response to revival pieces such as ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, both of which constitute a quintessential element of the genre and legacy of Musical Theatre. Many recognised the songs from the shows, after all, ‘Matchmaker’ and ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ are considered showtune standards and are thus make frequent appearances upon Musical compilation albums. Yet, I feel, the response of the crowd dipped during their performances, perhaps that is more due to the traditional melodies of the music feeling misplaced amongst the tidal wave of contemporary shows?

Layton Williams provided us with a truly joyful and danceable selection of music from the British-bred ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, cementing the show’s standing as a current fan favourite, and Williams’ own perfection in the role of Jamie New. Dancing was definitely on the agenda throughout the day as we also enjoyed performances from the ever popular ‘Mamma Mia’ (now entering its 20th year), the fast-paced ‘Tina – the Musical’, and the new ‘On Your Feet’ (which follows the story and songbook of Emilio and Gloria Estefan). Female-fronted Jukebox Musicals certainly seemed to be one of the flavours of the day, especially as the songs’ externally popular nature placed them as the perfect material for the crowd to sing along to. Nothing quite beats a good showtune-sing-along. The female-fronted Jukebox Musicals didn’t end with ‘Mamma Mia’ however, as the still-as-yet-to-go-on-stage Musical ‘& Juliet’, reworked Bon Jovi and Katy Perry to great effect during their first ever live performance. The brilliant work of ‘& Juliet’s’ marketing team has seen this show rise to popular acclaim before it has even hit stage, a fact emphasised by the twice asked question of “Do you like our t-shirts?” in reference to their ‘#RomeoWho’ branded show-shirts. Proving that the hype is indeed real surrounding this feminist retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, were the ensemble’s jubilant dancing (led by ‘SIX the Musical’s’ Grace Mouat) and Miriam Teak-Lee’s stellar vocals.

Other newbies to the ‘West End Live’ stage, and, indeed the West End, included Off-Broadway Hit ‘The View Upstairs’, ‘The Worst Witch’, and (courtesy of MT Fest 2019) ‘Nerds’ and ‘But I’m a Cheerleader!’. Each of these shows brought something unique to the schedule: representation, magic, humour, and pride. I am hopeful that their presence at the festival, and the viewership of London Theatre’s recordings of their performances, will guarantee our receiving more content as these shows establish themselves in London. Social Media has, over the past five or so years, proved itself to be an invaluable asset in successfully creating a memorable Musical.

In no show is this more evidenced than ‘SIX’ – a show that has made West End history through its popular sing-along performances and allowing of phones and camera’s during their final ‘Mega-Six’ number. The ‘Tudor Queens turned Pop Princesses’ made their World Premier and ‘West End Live’ debut last year and have since then become Social Media sensations – selling out every night at the Arts Theatre. During the ‘West End Live’ weekend, the Queens performed two different sets, one on each day. Their interchanging of songs between Saturday and Sunday set them apart from other repeat shows such as ‘Waitress’, and (although another song was added for the Sunday) ‘& Juliet’. On the Saturday the cast of ‘SIX’ proved themselves worthy of their crowns, and their place amongst Musical giants such as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’. The concert-style format of the show allowed an easy transition from the theatre to festival stage, creating natural space for audience interaction and anthemic music. It was obvious the extent to which ‘SIX’ had struck the right note with the ‘West End Live’ crowd, as any and every audience member asked on candid camera ‘What is your favourite show?’ answered with a resounding “SIX!”

When ‘SIX’ returned to open the Sunday schedule, they returned, much to their fans’ delight, featuring the Alternate Queens: Vicki Manser and Grace Mouat (in addition to having Courtney Stapleton step in the previous day). Watching the stigma of understudies fall away as ‘SIX’ has climbed into the popular Musical Theatre sphere has been one of my true joys of the past year. The warmth of reception each Alternate Queen has received when announced before a scheduled performance has been truly extraordinary – and perfectly emphasised by each actress’s individualised and non-character-dependent costume, which has made distinct the different qualities they bring to each of the Ex-Wives.

If ‘Aladdin’ set the bar high for the following performances on the Saturday, ‘SIX’ succeeded in raising it infinitely more so. Opening with Anne Boleyn’s signature ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’, a song popular for its sugar sweet use or irony and contemporary electric sound, Millie O’Connell gave a stunning performance, accompanied not only by her supremely talented court, but also the potentially overenthusiastic crowd who scream-shouted along with all their might.

The Sunday schedule brought a heavy dose of theatrical diversity to the ‘West End Live’ stage, with performances from ‘Brainiac Live’, ‘Ballet Boyz’, ‘The Illusionists’, ‘Magic Mike Live’ and ‘Yummy’ marking a departure from Musical Theatre. These ventures into the unknown where not unwelcome, allowing all present to realise how compelling a performance can be, even when it doesn’t feature the potential to sing along.

One performance that guaranteed our singing along, however, was ‘The Lion King’. Stepping out of their award-winning costumes and sets, the cast of the Lion King stepped out of their theatre and into the light of day to rapturous applause. It is easy to forget, when performers are draped behind many layers of iconic pageantry, the exceptional level of talent and effort required to pull off such a vocally challenging score. Gugwana Dlamini, and her company’s, rendition of the soul-warming ‘Circle of Life’ is certain to echo in the minds of all who witnessed its gravity, especially as Disney’s new ‘The Lion King’ (I cannot in good conscience term it ‘live-action’) is on the horizon.

Also on the horizon, are two new, and one returning, to the West End Musicals: ‘Brooklyn the Musical’, ‘Falsettos’, and ‘Avenue Q’. Many theatre fans have been awaiting ‘Falsettos’ arrival upon the British shore, and the fact that, despite it being the first ever performance by the cast (as they do not actually start rehearsals until next month), the crowd sang along with vigour to ‘I’m Breaking Down’ – just one example of the comedic lyrical genius found within the heartfelt score. Yet, exceeding even the anticipation for ‘Falsettos’, was the excitement brought to the stage in the form of brightly coloured puppets.

‘Avenue Q’ is unapologetic, irreverent, and hilarious. A popular, if not unconventional, Musical in anyone’s book. The touring cast positively erupted onto the stage with ‘Schadenfreude’ – for those who don’t know Schadenfreude is German for feeling happiness at the misfortune of others – stamping their own mark with perfect comic timing upon the West End. Although to anyone who knows the show’s songbook as well as I do, their set played it rather safe with their song choices (leaving out the very controversial hits ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ and ‘If You Were Gay’), their ten minute slot was packed with all the turbulent highs and lows the comedic show could manage. From the entire day’s roster of songs, Cecily Redman’s beautifully rich ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’ has stayed with me to an unparalleled degree, causing me to revisit the original cast recording in an attempt to recreate her performance myself.

However, the show-stealer of 'West End Live' - if the audience's reaction to her many appearances is anything to go by - was Lucie Jones, who had just that week began her run as Jenna in 'Waitress'. Lucie, especially on the Sunday, seemed hard pushed to leave the stage, performing during a total of four sets. Although the original announcement of her taking over from Kat McPhee as 'Waitress' London's leading lady came with some controversy, in large part due to the announcement being shared with Ashley Roberts assuming the role of Dawn, Lucie guaranteed her rightful place within our hearts and the cast of 'Waitress' with her emotive and skilful versions of 'Bad Idea', 'She Used to Be Mine', and (during her solo performance) 'What Baking Can Do'. The joy Lucie exuded in performing as part of 'West End Live' was tangible every time she cupped her ears and called upon the crowd to sing with her as a smile spread across her lips. Lucie's many performances held fast to the core of 'West End Live' - the love of theatre.

Overall, ‘West End Live’ proved itself to be worth the pain and trouble of travelling and surviving the heat, packing in so many unforgettable performances that my brain has trouble computing the entirety of the event – hence the obvious gaps in my review, for my head has still not quite wrapped itself around the incredible variety of talent and material currently available to view on the West End. To stand in that crowd, to feel myself truly belonging amongst the amassed theatre fans, has reinvigorated my love for the medium of live performance.