Is now a golden age for original musicals on the West End?

Is now a golden age for original musicals on the West End?
  • PublishedMay 5, 2024

After a series of successes for musicals with original soundtracks, actors, writers and producers on the West End believe audiences are “ready to take a risk”.

At a time when jukebox musicals dominate London’s West End, some of theatreland’s stars argue the success of original shows is proof “audiences are ready to take a risk”.

From Motown to Michael Jackson, Tina Turner to the Jersey Boys, the past two decades have seen an exponential rise in offerings based around songs most of us will already know the words to.

Back in 1999, the runaway success of staging Mamma Mia! – based on ABBA’s extensive back catalogue – proved to be a game-changer.

It resulted in several investors believing they’d stumbled across a magic formula – the combination of chart hits with nostalgia being an easier sell to a guaranteed audience who like to know what they are getting.

While there’s no escaping their popularity or dominance, they’re not the shows that critics are getting really excited about.

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) is an original offering with brand new music that most people won’t have heard of, yet the millennial rom-com is losing count of the five-star reviews it has picked up within a matter of weeks.

Sam Tutty – who plays Dougal in the two-hander – says writers had to “fight tooth and nail” to bring it into the West End.

The actor, who previously won an Olivier for playing the lead in Dear Evan Hansen, explained: “To be at the place it is now is because they were allowed a foot in the door somewhere along the way.”

Dujonna Gift stars alongside him as Robin in a story that follows how two twentysomething strangers meet ahead of a wedding.

 Sam Tutty, Dougal in Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)

-          (Women)    Dujonna Gift, Robin in Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)
Image:Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift, who star in Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)

“Fringe theatre is kind of where it’s at right now,” she explains, “and supporting and championing these writers to believe that there is space in the market for their work will do great things.”

Gift, who’s previously starred in Hamilton and Motown: The Musical, says: “As someone who has done jukebox musicals before there’s always a market for that but right now… it’s really important that we create the spaces for these new writers.”

The success of Operation Mincemeat is proof of how word of mouth can get just as many punters through the door as casting a pop star.

The musical, which is based on the true story of the secret mission that won Britain World War Two, has extended its run eight times to keep up with demand.

While it recently won Best New Musical at the Oliviers, before writing the hit its creators – sketch troupe SpitLip – had come close to quitting theatre for good.

The cast of Operation Mincemeat. Pic: Matt Crockett
Image:The cast of Operation Mincemeat. Pic: Matt Crockett

“When we first started making theatre you could get grants,” actor and writer Natasha Hodgson tells Sky News.

“It’s just really hard to be a creator without an enormous pot of cash in your bank right now.

“The whole theatre ecosystem is very aware of how difficult it is for theatre makers to get work off the ground, and everyone’s doing everything they can in terms of supporting new work and trying to get commissions over the line, but it is difficult, we have to keep banging the drum of how the arts is in our blood in this country.

“I do think that this show and others like this are proving that actually audiences are ready to take a risk, they’re ready to come and support new stuff.”

While harnessing the power of well-known musical property is more widely considered a safe bet for producers, Two Strangers producer Tim Johanson says it has meant truly original offerings are a harder sell.

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York). Pic: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Image:Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift, on stage in Two Strangers, say it is important for new writers to be supported. Pic: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

“Surprising familiarity is a phrase I’ve heard a lot,” he explains.

“You need to have heard of X, or it’s a stage version of this artist’s work, or it’s this book or film, and all of those can make really great shows.”

But, rather than bring fans of existing musicians into the theatre, Johanson says they appear to be amassing an army of their own.

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) Brinkhoff/Moegenburg From Jayson Mansaray
Image:A scene from Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York). Pic: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

“People have seen the show 15, 16, 17 times already, they’re the ones who are talking about it online and driving other people to come and see it, driving the millions of music streams that we’re heading towards.”

So, while jukebox musicals might be everywhere, Johanson isn’t too worried.

“Operation Mincemeat, Six, those are the two that blazed the trail and genuinely, in my career, this feels like the best time to write new British musicals.”


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