Andrew Lloyd Webber Aside: The Best British Musicals to Hit Broadway
Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals represent some of the biggest hits to come to Broadway via Great Britain, where they were created and mounted. Indeed, many London West End transfers with music by Sir ALW have had long runs; The Phantom of the Opera and Cats come to mind. There was a period in the 80’s and early 90’s where Webber was responsible for leading what was termed “The British Invasion”. But the knighted songsmith is not the only Brit to usher in some terrific musicals that found success on Broadway. Today’s column celebrates the best of the non-Webber British musicals to come to Broadway.
Until Andrew Lloyd Webber came on the scene, Oliver! may be the most well-known of all British imports, thanks largely to its Oscar-winning Best Picture adaptation. Based on Charles Dickens’s popular novel Oliver Twist, Lionel Bart wrote the book and score. Though many think of the stage production as an enormous hit, it in fact ran only a solid 774 performances. It did win a Tony Award for Best Score and what a splendid score it is. Songs such as “Where is Love?”, “Consider Yourself”, “Food, Glorious Food”, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, “Reviewing the Situation” and “Who Will Buy?” are among the many lovely songs therein. The story of a sad little orphan looking for a place to call home pulls on the heartstrings and always seems to resonate with audiences.
Stop the World, I Want to Get Off
Though it is seldom revived or talked about these days, Leslie Bricusse’s and Anthony Newley’s Stop the World, I Want to Get Off was an oft-produced musical that started out in London (1961) and was brought to New York in 1962 courtesy of producing giant David Merrick. Newley also starred in the show as Littlechap, sort of an Everyman whose life plays out set against the backdrop of a circus. The score yielded a few hits including “Gonna Build a Mountain”, “Once in a Lifetime” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?”. A film version was released in 1966 by Warner Brothers, and a made-for-TV version starring Sammy Davis, Jr. called Sammy Stops the World preserves the piece.
Playwright Willy Russell (Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita) proved to be an equally compelling composer, lyricist and librettist with his 1983 musical Blood Brothers. A soapy tale about twin brothers separated at birth, who grow up as friends, unaware of their genetic ties, and who eventually find themselves at odds when they fall in love with the same woman, took a decade before it reached Broadway in 1993. Though many regard its New York reception a flop, it ran a healthy 840 performances. It’s pop-folk score is both catchy and melodramatic, with standouts including “Easy Terms”, “Tell Me It’s Not True”, “Long Sunday Afternoon” and “I’m Not Saying A Word.” The musical was an enormous hit in London where a 1988 revival ran from 1988 to 2012.
Currently running on Broadway, but poised to close this January, is the award-winning musical Matilda with a score by Tim Minchin and a book by Dennis Kelly. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, the musical tells the story a little girl with telekinetic powers who is surrounded by many abusive and creepy adults. She uses her love for reading as an escape and eventually builds a reality where she reigns supreme. The musical opened in London’s West End in 2011 and transferred to Broadway in 2013 where it won a handful of Tony Awards. “Revolting Children” may be the most effective song in a pleasing score that isn’t afraid to be dark and mischievous.
The Boy Friend
Sandy Wilson wrote the book, music and lyrics for this charming musical comedy that was a pastiche of the Roaring Twenties, and that is most fondly remembered as the musical that brought Julie Andrews to the American musical stage. Premiering in The West End in 1953, and coming to Broadway in 1954, The Boy Friend proved to be a fizzy and fun musical situation comedy with farcical, comedy of errors elements. Among the memorable songs in the score there is “Won’t You Charleston With Me?”, “I Could Be Happy with You” and the title song. The Boy Friend used to be among one of the most popular musicals performed in high schools throughout the 60s and 70s.
The film Billy Elliot was, in and of itself, a compelling, intimate tale about a little boy with a talent for dancing, growing up in a poor mining community in England. His impoverished family, (thanks to a long mining strike that his father is a part of) combined with the social mores about boys who dance, little Billy Elliot struggles to have his voice heard: He wants nothing more than to take ballet. Take an impassioned tale such as this and turn it over to dynamic pop composer Elton John and lyricist Lee Hall, and the result is heartfelt musical with such passionate songs as “Solidarity”, “Expressing Yourself”, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the penultimate “Electricity”. Opening in the West End in 2005 and transferring to Broadway in 2008, Billy Elliot won a boatload of Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Though it’s derivation and initiation are both of French origin, and the original production opened in Paris (1980), the production of Les Miserables that we would come to love was fine-tuned, shaped and produced at London’s Barbican Theatre, the home of Royal Shakespeare Company. Setting out to create a musical of epic proportions, composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyricist Alain Boublil (adapted into English by Herbert Kretzmer) created a pop opera based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel about the downtrodden and oppressed in early 19th Century France. Les Miserables opened in London in 1985 and continues to run to this very day. The Broadway production opened in 1987, won the Tony for Best Musical, and ran 6,680 performances before shuttering. It has since had two successful Broadway revivals, and it was turned into a hit, Oscar-nominated film. The songs have become commonplace standards in the musical theatre cannon, with standouts including “Bring Him Home”, “On My Own, “Stars” and “I Dreamed a Dream.” It is estimated that Les Miserables is the most-seen musical in the world. Indeed, it has been translated into dozens of languages and productions have toured or been produced all over the world.