The musical: a phoenix from the flames

Article published on Sept. 5, 2007
Article published on Sept. 5, 2007
With new stories, new audiences and the latest in technology, the musical is back with a bang in Europe’s big cities

During the seventies and the start of the eighties, audience antipathy put theatres across Europe into crisis. As a result, musicals ceased to be profitable, and performing spaces, accustomed to offering music with the shows, had to conform with light opera and cheap, outdated – and not particularly high quality – remakes. Only London was able to keep its tradition of musicals in the Broadway – or rather, West End – style: 'People go to London to see the big musical shows and come to Paris for a good slap-up meal,' claims French producer Jérôme Savary.

A new script

Towards the end of the eighties, a series of innovative shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Starmania and Les Miserables started a new trend: it was a return to spectacle in the Broadway style complete with live orchestra, attracting pop and TV stars. Translated into the language of each country they were performed in, the audience could understand the text and identify more with the 'simple stories and tunes that focussed almost exclusively on romance,' as another French producer, Gérard Louvin, commented knowingly in the French newspaper Libération in 2000. 'Are people supposed to produce a film in their own heads? The ozone layer, traffic problems…these things we leave to rap singers.' Such shows were of course hyped massively in all forms of media.

The truth is that theatre’s relationship with cinema was key to the resurrection of the musical. New productions were aimed at the MTV generation whose visual education was watching videoclips, cartoons and reading comics. Hence the successes of Tintin and the Temple of the Sun in Brussels, Beauty and the Beast in London and The Lion King throughout Europe. What has also assisted the renovation of the industry and its new profitability are the national tours and the licence system, whereby a company acquires a licence to perform a show, and then makes agreement with companies in other countries the better to exploit the product. Thus, shows like The Phantom of the Opera have been seen by 100 million people in twenty years, or Les Miserables, which has been on the road for 27 years.

(Photo: Stage Entertainment)

Clearly, turning towards the silver screen demanded an overhaul of theatres in order to make them suitable for cinematic stage effects, and this has happened in Madrid at the Nuevo Apolo and the Lope de Vega theatres, at the Operettenhaus in Germany’s capital of musicals, Hamburg, and as of this year, at the Mogador Theatre in Paris. In this last case, where The Lion King opens on 4 October, its new proprietor, Dutch production company Stage Entertainment, obtained the neighbouring piece of land to improve the installations. This wasn't just to make seats more comfortable but, in the words of Stéphane Millet, renovation project architect, 'to create genuine entertainments spaces, with bars, open spaces to wander around, all for the price of a ticket priced from 25 to 90 euros (£17 - £61).'

King Stage Entertainment

With a presence in twelve countries, an annual income of 600 million euros and three million spectators a year, it is the Dutch company Stage Entertainment who have best known how to move with the times for the musical, mixing the stage with movie stars. Joop van den Ende, director and founder, along with John de Mool of Endemol Productions, are high-presence TV producers of reality shows like Big Brother and Star Academy. It owns theatres in all the European capital cities (of the eleven theatres for musicals in Hamburg, they own five!) and all the best-known shows: Fame, Cabaret, Cats, Mamma Mia!, Dirty Dancing, Jesus Christ Superstar, Beauty and the Beast, The Three Musketeers, The Lion King, Evita...

Surely it’s no coincidence that many of the participants of Star Academy (the UK's Fame Academy) go on to perform in these shows, as is the case with Edurne, who, since getting to the finals of the Spanish version of the TV show has been in the cast of Peter Pan and Grease. No possible means of selling the show is overlooked: 'When a show is in preview, we place a lot of value on word-of-mouth,' explains Anna Malmquist, of Stage Entertainment. In Paris, the Théâtre du Chatelêt (owned by one of their competitors) gave free tickets to taxi-drivers, hairdressers and hotel consierges to see Cabaret. With the new season around the corner, let the spectacle begin!