2020 was not a good year for theatre. It was set to be but a certain something shut it down in March of that year. Whilst some theatres reopened with reduced capacity, the November and December-January lockdowns quickly shut them down – again.
This made the return of West End LIVE – a showcase of what British theatres have to offer – a triumphant, theatrical affair.
Spread out over two days, West End LIVE is essentially a music(al) festival for theatre lovers – without the booze, the pills, the mud, and the tents (and the death).
This year’s event was hosted by Ruthie Henshall, Emma B, Tom Price and Sonali Shah.
This was our first time attending West End LIVE, after years of wanting to go. How special for our first time to be this time?
The event opened with a beautiful performance by The Prince of Egypt, with a Christine Allado solo, a duet between Moses and Rameses, and then an ensemble performance of the Grammy-winning song ‘When You Believe’. Jay went to see The Prince of Egypt that evening so this was a great preview.
The second performance of the day came from Disney’s Frozen, which was obviously lots of fun – but we were disappointed when the set finished without an appearance from musical theatre icon Samantha Barks (who plays Elsa and is best known for playing Cosette in the film adaptation of Les Mis).
We left West End Live thinking not about what Frozen brought to the event, but rather what it lacked – its star. This prevented Frozen from being ‘second the best’. Sorry – we just could not let it go…
Next up was Wicked. Read that either way, and it makes sense. That’s all.
Come From Away, which won Best Musical at the Tonys and Best New Musical at the Oliviers, was next. The ensemble-lead cast gave a wonderful performance that excellently encapsulated the heartwarming message and nature of the show.
I went to see this show a few years back because there was nothing else I fancied seeing. I just knew that it wasn’t going to be my thing, but by the end of the show, I was crying.
Whilst we were all excited to see Carrie Hope Fletcher in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, the performance was underwhelming. We later found out that there were technical issues, but the performance was just a bit disappointing in general – not what you’d expect from the two theatre icons.
I’ve seen several ALW musicals, and I saw Carrie in The Addams Family – this did not live up to what I’ve seen in the past.
Cinderella might have been racing to get to the ball – but we’re in no rush to see her do it.
Lunchtime treated us to some phenomenal musicals – West End Live had to get them out of the way before Saturday matinees began.
First came Hamilton. Do I need to say anymore?
‘The Schuyler Sisters’ was particularly exciting for Jay, who was donning an “Include Women in the Sequel” t-shirt.
It sucked that ‘Burn’ was not performed but that song, albeit a tour de force, might not have been the right tone for such a fun, feel-good event.
Olivia and her boyfriend, Dave, had already been super excited to see Hamilton. This preview made them restless!
The mood was then brought right down – intentionally and succinctly – by the gorgeous and gothic The Phantom of the Opera, which featured the first Black actress to play Christine in the West End. That might have been the most exciting part of the set because although all of the performances were incredible, West End Live did them dirty by making them perform right after Hamilton.
Two more Cameron Mackintosh musicals followed: Disney’s Mary Poppins, starring Zizzi Strallen and Charlie Stemp (who gave a wonderfully camp performance) and Les Misérables, which exuded the same power as Come From Away and Hamilton.
Les Mis finished their set with one of the best performances of the weekend: the casts of Phantom and Mary Poppins joined them for ‘One Day More’, changing the lyric to ‘One Show More’ – as they had previously done on Britain’s Got Talent. It was beautiful, moving and cathartic.
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical was given the brutal task of trying to live up to that performance. The upbeat, well-known songs were a nice change from the miserable ones that preceded it; the whole audience was singing along and dancing (in our limited personal space).
Tina is a very different musical to Les Mis, both stylistically and in terms of tone, which kept us from making too many comparisons.
Another jukebox musical was up next – Jersey Boys, based on the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Whilst we needed a rest after Tina, we could not stand still when the Boys took to the stage.
Next up was another jukebox musical – Mamma Mia! turned us amateur dancers into Dancing Queens with their set of ABBA bangers.
We finally got to rest our feet when The Book Of Mormon took to the stage. Our mouths, however, were not taken pity on – instead of singing along to well-known songs, we simply choked on laughter.
Dreamgirls was an absolute dream, with its timeless tunes (inspired by the music of Diana Ross and the Supremes, of course). ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ was every bit the attention-stealer we thought it would be.
We can’t wait to catch Dreamgirls on its first ever UK tour next year – even though the musical premiered on Broadway 30 years ago and opened on the West End five years ago!
The English National Opera then gave their first performance of HMS Pinafore, but by this point, we were all on the floor, eating and resting. We liked what we were hearing, however!
Olivia and Dave stood up for Magic Goes Wrong, which they had caught at the Lowry not so long before. This was followed by Ben Stock’s West End Sing-A-Long and Ferris & Milnes.
The mood was then brought up again by Choir of Man, a new musical based on a group of 9 male friends who form a pub choir. They sing pop songs that everyone will recognise and have a real working pub on stage. This impressed Olivia and her boyfriend, Dave, so much that they then booked tickets to see it for when it opens at the Arts Theatre at the end of October.
Doctor Who: Time Fracture was one of the maddest things we’ve ever seen, and brand new musical Vanara treated us to beautiful songs. The musical has recently released production shots; if they’d been wearing these costumes at West End Live, I’d have been much more excited!
The musical stars Jacob Fowler – a member of band Since September along with former University of Manchester student (and Jay’s friend) Patrick Ralphson, who The Mancunion interviewed earlier this year.
Love Islands‘ Amber Davies, who recently shocked audiences with her sheer talent in 9 to 5 the Musical, was the next notable star. She’s starring in Bring It On The Musical with Olympian gymnast Louis Smith, MBE – who unfortunately was not present, although Jay was lucky enough to see him in Rip It Up The 70s a while back.
We were then treated to another new musical – What’s New Pussycat? – a jukebox musical with the songs of Welsh singer Sir Tom Jones (though not based on his life). Instead, the musical is based on Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. But, wait, it gets better – the setting is updated to 1960s London!
This was followed by (yet) another jukebox musical, & Juliet – a retelling of Romeo and Juliet which uses the music of esteemed songwriter Max Martin.
Whilst this is one of Jay and Olivia’s favourite musicals – Jay even interviewed the main cast prior to its world premiere in Manchester – their performance of West End Live was underwhelming. It just didn’t have the energy that one expects from & Juliet.
The penultimate and final performances were up there with Hamilton regarding audience reception.
Dear Evan Hansen, though not my cup of tea, is a huge hit with critics and audiences alike – this audience included. The songs, the lyrics, the vocals, the presence – I could not fault it one bit.
The final performance was Six, of course – the musical of our generation.
The cast performed ‘Ex-Wives’ and ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’ with great gravitas and so much sass to whoops, cheers and stellar applause from the audience. It was a phenomenal end to a thrilling day – wonderful weather, cool company, and perfect (well, mostly, but a few just pretty good) performances.
Sunday had another incredible line-up.
The day started slightly later at 12:00PM. We decided to queue from 10:30AM because of the queues on Saturday – thankfully, they were significantly shorter.
After waiting for what felt like forever, the countdown finally started and The Lion King was introduced as the first act to take the stage. Whilst queueing, people had been given Lion King flags, which created a lovely atmosphere close to the stage.
Following on from this was Pretty Woman the Musical, with Aimie Atkinson, known for her role as Catherine Howard in Six the Musical, taking the stage solo to a wonderful reception.
It was then announced that Back to the Future the Musical – which was supposed to be opening the event – was not going to be performing because the show had shut down due to a cast member contracting an illness, which we can presume was COVID-19.
Jay was one of the lucky few members of press to be involved with promo for the world premiere of Back to the Future in Manchester. The musical was forced shut days after opening so it was disappointing not to get to see it at West End Live; this musical just can’t escape the bad luck.
Following on from this announcement, there were two relatively new musicals: Amélie the Musical, based on the film of the same name – which Jay reviewed a while back, his first review as Theatre Editor – and Pippin, which was incredible in terms of costumes and stage presence but unfortunately was let down due to sound errors. It was difficult to hear what some of the actors were singing.
Matilda the Musical then took to the stage with the actor playing Matilda singing solo to a fully packed Trafalgar Square without even seeming nervous.
The English National Opera then performed their new limited run show of Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera H.M.S Pinafore, starring Les Dennis, who to Olivia’s surprise has a very impressive voice.
This was the show’s second performance at West End Live 2021, having performed the day before.
After this, a new musical based on the book of the same name by Kate Pankhurst took to the stage: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World.
This show was bright, bold and had a very powerful message, telling the stories of women in history through the power of song. We felt that it had a Six the Musical vibe (and later found out that it has the same producers) with the theme of female empowerment. However, we felt that the show is aimed at a younger audience.
Six was up next – yes, it was there both days; the musical is just that popular!
Performing ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’ and ‘Six’, they definitely had the crowd in the palm of their hand. Despite the rain, everyone was still taking part in their dance moves and singing along.
Following this, Jay had to leave to go and watch Pretty Woman. It was so nice to get a preview of the musical earlier in the day – just like The Prince of Egypt the day prior.
Roles We’ll Never Play followed on from Six. This musical is great because it gives the actors a chance to showcase their voices without being limited to a specific gender role.
They used their time slot really well since almost the entire cast that was on stage got a chance to sing a snippet of one of their songs.
The Barricade Boys were up next, and although we had never previously heard of them, it was their fifth time performing at West End Live.
They sang an array of songs ranging from famous musicals such as Les Mis to pop songs by the likes of Queen, ensuring that their upcoming 2022 tour has a bit that everyone will enjoy.
Olivia really loved this performance; she felt that it had a Jersey Boys vibe.
Best of British Pop was then announced, which was performed by the London Cabaret Club. The musical features songs that everyone knows and loves, from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to ‘Tragedy’.
Children of Eden 30th Anniversary Concert followed, with a star-studded line-up, including Alice Fearn. This concert played in London for one night only.
After a string of musicals, we finally had a play take to the stage: The Great Gatsby. This seemed really immersive, with the cast encouraging the audience in Trafalgar Square to learn how to Charleston with them, in order to feel like a part of the society at the time it was set.
At this point, it felt like the atmosphere had somewhat died in Trafalgar Square. A fun, energetic performance was needed to lift the crowd again.
The Choir of Man was just that. Like Six, it got to treat West End Live audiences on both days.
Queenz – The Show with Balls was up next, which is a musical featuring five drag queens singing popular songs that everyone recognised.
This show had a really positive LGBTQ+ message: everyone is a queen, and everyone is equal. Definitely one to see when they go on tour in 2022.
Mark Read then took the stage to perform his single ‘Stop the Show’, which focused on the theme that COVID-19 was not going to close down shows or stop actors from doing what they love.
After this came MTFestUK2021, which was a chance to showcase new musicals that are in the production stage. Most of them seemed to be in workshop form, but they had some very powerful singers that really showcased the potential of these up-and-coming shows.
The Last 5 Years, which followed, was great. The actors told the audience that there is a piano on stage as part of their set up.
After this, it was time for the last three acts of an awesome weekend of theatre. Kicking it off was Rock of Ages, starring Kevin from Grimsby as most Strictly Come Dancing fans will recognise.
Taking a new spin on the film, this touring production was filled with classic rock songs and big numbers. They also offered a discount code to the West End Live crowd, which allowed them to get £10 off selected seats.
Olivia and Dave soon caught this in the theatre. They loved it (unlike fellow Mancunion Theatre writer Aayush Chadha).
Following on from this was Magic Mike Live, which was introduced by comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan, who happened to be watching from the covered guest stand that day.
The preview saw 5 men take to the stage to strut their stuff for approximately 5 minutes. Safe to say, it was very well-received!
Finishing off the weekend was Heathers, which opened with the songs ‘Freeze Your Brain’ and ‘Seventeen’.
Subsequently, the introduction to ‘Candy Store’ was played. The tour Heathers were joined by the Heathers from the recently closed West End production, which received an amazing reaction from the crowd.
It seemed that Heathers really knew how to end the weekend with a bang, with a speech by Jodie Steele following this song about how amazing the weekend has been and how awesome it is for actors and audiences that theatre is finally back in its West End home.
Olivia and Dave had previously caught Heathers in the West End, and whilst Jay missed it at West End Live, he got to review it in Manchester – and gave it a glowing review.
Overall, this weekend was everything we had expected it to be yet so much more, and we would definitely recommend it to anyone who is in London for next years’ event!