Musical theatre in 2018 is socially relevant and thought-provoking
Raise the roof: Girl from the North Country weaves through the social landscape of 1930s Minnesota
27 MARCH 2018
With three of the musicals running in the West End racking up 23 Olivier Award nominations between them – 2018 is the year of the big-hitting, blockbusting, socially relevant musical
Audiences flock to London’s theatres for entertainment, enjoyment and escape – with a good sprinkling of spectacular on top. Except that over the past year, London’s theatres have opened their stage doors to a trio of musical dramas that reflect the same urgent concerns you’ll see trending on social media or in the news.
Because this is the year of the barnstorming musical addressing issues ripped from today’s headlines. And three of the year’s biggest – each with multiple Olivier Award nominations – are Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo, Girl from the North Country at the Noël Coward, and one of the biggest hits of this – or any – year on both sides of the Atlantic, Hamilton at the Victoria Palace.
Everybody’s Talking… is a fearless, fabulous production, with a score by Dan Gillespie Sells of the Feeling, written by Tom MacRae, and directed by Jonathan Butterell. Based on the 2011 BBC3 documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, it stars John McCrea as Jamie New, a 16-year-old schoolboy living on a Sheffield council estate, who is out, proud and determined to attend his school prom in a frock, high heels and long blonde wig. With his mother Margaret’s support, he wins the day.
The musical’s message of celebration and standing up for who you are has fuelled its success as a joyous and big-hearted crowd-pleaser, as well as also being a superlative piece of LGBT+ storytelling at a time when asserting one’s identity outside social norms has become a personal and political statement.
By the time it transferred from the Old Vic to the West End, Girl from the North Country was already laden with rave reviews and packed houses – and with good reason. Setting 25 of Dylan’s songs drawn from throughout his career – and featuring some hidden gems, not just the anthemic big hitters – writer-director Conor McPherson and musical supervisor Simon Hale brought Dylan’s sung poetry to new audiences. With a superb cast including Shirley Henderson and Ciarán Hinds, Girl from the North Country has won five nominations.
McPherson weaves a Depression-era saga of broken lives, broken families, dashed hopes and twisted lusts centred around the residents of a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s birthplace and the Iron Range source of his poetry). Life here is a theatre of cruelty for the flotsam and jetsam passing through its rooms in search of a dollar and salvation. Intense and intimate, but with the epic reach and depth that Dylan’s songs possess, this is a musical drama that harks back to the age of Steinbeck while speaking of the here and now.
This is the year of the barnstorming musical addressing issues ripped from today’s headlines
So, too, does the biggest hitter of them all, Hamilton, the US sensation, which opened in December. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece about one of America’s Founding Fathers won 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy and Pulitzer. Its groundbreaking score fuses hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B and Broadway, and drives a rich historical narrative that has a lot to say about the way the world is today.
It’s one of those truth-telling, smash-hit musicals where the audience knows the words just as well as the cast. A game-changer in terms of diversity and inclusion, Hamilton has just broken another record as the most nominated show ever at the Olivier Awards, with 13 nominations. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” demands Hamilton’s final chorus. To which the cast and the audience can justifiably reply with gusto: “We do”.