There have been different eras in the West End when one type of show becomes more popular than others. Between the wars the depression had a big impact on audience figures as people simply did not have the money to be able to afford a trip to the theatre.
During this time Shakespeare’s play virtually disappeared from the West End. They main plays that were being performed were by Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and JB Priestly. From 1935 the actor John Gielgud brought the plays back into the West End with his performances in Romeo and Juliet, the Merchant of Venice and Richard III. Noel Coward thrived during the 1930s with his mixture of extravagant musicals, comedies and serious drama. One of his shorter plays “Still Life” was staged in 1936 and would be later expanded into the 1945 film “Brief Encounter”. One of the biggest successes was “Stand UP and Sing”, directed by Jack Buchanan and it was staged at the London Hippodrome in 1931 for 325 performances. “The White Horse Inn” was first performed in Berlin in 1930 and was adapted for the London stage where it was a great hit at the Coliseum where it ran from April 1931 for 651 performances. The show was directed by Erik Charell with a huge cast, including 160 people who appeared on the stage. Another show that ran for over 600 performances was “Waltzes from Vienna”. Directed by Walford Hayden the musical was played at the Alhambra from August 1931. “Casanova” was another lavish production that opened in 1932. Also directed by Erik Charell it ran for 432 performances. After The Second World War the West End theatres re-opened their doors and they were greeted with huge audiences as the new American musicals were making their way across the Atlantic. There were still the traditional plays and comedies, but great writing talents were emerging in the states and a lot of their work was being centred on the musicals.
Cole Porter, George Gershwin and lrving Berlin were two of the leading writers that were producing major musicals. But it was the combination of Hammerstein and Rodgers that really set the musical world alight. Their five most popular musicals were “Oklahoma”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific”, “The King and I” and “The Sound of the Music” were five of their most famous, but in all, their shows won 34 Tonys. The 1950s saw the appearance of Stephen Sondheim the American Lyricist and Composer and many of his works appeared in the West End and proved to be great successes. “West Side Story”, “Sweeny Todd” and “Pacific Overtures” were all great hits in the West End and filled theatre seats for many years.
A British duo that appeared in the 1960s have produced a number of musicals that have headlined in “theatre land” for many years. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice worked together on “Evita”, “Joseph and the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, and “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Since going their separate ways Lloyd Webber has gone on to produce a number of other major hits such as “Cats”, “Starlight Express” and “Sunset Boulevard”. His biggest success came with “Phantom of the Opera” which became the second longest running musical in West End history. The longest running musical in the West End is “Les Miserable” which has run continuously since opening in 1985 at the Barbican. It was originally directed and adapted for the English stage by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and is now playing at the Queens Theatre where the show now has produced well over 10,000 performances since its opening night over 32 years ago. It is the second longest running show in the West End after “The Mousetrap”, which was written by Agatha Christie, and opened in the West End in 1952 and has been running continuously ever since. Over 25,000 performances makes it the longest running play in the world by some distance. Audiences are asked before leaving the theatre at the end of the show not to reveal outcome of the play as the show has a “twisted ending”.
The West End has been home to many of the world’s top plays and musicals.