What’s your favourite musical?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
To mark the death of Stephen Sondheim, we republish this article celebrating the power of the musical, with three nominations for his work on Company, West Side Story and Follies.
Musical-theatre actress whose credits include Chess, Cats and Evita. She presents a musicals-themed show on BBC Radio 2
“Everyone knows I really wanted to be a professional tennis player, but I was too short! I’m only 4ft 11in. Luckily I could sing, so music became the next thing. At school I had a fantastic singing teacher who put me into a production called The Boy Mozart – it was like Mamma Mia Mozart, all the big hits. I had an aria to sing and I remember thinking, ‘I’ll try and make this more dramatic,’ so I let out a sob and I remember the audience gasped. Afterwards, my parents came to see me and my dad said, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘No, I was acting.’ He said, ‘We think you should go to drama school.’
“That said, I don’t know why I’m in this business, really. I find the attention difficult. When Evita happened in 1978, I was totally unprepared for the fame. I’d always been the one who got to the second or third audition and then didn’t get the part. But the thing about music, and about musical theatre in particular, is if it’s good – and it isn’t always – the music heightens the narrative and moves the story forward. The character is able to show their feelings through the song. I still love so many of the songs I’ve performed, no matter how many times I’ve sung them.”
Le Gateau Chocolat
Actor, opera singer, musical‑theatre performer, cabaret and drag artist
“I was into Wicked way before I saw it. It had a massive cult following and I knew it via its bootleg followers. For a long time I was obsessed with the song ‘Defying Gravity’.
“As a child growing up in Nigeria, I adored The Sound of Music. I grew up on a diet of Julie Andrews – ‘I Have Confidence’ was a seminal song. I believe the purpose of a song in musical theatre is to move us into a hyperreality that can then heighten the narrative. Musicals deliver disaster, hope, peace and the fantastical. Some people turn their noses up at them; I believe it’s a mistake to underestimate their power.”
T-shirt: Jesus Christ Superstar, opened 12 October 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
“I was a bit reclusive as a child. I spent a lot of time with my mum and aunties – not exactly playing football – and I loved Donatella Versace and fashion TV, and I would often go to see musicals with my big sister Sandra, who was 14 years older than me. We would go to the King’s Theatre in Glasgow and the Playhouse in Edinburgh. I loved them. We’d see everything: Cats, Phantom, Evita. I wouldn’t tell the other kids at school – I was different enough already, and even though I had my older sister Tammy, who protected me, I kept my love of musicals to myself.
“It’s an amazing talent to get on stage and be able to sing and perform like that. People take a fashion show for granted but it incorporates so much spectacle and music and style – maybe those early shows led me towards my life now. I’d love to be up on that stage singing and dancing, but it’s something I’d never be able to do. I can’t sing. If I could, I would be Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, which I saw in 1998 when I was 16. I love villains. Who wants to be innocent? Not me!”
Co-founder of Corbin & King, restaurateur to London’s theatre crowd
“As a child I sang competitively. I was a treble, but then my voice broke into a high tenor and I stopped. I only discovered how much I loved the work of Stephen Sondheim while watching a documentary where you see Elaine Stritch belt out her legendary rendition of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’: it had a profound effect on me. And it has accompanied me throughout my adult life.
“For me, Sondheim is the musical equivalent of Tom Stoppard. He speaks to so many different aspects of my life. I sang ‘Sorry-Grateful’ at the wedding of my best friend, the architect Amanda Levete, to Ben Evans in 2007. I was in a difficult period of my own personal life and his words on marriage are just so moving. He articulates it all.”
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Barrister, broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords
“I come from a working-class family in Glasgow, and theatre wasn’t a part of our lives. But the one thing we did listen to on our record player were musicals – we had an LP of South Pacific and we all watched the American films like Singin’ in the Rain on our little black-and-white TV.
“I’ve chosen Billy Elliot because it is a British production. I represented a lot of the miners’ cases in the 1980s when I was a young radical lawyer, and I just love how the show plays with challenging sexual stereotyping and gender. I led the first ever transgender discrimination case in the world, in 1996, and I have always been a feminist, so I love how Billy Elliot challenges the toxic masculinity that is so embedded in that kind of community.
“What is so fabulous about Billy Elliot is that it created a particularly British genre of drama in which really quite hardcore stuff is dealt with in a very digestible way. And I think that’s just great.”
Chris Marcus and Damien Stanton
Co-founders of the Theatre Support Fund
T-shirt: Theatre Support Fund, which raised more than £1m last year for the theatre community. theatresupportfund.co.uk
CM: “The Theatre Support Fund came about during lockdown 2020. We wanted to do something to support our community. Everyone seemed to be doing things like making masks, so we thought we’d make these T-shirts with the words “The Show Must Go On”. Each letter is in the font from every show that had closed. We had initially ordered 600 T-shirts and wondered if anyone would buy them. The day we put a press release out we sold £70,000 of merchandise; we hit the VAT threshold on day two. To date we have sold around 60,000 tees and sent out 85,000 orders to 83 countries around the world.
DS: “We then staged a live show, recorded by the NT Live at The Palace Theatre, featuring numbers from 18 of the biggest musicals in the West End. The money raised was divided between Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s charity Fleabag Support Fund, Acting for Others and the NHS Covid-19 Urgent Appeal. The effort was to raise awareness about the entire theatre community but we focused on musicals because the branding is known around the world. You don’t really remember that with a straight play!”
Model/student, studying English literature at St Andrews University
“West Side Story is so passionate and gritty and high and low and all of that – together with incredible choreography by Jerome Robbins – it just makes you want to dance. The best musicals are so often about tragic stories – West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet transported to 1950s New York. Sweeney Todd is devastatingly gruesome: one minute you’re laughing, the next someone is being fed through a sausage machine.
“The character I’d most like to play is Tallulah from Bugsy Malone. It’s such a clever, dark show and everything is turned upside down by having children play adults. She is so feisty – I absolutely love her.”
Sir Tim Rice
Lyricist: Chess, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Lion King, Aladdin…
“A good musical is like a great poem. Myself and Andrew Lloyd Webber started working together early: we first presented Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as a 15-minute ‘pop cantata’ at Colet Court School in 1968. When it came to Jesus Christ Superstar, no one was interested in doing a show about Jesus, so we put out a two-record box-set album in 1970 and it rocketed to number one in the American charts – we knocked both George Harrison and Carole King off the top. And by the time the show came out, everyone knew it well.
“Inspiration can come from everywhere. Evita came about because I had been an avid stamp collector as a child, and the one for Argentina had a portrait of Eva Perón on it. It was unusual because she wasn’t an official leader of a country. But she stuck in my mind. And Argentina was at the front of the stamp album, so I’d see her image a lot – I could have written a musical about Albania. But years later I heard a radio programme about her and started writing. It was Andrew who said she needed to sing ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’ from a balcony. I knew that song had to be deeply insincere but still sound like she meant it. ‘Don’t cry for me… Why should they?’ She died at 33, like Jesus, so they idolised her.
“I’m wearing a Chess T-shirt. It wasn’t one of my biggest hits but it’s still one of my favourite shows.”
“I learnt Hamilton via Spotify, way before I saw it, because it was so hard to get tickets. My friends and I became obsessed with the album.”
Film and media-studies graduate
“I’ve seen Matilda 10 times, in London and in NYC. It’s a feelgood story, and I find with musicals that the combination of the words and the music makes me get incredibly involved.”
“I’ve acted since I was a kid and was in all the shows at my all-girls school. I played Monsieur Thénardier in a school production of Les Misérables – he’s evil and torments poor Cosette. It was such a hard role!”
T-shirt: Annie, opened 21 April 1977 at the Alvin Theatre (now Neil Simon Theatre), New York
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Martin Charnin
“Annie was the first musical I saw. I could sing it from start to end before I could really talk. The last show I saw was Oklahoma! at Circle In The Square on Broadway just before lockdown. Right now I’m very involved with Hamilton. I sing a lot at home. No shame.”
T-shirt: Follies, opened 4 April 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
“Follies is about a Broadway theatre that is scheduled for demolition, and the showgirls who performed there visiting it along with the ghosts of their former selves. I saw it eight times when it was on at the National. I would love to live in a world where people sing and dance all the time.”
Associate theatre producer
T-shirt: Chicago, opened 3 June 1975, 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre)
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Book now: chicagothemusical.com
“My first memory of going to a musical was to see Anything Goes at the National in 2003. And I went to musical-theatre camp once as a child. Chicago made me want to work in theatre, but loving musicals was not something I’d talk about when I was younger – it was so uncool at school.”
Dr William Rowley
Junior doctor, NHS
T-shirt: A Chorus Line, opened 15 April 1975, at The Public Theatre, New York
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics: Edward Kleban
“I worked for the British Fashion Council for five years but then I went to medical school. I was supposed to graduate in July 2020 but I got an email that March saying, ‘Congratulations, you’re a doctor’, and a few weeks later I was in the ICU at St Thomas’s in the middle of the pandemic.
“I have always loved musicals – they were my first creative passion. I was eight when I first watched a school production of Oliver! and remember thinking, ‘I need to be a part of that!’ Musicals offer sheer escapism. They are about being transported into a world you can be part of. They hit every sense. I still don’t tell people how much I love them. I think people often think they are very uncool. It’s not true.
“The thing I adore about A Chorus Line is that it’s about a group of people who are auditioning to be in a show. Only eight dancers out of the cast of 17 will get cast but we are rooting for them all. They each have a story and they share it with the audience. I know every word of every song.”
Special thanks for merchandise to: Chris Harper at Elliott Harper for Company. Frankie Deakon at Global Marketing Group for Chicago. Ruth Tiffen at Playbill Group for Matilda. Genette Butler at Working Title Films for Billy Elliot. Eduardo Desouza at Creative Goods for Hamilton. Fashion assistants, Aylin Bayhan and Sara Semic