West End musicals are such a success with tourists that you could expect them to capture the essence of British culture. And yet, the one that was voted Best New Musical at the 2011 Olivier Awards is Legally Blonde, a theatre adaptation of an American teen movie that tells the story of Elle Woods, a Californian sorority girl who works her way into Harvard Law School. Of course, the musical first made its debut in Broadway, West End’s cousin from overseas. And these two seem to have more and more in common.
Some of the most popular West End musicals were in fact directly imported from the US. One of the most glaring examples is probably Wicked, which became an all-time Broadway favourite three years before making it to the UK. Then you have Shrek: this adaptation of a DreamWorks movie seems to be making a triumphant West End debut, symbolized by a giant green “S” on top of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Of course, some West End musicals are still as British as a cup of tea. Matilda, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic, premiered on the West End a month ago. And then there is Billy Elliott, which in addition to its main plot tells the story of striking coal miners during the Thatcher ministry– on top of that, Sir Elton John himself composed the music.
The Broadway stage also has Elton John to thank for the music of one of its greatest hits of all times, The Lion King. So, sorry, William Shakespeare, but to be or not to be British, that may not be the question. The West End and Broadway form a small world of their own, and actors keep shuttling between the two: in November 2011, former Ugly Betty star America Ferrera joined Chicago’s London cast as Roxie Hart for eight weeks.
Still, some British traditions are here to last: musicals enthusiasts like to buy their tickets from one of the dozen booths in Leicester Square. And in order to do that, they usually have to stand in a queue. Now, how more British could it get?
Legally Blonde poster from Musical Avenue