Last weekend (June 17th – 18th) saw the return of West End LIVE – an annual tradition and the highlight of the stagey calendar for many a musical theatre fan. Seemingly getting bigger and better every year, I wanted to talk about what makes the event so special and so unique in its approach as well as reveal some of the highlights from this years event.
Taking place in the heart of London in the iconic Trafalgar Square – a stage is erected there every year in front of Nelson’s Column (the perfect backdrop for a performance from Mamma Mia!) to entertain 65,000 musical theatre fans. This years event saw hundreds of performers on stage as part of more than 60 shows over the course of 11 packed hours across two days. That either sounds like the most exhausting weekend ever or the greatest weekend ever – both are correct.
I went along for my fifth West End LIVE but just on the Saturday this time around (so expect this recap to be Saturday-heavy as I’ve only seen the Sunday stuff online). Personally, I always love the experience of West End LIVE. Who needs to go to Glastonbury or see Beyonce in concert when I can watch the casts of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Hamilton perform in quick succession?
So what is it that makes the weekend so special and loved by so many? Let me try to explain.
Photo by Pamela Raith
IT IS OPEN TO EVERYONE
One of the most beautiful aspects to West End LIVE is that it costs absolutely nothing to get into. All of the biggest shows in the West End are performing completely for free – and never in all the years the weekend has taken place has a ticket price been included. In an age where tickets for shows are becoming increasingly expensive and a lot of theatre fans are finding themselves priced out, it is open to everyone to attend for free – from the most die-hard theatre obsessives to the casual occasional theatre-goer to the passer-by who has stumbled upon the event by chance and may have never set foot in a theatre in their life. That is the true beauty of West End LIVE – everybody is welcome and everybody is encouraged to have the time of their lives and share the joy of the theatre.
If you were on Twitter over the weekend, you would have surely come across two words – “The queue”. The queue for West End LIVE has become a thing of legend – longer than watching a particularly lengthy Les Miserables full of countless show-stops and reminiscent of that of another queue for a tragic circumstance seen around central London late last year. Let’s get one thing clear – the queue is loooooong and gets longer every year. It begins in the wee small hours of the morning with theatre fans eager to claim their spot on the barrier to cheer on their favourite. This year, the official West End LIVE account tweeted that the queue was going all the way up to Holborn. This led to people questioning it it had perhaps outgrown its space and needed to be moved somewhere bigger?
Photo by Pamela Raith
This is a conversation that keeps coming up and one that has both pros and cons to it. Yes, the event is getting bigger every year but there are other factors to continue. Firstly, its proximity to all the West End theatres allows many shows to perform there quickly then nip down the road (sometimes hilariously in full costume) for their matinee performance. Moving it somewhere like Hyde Park (as I repeatedly see being mentioned on Twitter) would make it that much harder for so many shows to take part. Crucially, one of the most important aspects to West End LIVE is its accessibility aspect that it is open to all. This is only achieved through its location – moving it somewhere bigger would come at a cost and would likely result in charging for tickets which would defeat the purpose of the event. There is the argument to have a ticket ballot to avoid the queues as well but would that exclude many who want to immerse themselves in this weekend?
Ultimately, I don’t have the answer to this and what should happen to it in the future. All I know for sure is the fact there is such an overwhelming demand for this event is fantastic and is a big two fingers up to anyone who claimed theatre wasn’t viable during the pandemic. Who needs to retrain in cyber now, former Prime Minister?
THE COMMUNITY ASPECT
There were several moments during Saturdays West End LIVE where I realised why this event means the world to me. During the audience singing along and going nuts to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ from Jersey Boys and ‘You’ll Be Back’ from Hamilton to the looks of excitement and smiles on everyone’s face throughout (even in the blistering heat) and then after Saturdays performances had all finished and I observed somebody walk up to one of the event organisers to thank them for everything and tell them how special it really was. A sentiment I agree with completely.
There is nothing like being in a room with like-minded theatre lovers. It’s why I love a first night and a last night at the theatre – you find yourself effortlessly bonding with people who share the same passions and ideologies as you. I don’t know about anyone else but I found myself without many people who shared my love for the arts growing up (with one person memorably asking me why I waste my money on the theatre instead of going to the pub). These events make me feel seen, make me feel understood, make me feel found (to quote a show I desperately missed performing there this year). If being in a room with fellow theatre lovers has that impact, imaging what a big outside event can do? Similarly to last months West End Flea Market, the scale of West End LIVE had me almost overcome with emotion at seeing so many people share the moment.
Regularly at West End LIVE, friendships are made with the stranger next to you. People you had never met before could become your new best friend once you discover you both obsess over *insert West End performers name here*. The shared gasps at the opt-ups (I’m looking at YOU, Mr Muscato), the tears, the joy, the laughter, the love. Oh, so much love! One of my favourite things about theatre is the sense of community it brings. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to come across me in a theatre will tell you how much I love talking anyone’s ear off about all things theatre and how I come alive as I dissect the ins and outs of every possible thing related to theatre – hey, it’s how this website was born! I struggle to think of an event which screams theatre community as stunningly as West End LIVE does.
IT SHOWCASES THE TRUE TALENTS OF AN AWE-INSPIRING INDUSTRY
So many shows, so little time. How do you decide what West End show you take the time to see when you have to choose between 30 of them? West End LIVE makes it easier for you by giving you bitesize teases of them all and perhaps helps make that decision easier. To that respect, it can be an expensive weekend as pretty much every show I saw perform on Saturday was followed by me saying “I NEED to see it” (or “I NEED to see it AGAIN”).
The West End is spoilt with so many truly remarkable shows at the moment. Some that have been there for decades, others for mere weeks. Some that may not have even opened yet (more on that shortly). The mix of shows it performs is one of the greatest elements, allowing for musical theatre to play out along dance-oriented shows and even solo performers and groups showcasing their own concerts, past and yet to come.
Another reason why it showcases how talented these total legends truly are is the fact it is not the easiest of stages to perform at – due to the outdoor nature and unpredictability of the area, the sound has never been the clearest with performers over the years commenting how much they struggle to hear themselves. Still, despite these challenges they always pull it off to create more theatre magic.
It also spreads a spotlight on swings and understudies who often go on in main roles and once again prove how they are the lifeblood of the entire industry.
THE UNIQUE PERFORMANCES
West End LIVE is known for treating fans to performances they have never seen before. This year was no exception as it opened its very own Multiverse of Madness with not one but two trios of Heathers performing together, and the Phantom of the Opera being spoilt with two Christines during their performance.
How do you bring your entire set to the stage of Trafalgar Square? You don’t so many of them improvise. The Book of Mormon and The Choir of Man both brought props to recreate scenes from their shows with the latter turning the stage of Trafalgar Square into a pub. Some shows chose to turn up in costumes (Cabaret showing off both Sally Bowles and the Emcee in full outfits) while others perform in show t-shirts. Some recreate their stage choreography, others roam around the stage treating it like a concert. Some perform the songs exactly as they are in the show while others go with the flow and riff like they have never riffed before. The unpredictability of it creates some very special moments you may never see again.
This years most unpredictable moment was Joel Montague in full King Charles III regalia concluding his performance of 'You'll Be Back' from Hamilton to demand the audience look to the sky to see the Royal Air Force's display for the current Kings birthday. The timing couldn't have been better if they tried... and they tried.
IT CHAMPIONS NEW MUSICALS
The fifth and final reason I love West End LIVE so dearly is its commitment to champion new and upcoming musicals. As well as all of the biggest musicals around the West End, many future shows got a chance to share the stage and introduce themselves to audiences who may otherwise have never known about the show. In past years, I myself have fallen in love with shows based on their West End LIVE performances – two years ago I first saw The Choir Of Man knowing nothing about the show. What started as a Susan Boyle audience-member eye-roll (I regret that immensely) immediately won me over and had me obsessed within minutes – an obsession I still have, while Queenz – The Show With Balls had me immediately checking out tour dates to find a time to see it.
This year was no exception. Recently opened shows Glory Ride and A Strange Loop were joined by major West End musicals that haven’t opened yet such as Crazy For You and The Wizard Of Oz. There were also shows due to open later this year including Death Note and The Time Traveller’s Wife and LIZZIE The Musical as well as brand new show Babies which has just finished a workshop (of which I was lucky enough to see) so will have been the first outing for many of the audience members watching it. Admirably, it’s not just London shows that get to perform with the brand new Lavender Theatre in Surrey showing their first offering of Annie Get Your Gun.
The new show that blew me away was The Little Big Things. Not knowing much about the show myself, hearing them perform a number from the show left my jaw on the floor and had me convinced I may have just witnessed a new favourite of mine. Others I spoke to shared that reaction and bought tickets sooner than you could say “It’s the next big thing”.
THIS YEARS HIGHLIGHTS
Even though I only attended one day this year, this was undoubtedly my favourite West End LIVE yet for the reasons mentioned above. While discussions need to be had about how to make the event completely safe while ensuring it remains open to all, it continues to be one of my favourite weekends of the year and I’m already counting down the days to West End LIVE 2024.
Here were my personal top 5 performances from Saturday.
Hang Lucie Jones singing 'I Dreamed A Dream' in the Louvre.
Jamie Muscato singing 'Roxanne' was the moment.
Alexia Khadime and Lucy St Louis - For Good was everything I ever wanted to experience at West End LIVE
THE CAST OF MAMMA MIA!
Can we make her Dame Mazz Murray already please?
THE LITTLE BIG THINGS
The future of musical theatre is looking very exciting!
What were your highlights this year? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.com/ATDazzles