West End theatre may not enjoy the most discerning of critical acclaim, but it is in the middle of a boom. The Society for Theatre Research counted 13.5m attendances at West End theatres last year, with ticket revenue of £470m; that amounts to more people than attended a premier league football match, and it was the best year since records began. And two-thirds of those West End theatregoers went not to stage plays, but to musicals. Can 9m people really be wrong, as my scripture teacher used to ask? What is it about musical theatre that makes it so -wildly popular, expensive though it is?
I have wondered very much. For one thing, I have never been to a musical, or hadn't until this last month. Admittedly I went to West Side Story with my mother as a child, but for various reasons I don't count that. Nor did my mother; she would not have dreamt of taking me to what she considered a musical. I admit too that I went to an amateur production of Brigadoon in a garage in Henley-on-Thames as a child, with a former nanny, which hardly counts either. It's furthermore true that I have seen Porgy and Bess in the cinema and The Wizard of Oz on video (several times), and that in a fairly normal life it's also impossible to avoid seeing clips of this and that or hearing various hit songs. We had an au pair who used to play LPs of horrible musicals, like Make Me an Offer, The King and I, Salad Days and South Pacific, all of which I hated. And I went years ago to a production of Hello -Dolly!, which quickly flopped, with some friends who had invested in it; I loathed that too.