Reinventing the classics

This year’s summer musical, Carousel continues our tradition of reimagining classic musicals. Over the last five years we have put a new spin on some classic pieces.

In 2016 we embarked on an ambitious reinvention of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. First performed in 1971 this was the 45th anniversary of the show and there was a conscious choice to do something fresh and original and leave what had been previously done at the door. The cast worked closely with the creative team to honour the material and gauge the intent of the composers, trying to find strip it all back and find the truth of the music. The results spoke for themselves, with stellar reviews calling it a “feverishly full throttle resurrection of a classic show” (Time Out) and noting that “the Open Air Theatre makes this work soar” (Evening Standard).

This production also bagged Jesus Christ Superstar its first awards, picking up the Radio 2 Best Musical at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and Best Revival at the Olivier Awards. Jesus Christ Superstar returned to the Open Air Theatre, first in 2017 and then, in 2020, as a social distanced concert performance (the first West End production to open during the pandemic). It has also enjoyed runs at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, at the Barbican Centre, and a North American tour runs through until the summer 2022 celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary.

After this Superstar success, the next musical to get a refreshed look was Little Shop of Horrors in 2018. This monstrous musical had begun its life Off-Off Broadway in 1982 and is perhaps best known for the 1986 film adaptation starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene.

For this production, Director Maria Aberg joined with several of the creatives who had worked on Jesus Christ Superstar including Set and Costume Designer Tom Scutt, Music Supervisor Tom Deering and Sound Designer Nick Lidster.

Aberg was conscious of the fact that Little Shop of Horrors had “fossilised into this familiar, friendly chamber musical” and she wanted to re-sharpen its teeth and remind audiences that it is a story which is interesting, spiky and slightly outrageous. A key stroke in this was the casting of the LA drag star Vicky Vox as Audrey II. The sinister plant is usually played by an off stage voice and increasingly large puppets, so the addition of Vox to the show led to a completely different dynamic. It was also the first production to use one of the original songs written for the film ‘Mean Green Mother from Outer Space’.

Once again, the risk paid off in dividends and the show received tremendous reviews. The Mail on Sunday dubbed it “Monstrous good fun.” The Times said “This production is like you’ve never seen it before — gloriously succulent and deliciously sinister”. It also won three WhatsOnStage Awards including Best Musical Revival and Best Set Design.

After these stellar productions came Evita in 2019. The fourth and (so far) final full-show collaboration between Rice and Lloyd Webber is largely regarded as their best. Star director Jamie Lloyd assembled a tremendous creative team including Designer Soutra Gilmour, Choreographer Fabian Aloise and Musical Supervisor Alan Williams.

After an international search for Eva, we found rising American star Samantha Pauly who dazzled audiences and critics alike, being described as “electrifying”, “beguiling and mighty voiced” and “like a spitfire”.

The production was the fastest-selling and highest grossing show in the Open Air Theatre’s history and picked up the Best Musical Revival at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and bagged Lloyd Best Director at both the WhatsOnStage Awards and Critics’ Circle Awards.

Our most recent musical is Carousel. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece was the one Rodgers was proudest of. Time magazine named it the best musical of the 20th Century in 1999. The score is full of gems such as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and the bench scene with ‘If I Loved You’ – considered by Sondheim to be “the singular most important moment in the evolution of contemporary musicals” due to its shifting between music and dialogue.

Carousel’s beautiful score has often distracted from the darker, more difficult aspects of the production – the show’s central plot deals with domestic abuse and protagonist Billy Bigelow is a deeply problematic anti-hero. Director Timothy Sheader wanted to honour and develop the material to speak to an audience today. “If revivals are mere replicas… they are not fulfilling the potential of the material”. Due to the content of the show, this production is highlighting the vital work of the charity Refuge.

Find out more about this production of Carousel