The West End has been abuzz since September with the arrival of one mega-musical after another. But amid the Broadway exports (“The Producers”), film-to-stage transcriptions (“Mary Poppins,” “Billy Elliot”), and starry sellouts (Ewan McGregor in “Guys and Dolls”) is a small-scale new tuner carving its own slice of history — “The Big Life.”
The show opened May 23 at the Apollo Theater to generally ecstatic reviews and one astonishing yet accurate claim: The larky account of Caribbean immigrants to London aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948 is also the first-ever homegrown black British musical to reach the West End.
When it hosts black tuners at all, London’s commercial theater prefers African or American entries like “Ain’t Misbehavin,'” “Bubbling Brown Sugar” or “Sikulu.”
Paul Sirett, the show’s writer, is suitably bemused. “Everybody thought somebody else must have done it,” Sirett says of the ground broken by “The Big Life.” “We’ve been importing those black Broadway shows for many, many years, and they’ve camouflaged the fact that we haven’t seen anything on stage that has been indigenously British.”
“The Big Life” preceded its West End run with two separate gigs at the Theater Royal, Stratford East, a 450-seat venue to the east of the capital that specializes in black material and has of late been working particularly hard to give black musical talent a leg up. (The director, composer and choreographer of “The Big Life” are black, while its author and designer are white.)
During the two Stratford engagements, recalls Philip Hedley, who recently stepped down as a.d. after 25 years in the job, “I would get two reactions every time.” The first was from audiences, who would promise to return, bringing ever more people with them, “so two tickets,” says Hedley, “transformed into 10.”
But the other response “universally from West End producers was ‘wonderful show,’ and then they would look at me slightly sideways: ‘But would your audience come into the West End, Philip?’ ” And, notes Hedley wryly, “you know what they mean by ‘your audience.’ ”
The truth is, London doesn’t have the mainstream black theatergoing tradition that exists on Broadway and can make a box office bonanza out of, say, Sean Combs in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Says “Big Life” director Clint Dyer: “The (London) commercial sector never trusted that the black audience would make them money.”
It’s not clear yet that they will, but the omens look good. The audience for “Big Life” has so far been roughly 50% black, whereas “Five Guys Named Moe” — the long-running tuner that originated at Stratford East — “got about half a percentage point of black people,” says Hedley, during its three-year West End stand.
“The Big Life” opened within weeks of the West End’s first-ever black British play, “Elmina’s Kitchen,” which closed July 23. Not that author/actor Kwame Kwei-Armah is disappointed. “I’m exhausted,” he told Variety, sounding quite upbeat. “We really only planned eight weeks, and we’ll have done 14. It achieved what it needed to achieve.”
But whereas that play tells a grim story set in the “murder mile” area of East London’s Hackney, “Big Life” folds its occasionally harsh glimpse at English racism into the larger context of a feel-good, uptempo ska tuner, which makes up in exuberance and vitality what it may lack in sophistication. (“Dreamgirls,” this is not.)
Both shows reached the West End courtesy of impresario Bill Kenwright, who says neither production was about making money but about the work. “What’s important is that when these two are gone, there are other (black shows) to follow.”
“The Big Life” cost £300,000 ($520,000) to mount, says Hedley, who has an associate producer credit on the show, and it breaks even at 60% in the 750-seat Apollo — more if heavily discounted.
And though sales have dropped in the wake of the city’s July 7 terror attacks, the feeling is that the box office should right itself certainly by Sept. 7, when kids are back in school. (It is booking until November.)
“There’s colossal educational interest in this show,” Hedley says of the tuner, which draws from Shakespeare’s account in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” of four noblemen required to forego the fairer sex for three years in order to pursue their studies. But upon arrival in “Inglan’,” as they call it, the men promptly fall for the femmes who share their boarding house.
Says author Sirett: ” ‘The Big Life’ was always going to take a dip at this particular moment because it’s the end of a lot of ticket deals .”
What of “The Big Life” abroad? Hedley, for one, hopes those busily assessing the international potential of “Billy Elliot — The Musical,” which opened earlier the same month, will spare a thought for “The Big Life.” After all, he laughs, “the Caribbean is closer to the States than Newcastle.”