Question: What do Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia and The Lion King have in common?
Answer: Look down, look down.
A perennial story is a creature of the most curious kind. There are a select few narratives that have achieved immortality – some happen on glory by degrees, others procure time. It is they who become timeless,despite having endured countless lives. These rare beasts supersede their roots, whether political, social or historical, to persist as part of the public consciousness.
The West End has seen some such success, with a handful of its productions now part of London’s scenery. There are four that have aged particularly well, their triumphs measured not only in a spectacular turnover at the box office, but by the many nationals and internationals who consistently make that shift from sapien to spectator every day, sometimes twice a day.
Les Miserables, based on the weighty tome by Victor Hugo, is the West End’s longest-running musical. Set at the time of The French Revolution, Hugo’s novel takes as its subject the lives of several key players (ex-convict Jean Valjean, Cosette, Fantine, et al) and their crossing of paths. Les Mis opened on the 8th of October, 1985, and has seen three homes in its 32 years: the Barbican Centre, the Palace Theatre and the Sondheim Theatre (formerly the Queens Theatre). Now reborn by the hand of Cameron Mackintosh, Boubil and Schonberg’s production has long remained one of the world’s most popular musicals.
Its strong themes of social justice, and the deep, emotional and physical scars created as a result of war mean that the story of Les Mis will be forever significant. These elements of the human experience are not contained to any one moment; any one place. Instead, the cries of the French people break the barricades between audience and performer, flooding from its 19thcentury banks and into the present day.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera comes in at a close second. Having opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre on the 9th of October 1986 (where it remains, to this day), Webber’s production is one of Britain’s most iconic pieces of musical theatre. Its titular role has been a canvas for many acting greats – including Michael Crawford as the very first Phantom – whose success opposite Sarah Brightman as Christine saw renown across the globe.
Based on the novel Le Fantôme de L'Opéra by Gaston Leroux, Phantom’s narrative is that of a gothic horror. Its examination of obsession in particular, is what makes this production such a curious and enticing object. As demonstrated by the current explosion of true crime, humanity’s appetite for stories concerning the mysteries of the mind have yet to be sated.
Jukebox musical Mamma Mia! took the Prince Edward Theatre by storm on the 6th of April 1999, before transferring to the Novello in 2012. Taking its shape from hit songs by pop-sensation ABBA, this production whips up a winning combination of sweet and savoury (ratio 2:1), making for a fun-filled, tissue-touting extravaganza.
With the notion of family as its central focus, its plot is universal. Classic concerns around parenthood and the anxieties and beauty of aging too, add to its limitless appeal. Above all, it is the concept of forgiveness that underpins its more colourful areas of performance – an aggressively relatable standpoint that gives Mamma Mia! its emotional weight.
Finally, The Lion King. The production made its home at the Lyceum Theatre on the 19th of October 1999, where it has remained lead tenant ever since. Based on the beloved Disney film of the same name, Simba’s journey to become King of the Pridelands bears a striking resemblance to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Again, ubiquitous motifs surrounding family are what makes this story tick, its preoccupation with the Good Vs Evil complex adding fuel to the fire.
With songs by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice, The Lion King is a musical of the highest pedigree. It is a pure spectacle, its use of puppetry, costume and choreography a feast for every sense. It is little wonder then, that The Lion King is the highest-grossing musical ever to hit the stage.