Anything Goes, revived by Kathleen Marshall at the Barbican has enjoyed rave reviewsBarbican/Tristam Kenton

On July 23rd, a revival of the 1934 musical Anything Goes opened at the Barbican Centre in London. For those unaware, the show is a jazzy comedy full of tap-dancing sailors, larger than life characters, and upbeat numbers such as ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ and the title song. It opened to widespread critical acclaim, with many reviews specifically noting the necessity of such a happy, glamorous show after the year and a half we have all experienced.

"Revivals avoid the mammoth task of actually writing a new show"

The theatre industry has suffered even more than most through endless lockdowns and strict government rules. Shows have been forced to shut from just one positive case in the cast or crew. Producers then will be anxious for the first shows back to be as close to a guaranteed hit as possible. You can hardly blame the Barbican for picking the easy option to kickstart proceedings.

Surely revivals are easier to stage than new shows? They avoid the mammoth task of actually writing a new show, going through the workshops and local productions required to get it to the West End. But even beyond this, having so many previous productions to serve as inspiration to those directing, choreography, or starring in a revival is a clear advantage. Those involved can base their interpretations on what did and didn’t work in the past, safe in the knowledge that the songs have been a success before and certainly will be again. This production even boasts Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney, reprising the part she won a Tony for in 2011. The task of staging any musical will always be huge, but with revivals, it might not appear that much imagination or creativity is required.

"Carousal has been a commercial success, with many booking tickets likely out of curiosity as to how the musical has been reimagined"

Yet just a week later, at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, another classic musical was revived with a rather different approach taken. Unlike Anything Goes, Carousel is a drama, with a plot featuring poverty, regret, and domestic abuse. Also, unlike Anything Goes, critical reaction to this production has been rather mixed, largely due to how this revival veers so far from how Carousel has been staged before.

The show makes the decision not to redeem protagonist Billy Bigelow or romanticise the violent relationship between him and Julie Jordan. The set, costumes, and score have also been pared back considerably to match this, given the show a much darker and grittier feel. But despite the mixed reviews, the show has been a commercial success, with many booking tickets likely out of curiosity as to how the musical has been reimagined.

Anything Goes and Carousel demonstrate that classic shows can be revived in a variety of ways, faithfully or radically, to great success or a less certain response. There are still creative decisions to be made, even if it may simply be the decision to the production alone. But despite this, they are still surely the safe option for producers, and with a limited number of West End theatres, each one that is filled with a revival is stopping a new show from making its way into the spotlight.

Back to the Future is the latest film to get the musical treatmentBack to the Future the Musical/Sean Ebsworth Barnes

A quick glance at the West End today suggests that new creations are struggling to be seen. Of the musicals currently or about to start playing in the West End, six are revivals or continuations of long running musicals (I’m counting over ten years as long running, and note that as they are technically not the West End neither Anything Goes nor Carousel count in this number). Four can be considered jukebox musicals, and ten are directly based on films. Looking at the musicals that do not come under one of these categories, many are still based on some pre-existing intellectual property, such as Wicked. There is, of course, no guarantee that a show will succeed simply because it fits into one of these categories.

"Surprises and successes can come from anywhere, and if revivals can continue to delight audiences then there is no reason for them to stop"

But imagine you are a producer, with the choice between funding a project that comes with existing fans, either for the show itself or whatever it is based on, or one that is reliant on positive reviews and the quick creation of a fan base to keep running. In 2016, the Financial Times estimated the weekly running costs of a top musical as £150,000-£250,000. With such risks involved, it is understandable that producers would gravitate towards more familiar shows. And with tickets to West End shows costing an average of around £50, it is understandable that audiences would do the same.

Whether or not the dominance of revivals and adaptations is a problem is a matter of personal interpretation. Having not particularly enjoyed the 80s classic Back to the Future I have no real interest in seeing its musical adaptation, while fans of the film are likely delighted at the chance to see the story in a whole new way. On the flip side, I loved the Jim Steinman/Meatloaf musical Bat out of Hell despite having only a passing knowledge of their discography prior to viewing, and there are many shows of which I am eagerly awaiting a revival.


Mountain View

Striking Out: Comedy after Cambridge

Surprises and successes can come from anywhere, and if revivals can continue to delight audiences as with Anything Goes or offer a new experience as with Carousel, then there is no reason for them to stop. But new, original creations deserve a chance, and I only hope that young talent are not prevented from getting their shows on stage because of this focus on shows seen as more likely to be financially successful. Hopefully, the West End can continue to produce a variety of revivals, adaptations, and original shows, ensuring the theatre can continue to be an industry where, truly, anything goes.