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Photograph: Ed Miles
Photograph: Ed Miles

This is what the return of the West End means to its stars

The big cancelled musicals of 2020 have finally all opened on the London stage. The people behind them talk about a tough 18 months with (hopefully) a happy ending

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Last year was set to be a big one for musicals in London: Disney’s Broadway smash ‘Frozen’ was going to jostle for pole position with a new stage version of ‘Back to the Future’; and a major Bob Marley musical would round the year off. None of it happened, and the people working on the shows were left in an 18-month limbo, in many cases with no income. But as we head into winter, the West End is back. And the recent opening of ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ means the class of 2020 are finally all with us. Here, casts and creatives reflect on the most tumultuous period in London theatre since the interregnum.

Photograph: Ed Miles
Photograph: Ed Miles

‘It was the not knowing that terrified us’

The musical version of ‘Frozen’ was poised to be the biggest London show of 2020. Then – sadly for would-be Olaf Craig Gallivan – the theatres shut

I found out I’d got the job as Olaf in February 2020. I think I did six rounds of auditions. My wife and I had just had a baby boy. So it was a special year knowing ‘Frozen’ was down the tracks to take care of us as a family… then we went into lockdown.

It was the not knowing that terrified us. At the start of lockdown everyone thought it was going to be a six-month thing, and then it got kicked down the road until the following February, then we got kicked down the road again – to where we are now.

Turning up for rehearsals on day one, it was bizarre because we all felt like we all knew each other. Even though we’d only met each other on Zoom.

I’m very much the embodiment of Olaf. He’s a puppet that I control, but I am visible the whole time. It’s not like I’m in black and trying to be ‘I’m not here! I’m not here!’

As an actor, you’re told to do your own thing. That’s great on paper. But children want to see the Olaf they have watched a thousand times on Disney+. It’s a huge responsibility and I’ve tried to get it right: it’s down to the voice, mainly.

Of course there’s singing along!Let It Go’ is one of the biggest songs of the last ten years, end of.

There’s a lot to be said for being stuck in our houses for a year. Some people who booked early dates have had their tickets moved two or three times. So when that curtain goes up, they’re already going wild.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Booking until Jun 26 2022.

Photograph: Ed Miles
Photograph: Ed Miles

‘Having Bob Marley in the West End is massive for Black people’

‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ was pieced together during the pandemic and Gabrielle Brooks, who plays Rita Marley, wondered if it would ever happen.

My very first audition was in the middle of last year, in the thick of everything. It was a pretty difficult time: the world had stopped, the industry had stopped, but they were convinced ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ was going to happen in January 2021.

Eventually we got the message it was being pushed back. It wasn’t shocking, because so many other shows were being pushed back. But it was a big thing, for all involved, that this passion project might not happen at all.

It was frustrating too because it seemed like society was becoming more socially conscious during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and this felt like such an important musical.

One of the things many people don’t realise about Bob Marley is the influence of women in his life: Rita Marley was as much a visionary as he was – they would critique music together, and she introduced him to Rastafarianism. She was his rock, his confidante, his first love, his best friend and, in a lot of ways, his musical partner.

I was given the chance to speak to Rita. Unfortunately she is quite unwell, but I had a small interaction with her on Zoom which was so lovely. That was one of the best experiences of my life, getting to talk to a character I was going to play.

Having Bob Marley in the West End is massive for Black people. His messages spoke so much of Black liberation, equity and love. That’s why it’s huge for us to have him in a place that doesn’t normally welcome us. It’s a risk we’re taking, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Lyric Theatre. Booking until April 3 2022.

Photograph: Ed Miles
Photograph: Ed Miles

‘When I saw the clock tower getting hit by lightning I got goosebumps’

Back in 1985, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’s time-travelling movie ‘Back to the Future’ became a smash hit. Now – after a tortuous gestation – they’ve turned it into a West End musical

Everyone told us: it takes a really long time to get a musical off the ground. The idea came in 2005, and we started seriously working on it in spring 2006: 15 and a half years ago! And from the moment we had the idea for the first movie to the moment when the third movie came out, that was a little less than ten years. It’s crazy.

The original film script was rejected more than 40 times. People didn’t understand it. People were not comfortable with time travel.

With the musical, we were adapting a really successful movie. Nonetheless, producers would say, ‘It won’t work on the stage. It’s too complicated. You guys don’t know what you’re doing.’ I have to give a lot of credit to Glenn Ballard, who co-wrote the songs [with Alan Silvestri]. He was the most persistent of the four of us in saying ‘No, no, this is too good. We have to get this made.’

The DeLorean had to go at 88 miles an hour. People would say to us ‘How are you going to do that?’ We said ‘We don’t know! Hire the best people you can and figure it out.’ And we did it!

The first time I saw the clock tower getting hit by lightning I got goosebumps. We always had faith that we would emerge from the pandemic. The show opened in Manchester last year but had to close down. But we had such a warm, enthusiastic reception that the only reason it wouldn’t come back would be if musical theatre as a whole didn’t come back.

Everyone in the UK is a fan of ‘Back to the Future’, right? I think you used to run it on TV every Boxing Day? It’s one of the reasons we absolutely had to open the show here. I came over in 2014 for Secret Cinema presents ‘Back to the Future’… Oh my God, it blew me away.

Adelphi Theatre. Booking until Jul 3 2022.

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