Musical Virgins

Continuing our 'Top 5 Musicals...' series, Anna considers shows to take a musical virgin to.

The first musical I ever saw was Oliver! It was directed by my grandmother and starred my best friend's mum as Nancy and my uncle as her murderous husband Bill Sykes. To break Bill’s fall when he gets shot dead on the rooftops, a scaffold covered in mattresses hid behind the raised set and my favourite memory of the show is jumping off the set during rehearsals (aged only 4) on to these mattresses and thinking, 'Oliver is fun!' 

It didn't matter that on stage my uncle had to ‘kill’ my best pal's mum every night as my mum, playing Bet, looked on screaming 'Nancy!!' with great aplomb; I knew she wasn't really dead from sitting in on rehearsals and I also knew, from the mattresses, that my uncle didn't really fall off the set to his death every night. Instead, Oliver! was all about great stage effects and I considered myself at home (see what I did there...) with musical theatre.

It's fitting then that a few years later the first West End musical I saw was also Oliver! in Cameron Mackintosh's 1994 revival at the Palladium. I still have my Oliver! mug from that maiden voyage to the West End and clearly remember aspects of Sam Mendes' direction almost 20 years on. Both productions made a lasting impression on me and are why Oliver! sits proudly in my Top Five Musicals to take a First Timer to.

By 'first timer' I mean a musical virgin; whether it's you or a friend, relative or tourist who  is seeking advice on what show to see, then this Top 5 is a good place to start...

1. Oliver! 

There’s a fair chance that even a musical first timer will recognise one of the songs from Oliver! by the time they settle down to see this show or, failing that, they may know the plot from Dickens’ novel. Having enchanted me as a wee bairn, this show will make children wish they were part of Fagin’s gang and adults glad that, in spite of being in the depths of a recession, things really are better for us in modern day Britain. 

A common choice for amateur companies, if you can’t find an Oliver! near you, then be sure to check out the Christmas production at the Sheffield Crucible later this year. 

The cast of Oliver! from the recent London production. Source:

2. We Will Rock You

I'm not usually a fan of ‘juke box’ shows where you go in knowing the songs, but it's a PR dream to be able to sell a show that way (heck, it’s how we sell all our choir shows - see our What's On page for details of our upcoming concert Abracadabra featuring songs by Meat Loaf, Rihanna and more...!), but WWRY's neon-lit stage and farcical book set in the future to the music of Queen makes for a great introduction to musical theatre if people are seeking the familiar.

We Will Rock You is currently playing at London’s Dominion Theatre with ticket prices starting at £16.25 (standing)

3. Matilda

In my opinion, Matilda is the best musical currently playing in London so has to make the list. The familiar story will surely encourage any skeptical first timers, while the Tim Minchin score will hopefully persuade the ‘anti-musical brigade’ and the label of the RSC as producers will provide the assurance any more ‘traditional’ theatre-goers might need. This is the only show I’ve ever left the theatre wishing I’d written, and it’s the sort of show you want to keep going back to see. There really is something for everyone in this musical masterpiece.

Matilda is booking at the Cambridge Theatre where it’ll probably stay forever, at least I hope it does...

4. Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber is synonymous with musical theatre in this country, so I couldn’t really miss him off this list and there is no better show to sweep you up in the grandeur of the musical than his fine music for Phantom. With its soaring score, masquerade, love triangle and of course (spoiler alert) the falling chandelier, it’s a show which hasn’t tired after 25 years and still manages to wow audiences across the world. While the theatre is often packed with tourists and school parties, go on a quiet evening early in the week and enjoy...

To buy tickets for Phantom, visit the show’s website

5. Showstoppers: the Musical

This suggestion might seem a bit out of left field, but I went to see Showstoppers last night (which is currently playing at the Udderbelly Festival on London's Southbank) and it occurred to me that the improvised musical is a great introduction to musical theatre for any novice. The idea is that the audience shout out a setting, title and musical style(s) for a show which a troupe of actors then improvise before your eyes, book, music, lyrics and all! While much of its humour is based on sending up musical theatre and pastiching styles off the cuff, the show I watched last night was, on the audience's suggestion, set in Bedlam, featured a score of Sondheim, Disney and Gilbert & Sullivan style music and, erm, Ella Fitzgerald ... For a whistle-stop tour of all things musical theatre, this is actually a really good place to start and will certainly keep you entertained.

The cast of 'Showstoppers'. Source:

Showstoppers... is booking at Udderbelly on Sunday evenings ‘til July 14th before making a return to the Edinburgh Festival in August.

- Anna