I’d gladly classify myself as a bit of a theater geek, so I snatched up the chance to see as much theater as possible when I studied in London last fall. In addition to seeing three musicals in my free time, I took a Shakespeare class, which included seeing three plays performed at three different London theaters.
When comparing Broadway and the West End, my winner when it comes to experience would lean towards New York, because I just think it’s on a much grander and faster scale than London. You just can’t get more theater than seeing something on Broadway.
I found London’s theater district more low-key than its American equivalent, which was a common description of London life in my experience. The people I’ve met who do find London overwhelming usually come from smaller towns or cities further away from Manhattan – meanwhile, New York City is what I grew up with, and London almost felt peaceful to me after knowing New York so well. When I was there, a lot of West End shows had Broadway duplicates, so there wasn’t much I had to see because of availability – all of the musicals I ended up seeing were also on Broadway at the time.
However, in the case of Les Miserables, I was thrilled when my program offered free tickets to see it because a YouTuber I follow, Carrie Hope Fletcher, was nearing the end of her run as Eponine in the West End production. Seeing her live and doing what so many of her videos covered was amazing. It had also been a dream of mine to see a professional production of Les Mis, and this did not disappoint. The score reminds me of high school and all of my friends there – my first exposure to the show was in tenth grade when our school drama club performed it, and several of my friends were in the ensemble or stage crew while my best friend and I simultaneously laughed and cried in the audience as everyone onstage died. Seeing the show again and on such an elaborate scale just stirred up so much nostalgia and emotion. The only times I truly got homesick while abroad was when I encountered something I wish I could’ve shared with someone from home, and seeing Les Miserables was definitely one of these moments.
Below is a video of the Les Mis 2015 cast’s West End Live performance, featuring the performers I saw in the actual show:
I’ve read that, even despite the currency conversion, West End tickets can be considerably cheaper than Broadway tickets. Looking back at purchasing my ticket for Wicked, which I had seen in New York a few years earlier, this is totally true. Thanks to a discount site a housemate shared, I found a Wicked balcony seat for only 17 pounds (about $23)! It was great seeing a show I already loved and refreshing my brain with scenes I forgot even existed. The West End cast actually uses their native accents in the show, meaning that instead of American accents, you hear British.
It also seems that, in London, actors stay committed to a musical far longer than they do on Broadway. Below is a video of Emma Hatton, who was the West End’s Elphaba (and the one I saw) for a year and a half after over a year of being the standby. Her primary Glinda, Savannah Stevenson, was in the show for over three years. Even in long-running shows like Wicked, the main cast usually only stays in the production for about a year on Broadway. Maybe the quicker turnover has something to do with the classic New York hustle?
I suppose that because Wicked isn’t based in an actual country, characters can take on the production location’s natural dialect. I also saw The Book of Mormon, which originated in the States and is about American missionaries, and the actors playing Mormons used American accents, which made sense. The show was entertaining, but I was expecting a lot more because of how beloved the show is on Broadway. It could have been because some of the dialogue and lyrics is more explicit than I usually prefer, or maybe some of the original magic was lost in the transition from an American to English stage. Either way, I’m still glad I saw it and killed any curiosity I would have had if I tried to see the Broadway production. Below is the original West End cast’s performance at the 2014 Olivier Awards (with an American actor in the lead role, just saying).
The Shakespeare theater visits were undeniably my favorite parts of the class – I was so lucky to have plenty of interactive experiences in all of my classes and saw so much of London through these opportunities. Within my first few weeks in the UK, our class ventured to Shakespeare’s Globe for a traditional performance of Measure for Measure. We stood in front of the stage the whole time, and I had a spot particularly close to the action.
The performance was actually more interactive than I expected, with performers entering from the back of the house and clearly feeding off the audience’s energy. It also set up a theme evident in all of the other Shakespeare productions I saw – directors love their musical moments, and directors love Shakespeare’s absence of clear stage directions. These are opportunities to interpret a scene, particularly endings, in a new kind of way.
Unique interpretation was a huge element of our second production, The Merchant of Venice performed by the cast of the National Youth Theatre. Although the actors were dressed in traditional Shakespeare garb, the production was quite otherworldly – the scene transitions were done as if this world was a space age, Gatsby-esque party, and some modern references snuck their way into the dialogue. This director also used the ending’s ambiguity to her advantage, even adding an entirely original monologue as the closing speech. Admittedly, I skimmed this play while reading it, so I really didn’t know what to expect while watching, but it turned out to be my favorite of our Shakespeare theater trips.
Last was the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. The National Theatre, located along the Thames, is a gorgeous venue, by the way. This was another performance compiling a contemporary world, fantastical environment, and more musical moments. Its special effects and intricate scenery almost took away from the story (I think I didn’t really read this play beforehand either – that’s my study abroad mentality for you), but I loved the look of everything. The soloist in one of its songs was actually Fra Fee, who played a barricade boy in the Les Mis film.
Seeing Shakespeare performed in London and Les Mis in its birthplace are truthfully some of my favorite study abroad memories. It’s quite weird now hearing about closing West End shows that I’d see advertised on the Tube regularly.
What about you? What are some of your favorite theater experiences?