Current Show: Stephen Schwartz's musical Wicked the Musical, telling the 'the untold story of the witches of Oz'
The biggest, and longest running, hit show to play at the Apollo Victoria Theatre - the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe musical Starlight Express - opened in March 1984 and was, at £2.25 million, London's most expensive musical at the time. A musical about trains, with the actors all on roller skates, some 1,000 seats were removed from the theatre to make way for a skate track, constructed with help from a five-ton bridge across the stage, was a quarter of a mile long and the track record, with a skater racing at up to 40 mph, was one minute and 33 seconds! The 33 strong cast was headed by Stephanie Lawrence who explained: "On the first day I saw the set, I froze. Now I'm in control. But we all have a lot of falls. I just try to look graceful when I know I'm going" while Jeffrey Daniel, who played Electra, said about the set that "it was just like being at one of the skateboard parks, where I used to practise. They were cement bowls with almost vertical sides. Racing on the theatre track means watching yourself and everyone else. There's an element of danger in it, which isn't acting." The musical finally closed after 18 years and 7,406 performances in January 2002.
The theatre was then closed for a major refurbishment before the next show opened. Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but featuring music by A R Rahman, lyrics by Don Black and book by Meera Syal, Bombay Dreams opened in June 2002. The idea of producing a Bollywood style musical first came to Webber's mind while in the kitchen watching a Hindu movie on Channel 4: "A particularly good song came on, which I forgot to write down, but I became increasingly interested in contemporary Indian music. A couple of years later I was introduced to Indian film director Shekhar Kapur, who told me dozens of movie musicals are made in India each year, with most of the scores by A R Rahman. My wife Madeleine and I went to see a movie of his and were impressed that the vast cinema was full of people going to see a musical. When Shekhar Kapur organised a trip to Bombay we started to knock out a simple story and asked Rahman if he'd be interested in writing a score for the West End stage. Interestingly, several of the young actors told us not to let their parents know they were auditioning. Doing a musical is not necessarily what Asian parents want for their children, but when they discovered Rahman's involvement it was enough to change their attitude. All the cast are British-born Asians, who tell me they're thrilled to see part of their culture reflected in the theatre." The musical took over two years to write with Don Black - who had previously collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Tell Me On A Sunday, Sunset Boulevard and Aspects Of Love - saying that: "I wouldn't say Bombay Dreams was my greatest challenge because all musicals are hard but it has been different. Whenever Andrew and I were looking for that big ballad, he'd come to me and say: 'I think I've got it. Come and hear it.' But because of his religious and spiritual beliefs, Rahman worked in a totally different way. He never came to me with a tune and asked for my opinion. He'd wait for me to ask: 'Have you done that ballad yet?' Then he'd say he had some ideas and send me an hour's tape. Sadly, I couldn't use a lot of it, but there was usually a gem of about eight bars, which was beautiful, and I would ask him to develop it. Working together was frustratingly slow at times. Rahman would leave the room every so often to pray for 20 minutes but I was impressed with his approach and never tried to influence him. Because of his background and beliefs, his music has a divine quality."
Bombay Dreams enjoyed a two year run and was followed, in July 2004 by the return to the West End of the stage musical adaptation of Saturday Night Fever. Previously seen at the London Palladium in the late 1990s were it enjoyed a 22 month run, the show come back to London following a major regional tour and played for another 20 months here at the Victoria Apollo Theatre before closing in February 2006 when it made way for the transfer from Broadway of the 'Billy Joel Musical' Movin' Out. Featuring choreography of Twyla Tharp set to the songs of Billy Joel to tell the story of a group of friends during the 1960s to 1980s, the 'dansical' had enjoyed a three year run on Broadway, but was sadly unable to replicate this in London were the show closed after just seven weeks in May 2006.
Fortunately the next show here at the Apollo Victoria Theatre - also a transfer from Broadway - has so far proved to be a huge hit. Written by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman and based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked the Musical opened in September 2006. Telling the story of what happened between Glinda the Good and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, before Dorothy showed up in Oz, the musical continues to pack in audiences down to today.