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London’s musicals: intimate or outsize?

West End musicals now queuing up for American passports shift the focus away from traditional virtues of the genre to goofy pageantry or more modest presentations that treat musicals with an emotional intimacy usually reserved for drama

By Ben Brantley  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LONDON

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Dress ’em to the teeth, or strip ’em down to their skivvies. That’s how London is treating its musicals these days. Broadway producers shopping the West End for souvenir song-and-dance shows to take home will find they come in two sizes: extra-large and loud (like the ear-blasting, eye-scalding Sister Act and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) or stylishly pre-shrunk (the scaled-down revivals of La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music). But it seems safe to say that none of them are going to be the next Billy Elliot.

As the show that dominated the Tony Awards this year, Billy Elliot renewed Broadway’s interest in the British musical. (It had style, it had splash, it had heart, and people even seemed to follow a story told in a rough, regional vernacular.) And since theater producers, like their brethren in Hollywood, tend to keep working a successful mold until it cracks beyond repair, you can expect at least several musicals now in London to cross the Atlantic.

Such prospects go against the longstanding prejudice in the US that while the Britons speak the classics beautifully (their way with Shakespeare, my dear — too divine), they can’t really sell song and dance with a Broadway huckster’s pizazz. (Years ago, when I asked an American theater-critic friend how Catherine Zeta-Jones was in the movie version of Chicago, he said witheringly, “It’s a good English musical performance.”)

But there are no people like show people, of whatever nationality, when it comes to covering blemishes with makeup and bony bodies with padding. The West End musicals now queuing up for American passports shift the focus away from traditional virtues of the genre, like shiver-inducing voices and choreography. The emphasis is instead on goofy pageantry (a long chorus line of nuns or cross-dressed men — take your choice — in increasingly outrageous costumes) or more modest presentations that treat musicals with an emotional intimacy usually reserved for drama.

Broadway’s latest infatuation with the London musical has been evolving for roughly a decade. The mind-bogglingly silly Mamma Mia!, which opened here in 1999 (and on Broadway in 2001), ushered in a flood of mostly lame dancing jukeboxes. And resourcefully low-budget, single-set productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals — John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd and the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Sunday in the Park With George — initiated a less-is-more vogue of snob hits.

Of course, there was a time, 20 years or so ago, when London colonized Broadway with the masterfulness of Queen Victoria’s Foreign Office. That was the era of the lushly scored costume poperetta (The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables), staged like Cecil B. DeMille epics and usually overseen by the Mike Todd-ish producer Cameron Mackintosh.

Such offerings, perfect for the gilded age of Reagan, were part of a diet too rich to be sustained indefinitely, and none of the creators associated with that time ever again scaled those peaks. (The composer Andrew Lloyd Webber these days has been most visible here as a judge on a television reality-show competition for the lead in a West End musical.) Mackintosh, though, has hardly given up and is handsomely represented in the West End this season by a revival of the 1960 musical Oliver!, adapted from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. (To be precise, it is a revival of Mackintosh’s 1994 revival, with a new director, Rupert Goold, replicating and re-tuning the work of its previous director, Sam Mendes.)

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