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Bio-Musicals

© Manuel Harlan / Craig Sugden

The Reign of the Bio-Musicals

Tom Hayden Millward

By Tom Hayden Millward First Published 22 October 2021, Last Updated 28 October 2021

This week marked the official opening of the latest biographical musical (or ‘bio-musical,’ if you will) to hit the West End stage. Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical celebrated its press night at the Lyric Theatre on 20 October with critics praising the reggae-infused production as “a joyful night out that also feels like an important cultural event” (Evening Standard) and “a brilliant show that gives Bob Marley back his bite” (The Telegraph).

In addition, my colleague Richard and I took a trip to the beautiful Theatre Royal in Newcastle yesterday to check out the next bio-musical gearing up for its own West End premiere. The Drifters Girl tells the little-known story behind the much-loved American vocal group (with its revolving door of members) and their pioneering female manager, Faye Treadwell. The jukebox tuner, which boasts such standards as “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Saturday Night at the Movies,” is set to begin performances at the Garrick Theatre on 4 November.

Ever since the phenomenal success of Jersey Boys, bringing the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to life on stage, debuting on Broadway back in 2005, the bio-musical has gained more and more momentum in the realm of commercial theatre. The popularity and instant recognition of established pop hits twinned with the curiosity to peak behind-the-scenes of the making of the world’s most famous stars has, on the whole, proved a winning formula for producers. Arguably, it’s also a formula that entices the general, non-theatregoing public to a musical for the very first time.

So, in light of this ever-growing trend, we thought we’d take a closer look at the current bio-musicals on offer in London’s West End, as well as the plethora of projects in development for both sides of the Atlantic…

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical

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Three-time Olivier Award nominee Arinzé Kene takes on the titular role and gives a performance of a lifetime in this brand new musical which follows the trials and tribulations of the reggae legend and Jamaica’s favourite son, Bob Marley. Opening directly in the West End is always considered a bold move, but one that has certainly paid off, judging from the positive audience reactions we’ve experienced so far. Indeed, on the night we attended, the entire audience was up dancing long before the curtain call. The show itself is a unique, cultural experience that presents Bob Marley’s iconic back catalogue in both the classic, musical theatre-style of narrative progression alongside concert setting and recording session depictions. It also explores the more complicated elements of Marley’s polygamous love life and doesn’t shy away from themes of violence and corruption, which fuelled Jamaican politics at the time, alongside an assassination attempt on the musician himself.

Why not get up, stand up and head down to the Lyric Theatre to experience Arinzé’s tour-de-force performance for yourself?

The Drifters Girl

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It’s always a joy to see Beverley Knight, the Queen of British Soul, treading the boards and this time she is portraying a non-fictional character by the name of Faye Treadwell. A true, but sadly underappreciated pioneer, she defiantly made waves in a male-dominated music industry as the manager of the iconic African-American vocal group known as The Drifters. She defended herself both in the workplace and even in a court of law and helped bring the group’s beloved songs (no matter who was a part of said group at that time) to their masses of fans on both sides of the pond. Under the direction of Jonathan Church, Beverley not only stars in the production but was fully involved in the creative process alongside her uber-talented cast mates, Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Tarinn Callender and Olivier Award winners Adam J. Bernard and Matt Henry.

Will you be Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Garrick Theatre when performances begin on 4 November?

Jersey Boys

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The newly renovated and refurbished Trafalgar Theatre reopened its doors this past summer with the West End return of the bio-musical sensation that is Jersey Boys. Winning ‘Best New Musical’ at the Olivier Awards in 2009, the production proved not only its own merit but also that the genre of jukebox musicals can garner just as much critical acclaim as their more traditional counterparts. Telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons through humble beginnings in New Jersey to the dizzying heights of the 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the show delivers such classics as “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” just to name a few.

If you still are yet to see this musical sensation, we are Beggin’ you to right that wrong immediately!

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical

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Tina, the 2018 bio-musical that tells the story of the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is still going strong at the Aldwych Theatre, headlined by the incredible Aisha Jawando in the titular role with outstanding support from Jammy Kasongo as Ike Turner. Audiences follow a young Anna Mae Bullock from the cotton fields of Nutbush, Tennessee, via her involvement and creation of the Tina Turner persona in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and all its resulting hardships of domestic violence, to finally breaking out as a solo artist, enjoying global domination despite the ageism and racism she faced within the music industry. From “River Deep Mountain High” and “Proud Mary” to “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” the show boasts an embarrassment of musical riches that merge naturally with the narrative and create a must-see event for Tina fans from across the globe.

Is Tina simply “The Best” bio-musical in town? Why not find out for yourself…

On the Horizon…

The popular trend of bio-musicals isn’t showing any signs of slowing down from what we can see. Alongside the four West End productions we have just highlighted, Broadway is set to welcome the world premiere of MJ: The Musical from 6 December 2021, which shines a spotlight once again on the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. This will join the popular 2019 Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, who were, of course, a staple of the Motown era. And speaking of Motown, The Four Tops are also getting the bio-musical treatment with a production set to debut in Detroit (where else?) before reportedly heading to New York for the 2022-23 Broadway season. The group famously enjoyed a kind of sibling rivalry with their Motown brethren, The Temptations, and perhaps therefore weren’t to be outdone by the success of Ain’t Too Proud.

But the buck doesn’t stop there. It was recently announced that West End heavyweight-producer Sonia Friedman has joined the team bringing a bio-musical about Whitney Houston to the stage, and Sinatra: The Musical was announced to be in development way back in 2018. In addition, Leicester seems to be the place to be, when it comes to bio-musicals, as the Curve Theatre is set to premiere The Osmonds: A New Musical from 3 February 2022, a new production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical just three weeks later, on 28 February, and the UK premiere of The Cher Show on 15 April, all ahead of extensive UK and Ireland tours.

So, the future is bright and brimming with classics from the pop charts thanks to theatres across the globe getting set to bring the music industry’s most illustrious stars to life for years and years to come…

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Tagged:
aldwych theatre Garrick Theatre Get Up Stand Up The Bob Marley Story jersey boys jukebox lyric theatre musicals the drifters girl tina - the tina turner musical Trafalgar Theatre

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