January 27: The BBC’s celebration of musical theatre The Greatest Show is missing some of Britain’s greatest

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This week, starting on Friday, Radio 2 Celebrates Musicals is a three-day offering of programmes that will include playing songs from musical theatre and film across the entirety of the day from 5am to 7pm on Friday (January 29), and the broadcast of a concert, from the stage of London’s single most iconic variety venue the London Palladium, called Musicals: the Greatest Show, on Sunday (January 31).

Sheridan Smith, seen on that stage as the narrator in the 2019 revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — that was due to have had another summer run last year that was cancelled by Covid but is currently scheduled to run this summer instead — will host the latter as a 90 minute broadcast on BBC Radio 2, which will also be filmed and released as a 75 minute show on BBC1 and BBC iPlayer in February.

This will include the results of a listener vote to discover the nation’s favourite song from a musical that will be announced by Elaine Paige, whose weekly two-hour Sunday afternoon Radio 2 show Elaine Paige on Sunday has been a staple for musical theatre fans since it was launched in 2004, and attracts two million listeners a week. It has also, since June 2019, been streamed via Broadway.com, giving it a global reach.

As a much-beloved star of musical theatre, Paige — born Elaine Bickerstaff — has certainly served her dues: three years ago, she marked the 50th anniversary of her West End debut in the original London company of Hair, at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1968. Four years earlier, in 1964, she’d made her professional debut in a UK tour of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd.

So it was a good 14 years before Paige would become an “overnight star” when she originated the title role in the West End premiere of Evita in 1978, via appearances in an appropriately short-lived musical about premature ejaculation called Maybe That’s Your Problem (that marked the inauspicious theatrical lyric writing debut of Don Black, running for just 18 performances at the Roundhouse in 1971, above left) and the original production of Billy (based on the play Billy Liar, a bigger hit for Don Black this time working with composer John Barry, in which Paige had a featured role in a cast led by Michael Crawford in the title role, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1974, above right).

And of course Evita (above left) launched a career as a musical theatre above-the-title star that would also include originating the roles of Grizabella in Cats in 1981 (above right, albeit accidentally, when the original star Judi Dench had to pull out during rehearsals when she snapped her achilles tendon). She also starred as Florence in the original London production of Chess in 1984 (again at the Prince Edward, the original home of Evita), a role sculpted for her by lyricist Tim Rice, who was dating her at the time, but she would lose for its short-lived Broadway transfer when director Trevor Nunn had the book re-written by American playwright Richard Nelson, who would change the character of Florence to an American, with Judy Kuhn originating the role on Broadway).

Three times unlucky in her attempts to get to Broadway, her next role was a revenge attack, when she played Reno Sweeney in the London transfer of the 1980s Broadway re-working of the 30s Cole Porter classic Anything Goes that brought her back to the Prince Edward for a third consecutive time in 1989. She co-produced that run herself (with Tim Rice) to ensure she could secure the role; having lost the opportunity to reprise her role in Evita to Patti LuPone when that show transferred to Broadway, she was able to make sure she stole LuPone’s thunder when Anything Goes transferred to London by taking that role off her.

And in 1996, she would also make it to Broadway for the first time, taking over the role of Norma Desmond that Patti LuPone had again originated in Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, but which LuPone famously never got to play on Broadway after originating it at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1993 when she was replaced for its New York premiere by Glenn Close, who was succeeded by Betty Buckley (who had again taken Paige’s place when Cats transferred to Broadway).

This potted history of Paige’s career prior to becoming best known these days as a radio presenter shows, too, what a very small world the upper echelons of musical theatre stardom is; and also how fiercely fought each role is.

And in Friday’s Musicals: The Greatest Show, Paige will herself deliver Sunset Boulevard’s As If We Never Said Goodbye (pictured above, on Radio 2 only, not for the February telecast), while host Sheridan Smith will be joined by Amanda Holden for I Know Him So Well (originally turned into a number one hit by Paige and Barbara Dickson in 1985, when a concept album of Chess’s score was released ahead of the stage premiere in 1986; the Paige/Dickson recording topped the UK charts for four weeks, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest-selling record by a female duo). The latter had lyrics by Tim Rice to music by Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who’ll be further heard in The Greatest Show with a rendition of Dancing Queen performed by West End leads from Mamma Mia!, the long-running jukebox show made up of Abba songs.

Lloyd Webber will also be represented by The Music of the Night (his song from The Phantom of the Opera, which famously features an identical melody line to one in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West) that will be sung by Ramin Karimloo, and Any Dream will Do (from his first musical with Tim Rice, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) that will be performed by London’s last Joseph Jac Yarrow (pictured above), alongside members of the public in a huge virtual sing-a-long; today is the last day to submit your videos to be considered for inclusion.

There will also be an advance first performance by newcomer Ivano Turco of a new Lloyd Webber song, Only You, Lonely You, to lyrics by David Zippel, from the composer’s latest score, Cinderella that’s currently due to premiere in May at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, Covid-restrictions permitting.

So that’s four Lloyd Webber songs; the only other British musical theatre composers represented are Dan Gillespie-Sells, with Layton Williams performing The Wall in my Head (pictured above) from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie; and Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, with the cast of their hit show Six. Both shows re-opened briefly last month at adjoining theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, the Apollo and Lyric respectively.

But strikingly, there’s no Elton John — the single most successful musical theatre composer Britain has produced since Lloyd Webber, thanks to The Lion King (now the single most profitable stage musical of all time globally, it has lyrics by Tim Rice) and Billy Elliot — or Howard Goodall (my personal favourite British composer of musicals alive today, with such tremendous scores as The Hired Man, Love Story and Bend it Like Beckham to his name, as well as the lesser-known but equally gorgeous The Dreaming and Girlfriends). And where, for that matter, are other contemporary British musical theatre voices like Stiles and Drewe, Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer – the Opera) and David Arnold (Made in Dagenham), or such beloved British composers as Noel Gay (Me and My Girl), Lionel Bart (Oliver!, and who just last weekend it was revealed in The Observer will next month have the title song from his unproduced show Next Year in Jerusalem given its first outing by Maureen Lipman online, as part of the Jewish Music Institute’s World Tour of Jewish Music) or Sandy Wilson (The Boyfriend)?

The rest of the programme instead features material from US-originated titles that should be running now, like Hamilton, Wicked, The Prince of Egypt and the revival of Hairspray that’s due at the London Coliseum in April with Michael Ball returning to the role of Edna Turnblad that he played in the show’s original London transfer in 2007 (and who will perform You Can’t Stop the Beat), as well as the Tina Turner hit The Best that features in Tina, the Tina Turner musical.

There are also a couple of songs from older 1960s Broadway shows Man of La Mancha (inserted as a vehicle for Josh Groban to deliver The Impossible Dream) and Funny Girl (with Sheridan Smith reprising her last London stage role as Fanny Brice, to perform Don’t Rain on My Parade), one from the film The Greatest Show (Nicole Scherzinger singing Never Enough, written by the American team of Pasek and Paul who also wrote Dear Evan Hansen) plus of course a song from Les Miserables (Lea Salonga performing I Dreamed a Dream, written by the French team of Boublil and Schonberg, with English lyrics by the recently departed Herbert Kretzmer).

But as much as I value Hamilton, Hairspray and Wicked, the Greatest Show could — and should — have been a platform to celebrate more British musicals, especially here, especially now, with the industry floundering so badly. A show of support for our own creators of new musicals would not have gone amiss.

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