We are all utterly obsessed with politics: while loathing almost every element of the always shocking and often bewildering power plays of the select few, we still can’t help but spend our precious free time devouring their every move in the newspapers and news.
It makes sense, then, that audiences might want to sit down for a more political evening at the theater, and even more logical that we enjoy seeing our politicians and historical figures dissected on stage in evil and humorous guises.
It has now been announced that Fleabag superproducer Francesca Moody will take on ex-Italian PM Berlusconi’s provocative theme in a new show that is being billed as a “nasty, loud exposé of the tanned original media mogul.” -turned populist politician” – and pundits were, in general, enthusiastic about the premise.
Here are some of the best (and maybe not so great) political musicals, past, present and future.
Olivier-winning Francesca Moody’s production company MBE will deliver this ambitious “modern cautionary tale” about the Italian media mogul on the eve of the verdict in his tax fraud trial, as it looks back on his political career. To counterbalance all the cologne and testosterone, the show will be told through the perspectives of three women: Berlusconi’s second wife, Veronica Lario; the magistrate of Milan who tries the Public Prosecutor; and a female reporter who is an amalgamation of real-life people and testimonials.
“A lot of the way he’s been behaving is confusing and ridiculous – it’s easy to satirize that,” Moody told The Guardian. Berlusconi will be “a good night out – but you leave the theater feeling rather strange about how much fun you had,” she added.
Moody’s past work includes stage productions of Fleabag, Baby Reindeer and Leopards, and she is set to produce the upcoming Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (starring Poldark’s Aidan Turner and The Serpent’s Jenna Coleman) at the Harold Pinter Theater in January .
Longtime collaborators Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan, who met as children on the set of Grange Hill, wrote the book, music and lyrics. James Grieve, the former joint artistic director of Paines Plow, will direct and Rebecca Howell, who worked on The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, will choreograph the piece.
Moody’s described the upcoming production as “Avoid on Acid”.
Southwark Playhouse, 25th March – 29th April 2023, tickets available now, southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
There are few musicals that have reached the heady heights of Hamilton, which tells the story of America’s founding father Alexander Hamilton.
Singer-songwriter and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seven-year passion project has won out: Since its original 2015 Off-Broadway release, the musical has won more than ten Tony Awards, a Grammy Award and seven Olivier Awards, has enjoyed of back-to-back sold out shows when the show moved to the West End, back to North America, Australia and Hamburg, and received near-universal acclaim. A global phenomenon, it even received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the late 18th-century leaders (along with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson) who established the governing body of the United States after the War of Independence with Great Britain. The sung and rapped musical tells the remarkable life story of him.
Victoria Palace Theatre, booking until 30 September 2023, hamiltonmusical.com/london
Tonino! The rock musical
A rock opera about Tony Blair? Safe. But with a series of “tacky” gags about Princess Diana’s death, 9/11 and the war in Iraq, and with, as the Standard’s Nick Curtis put it, “assaults, bovine hooves and awful wigs”, this musical it’s definitely not for everyone.
Created by comedian Harry Hill and his longtime collaborator Steve Brown, Tony! is described by the Park Theater as “a hilarious tragedy” that “plays fast and loose with facts”. Given that much of Blair’s premiership has been a tragedy – but not the hilarious kind – the story of his life was always going to take some work to get him to somewhere funny. Many reviewers thought Hill was successful: the show was awarded four stars by The Times and The Observer and five stars by the Daily Mail. Curtis, however, was not convinced.
Tonino! The rock musical ran at the Park Theater this summer, parktheatre.co.uk
Does this count as a political musical? We certainly think so – after all, there is 40th US President Ronald Reagan at one point talking about a waterfall economy. Besides, there are surely few things more political than Christianity in the United States. But fear not, this musical is far from dry: Elton John wrote the music, Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters wrote the lyrics, and James Graham wrote more than a dozen plays, including Labor of Love, set in the election office of a Labor MP, as well as Best of Enemies, a show about the origins of our combative political discourse now open in the West End, wrote the script.
Tammy Faye Bakker was an American singer, songwriter, talk show host, and evangelist who, with her husband Jim, was involved in several fraud and conspiracy cases in the late 1980s. She has published three autobiographies, advocated for LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS issues, and co-founded the popular Christian television show, The PTL Club, which ran for 15 years.
Tammy Faye’s world premiere was at the Almeida Theater in October where it was widely received. “There are some shows you never expect to see,” said Nick Curtis of the Standard. “And a musical about a gay-friendly televangelist and a Christian from America in the 70s and 80s…it’s one of them. But here it is and praise the lord, it’s a religious riot.
Almeida Theater until December 3, 2022 almeida.co.uk
Victor Hugo’s magnus opus was an unlikely candidate for a musical. At around 2,700 pages (depending on publication) the novel follows the life of farmer Jean Valjean, who is sent to prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon release, he reforms and becomes mayor and industrialist. The 1862 novel is about Paris, politics, morality, monarchy, justice and religion and is set in the chaos in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
It is quite remarkable, given the uncompromising premise, that in 1980 Claude-Michel Schönberg thought the tome would make a great musical. But the French manufacturer was perfect. Over forty years later Les Mis is undoubtedly one of the most famous theater shows in the world. It won both Tony Awards and Olivier Awards, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter, and toured the world multiple times in its various productions.
Sondheim Theatre, booking until October 1, 2023, www.lesmis.com/london
Damn damn Andrew Jackson
Premiering seven years before Hamilton, this rock comedy musical about seventh President Andrew Jackson (who served from 1829 to 1837) didn’t have the same level of success, but did well nonetheless. It received rave reviews, won several awards, premiered on Broadway in 2010, and toured the United States for several years. It became New York City’s second highest-grossing show of all time in the early 2010s, where it was extended three times.
The music and lyrics were written by award-winning composer and artistic director Michael Friedman and the book was written by acclaimed playwright Alex Timbers. The musical reimagines Jackson (who, among other things, owned hundreds of slaves, subscribed to the idea that human ownership was acceptable as long as slaves were treated humanely; survived an assassination attempt; paid the national debt – the only president to do so — and signed the Indian Removal Act, which displaced tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands) like an emo rock star. Errr, sure?
In 2010, Ben Brantley of The New York Times said, “There isn’t a show in town that more astutely reflects the state of this nation than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson … both smarter and cruder than your average Broadway fare “.
With music and lyrics by musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim and a book by his award-winning collaborator John Weidman, Assassins was always going to be a crowd pleaser, even with this crazy premise.
The musical brings together a diverse group of some of the infamous figures who have attempted – successful and unsuccessful – to assassinate American presidents, and explores their place in American history. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Samuel Byck (who tried to assassinate Nixon) Charles J. Guiteau (who successfully assassinated James A. Garfield), and John Hinckley Jr. (who tried to kill Regan) are all in attendance.
It opened Off-Broadway in 1990, received mixed reviews and had a short run of 73 performances. In 2004, however, it was revived on Broadway and won five Tony Awards. Have we all become much more cynical? The musical has since been revived in London in 2014 (one newspaper called the Catherine Tate-led production “aggressively visceral”) and Off-Broadway again in 2021.