If you want to test your devotion to musical theater, try queuing up at Excel London before 10am while a choir sings the tunes. In fact, nearly all attendees awaiting entry to the UK’s first Musical Con on Saturday joined happily – proof, along with 10,000 tickets sold for the two-day inaugural event, that there is a huge appetite for such a fan convention.
Americans came first: BroadwayCon launched in 2016. And really, it seems odd that it took so long. Musical theater is big business in the UK and its fans are feverishly devoted. Take those from the recent hit Six, called Queendom (a real riff on “fandom”). They don’t just participate in the show multiple times, but recreate the distinctive costumes, produce their own art, and connect with others.
This is the key aspect: the community. And that’s what Musical Con has achieved by simply opening its doors and inviting all these fans to come together in one place. Well, in the end they did. The delay plagued this first outing, a problem given the busy schedule, with multiple events organized at the same time. The intention was probably to give people their money’s worth – tickets started from £ 45 for a day pass, up to £ 195 for a weekend VIP pass.
The organizers of Musical Con Chris Steward and Shanay Holmes, of West End Musical Productions, who spoke to me prior to the event, revealed that they have increased capacity twice due to the huge demand. That increase was evident in both good and bad ways. The atmosphere was extraordinary, like a veritable army of like-minded people – distorting young and female, but with a decent range overall – chatting excitedly and looking at each other’s costumes. Ah yes: many have come dressed to wow, with Heathers: The Musical’s most important, yet strong depiction of Waitress, Grease, Wicked, Frozen, The Phantom of the Opera and even several brave souls in furry catsuits from Cats.
However, this colorful lot was crammed into too small a space. The market area, the stalls of merchandise and related businesses such as physiotherapists or the recently launched Musicals magazine, as well as exhibitors for drama schools, festivals, Disney On Stage and industry entities such as the Official London Theater, soon became rammed. Actually the longest line was for Musical Con’s booth, which sells branded T-shirts and bags – a promising sign, as it suggests fans believe this will become a regular event and they want proof that they were there from the start.
But if the convention is to go annual, it really has to appeal to the services of the UK’s talented sound designers and engineers. The sound was almost disastrous: the performances on the main stage were enormously (and badly) over-amped, and there was constant noise from the two studio spaces for the dance workshops, where routines could be learned from the shows. The latter couple has just been closed by curtains.
Oddly, the Backstage Theater area, used for debates and questions and answers, was placed right next to the main stage. Even though the Backstage crowd was provided with noise canceling headphones, plugged into speaker microphones, the ambient sound, including screaming fans, was deafening. Not ideal when dealing with sensitive issues like representation or mental health. Although all the credit goes to the determined speakers, who embodied the old belief “the show must go on”.
Similarly, Jenna Russell performed the songs of the late Stephen Sondheim – with sensitivity and nuance – but the surrounding roar was like a plane taking off in a hurricane. “I’m laughing to myself picturing Stephen in heaven saying, ‘What the hell is Jenna doing right now?’” Russell joked. However, this is definitely a fixable glitch, as are teething problems like lack of seating and general disregard for accessibility, as well as missing information like difficulty levels for workshops.
However, the convention certainly kept its promise to give back to fans, whose unwavering loyalty helped keep the industry afloat during Covid. You could get an autograph or photo with your favorite star, snap photos with costumes and props, like DeLorean from Back to the Future, and get up close to performances by West End giants like Wicked – with four of the actresses who played Elphaba – or enjoy an exclusive cast reunion for In the Heights.
Aspiring artists could also take center stage in competitions like Star of Musical Con (I was particularly impressed with 15-year-old Edward Flynn-Haddon’s Dear Evan Hansen performance). There was also room for new, encouraging musicals and backstage roles, demystifying the various paths in an industry that still excludes many, especially those from working class circles.
Owen Smith, art director of Redbridge Drama and Dance College (who took a stand at the convention) reported that many teens were bringing their parents to prove this is a viable career. “A lot of people don’t realize how many job opportunities there are, whether in creative roles or performing,” he said.
He noted that this is a great time to launch Musical Con, given the number of musicals with a cult following. “It used to be just Rocky Horror. There are now a lot of shows where people want to dress up like the characters and a new generation that wants a fully immersive experience. “
Times are still tough for the industry, so can events like Musical Con galvanize sales? Based on this premiere, I’d say the infrastructure needs work, but the sheer passion – from the fans and the entire industry – is definitely there. We hope to have a repeat in 2023.