Few things get the heart racing like a great theatre production. Whether it’s the soaring spectacle of a West End musical or the raw emotion of a dramatic play, nothing quite beats going to the theatre for yourself.
We at Stagefreight have been involved in a fair few stage transportation tasks over the years.
We’ve put together a list of musicals and plays that pushed the medium forward, either with outstanding set design or bold subject matter.
The Lion King
Based on Disney’s 1994 film, the stage adaptation of The Lion King remains a smash hit. It debuted in 1997 at Minnesota’s Orpheum Theatre before moving to Broadway and the West End.
It is still being performed today; with 14 million audience members attending the London show since its opening—and a global gross of over £3 billion—this is one show that’s here to stay.
But where does its popularity come from? We suspect the source material has something to do with it; the original film came out at the peak of the Disney Renaissance, a legendary era in Disney film history. However, the musical isn’t a slavish recreation of the film.
By necessity it sets itself apart, and it’s the ways it does this that makes it an experience in its own right. The show’s sheer spectacle is a big part of its success.
Director Julie Taymor combined imaginative, non-literal costumes and sets with attention to detail and a high level of immersion; the actors literally walk up the aisles in the opening scenes of the performance. It also stays timeless by mixing other ingredients into each performance, like Kabuki costumes and Malaysian shadow puppetry. The masks of the characters all have specific and intriguing design, so it’s all about handling these with absolute care when transporting this particular musical production.
It’s the perfect blend of old theatre techniques and new (or more recent) stories, and it’s one audiences continue to fall in love with. If you’d like to see it for yourself, The Lion King is performed year-round at London’s Lyceum Theatre.
The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel debuted in 1986. It went on to win the Olivier and Tony awards for both Best Musical and Best Actor, along with more than 70 other major theatre awards. Today, audiences can go to performances across the world, in locations such as London, Denmark, New York and even Budapest!
A major part of the show’s success is its focus on fantastic sets, particularly the chandelier that comes crashing down at the end of the first act. It weighs one tonne, measures more than 3 metres wide and is decorated with 6,000 beads.
Other notable features of the musical production include a character riding in on an elephant, a ‘river’ of dry ice, and the 280 candles that burn throughout the performance each night.
A pared-back version of the musical was created for a touring production, which exists alongside the original one. However, this version had some clever ideas of its own; the best is the giant cylinder that contains most of the sets. It rotates on the stage during each production, opening at different points to reveal the next scene. However you see it, The Phantom of the Opera promises to be an exciting, extravagant experience. Plus it opens up some stage transportation challenges, which gets us lot here at Stagefreight all riled up.
The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe
C.S.Lewis’ fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia is a beloved part of children’s literature, chronicling the history—from birth to death—of a magical world. The first book published—The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe—is probably the most famous, and was adapted for the stage last year in an exciting new production.
The Leeds Playhouse hosted a stage adaptation of the book until January 2018. The actual set was very pared-back; War Horse designer Rae Smith used a flat black stone, with clouds of paper lampshades to represent the changing seasons. Aslan the lion was transformed into a giant puppet, while the children’s evacuation to the countryside used a model train (carried aloft by the cast) instead of the real thing. Other changes include a dance sequence when Edmund tries Turkish delight for the first time, while summer (according to The Stage) is a little more psychedelic than the original story.
Smith’s approach to theatre design is a great way of approaching a familiar idea in a more creative manner. It trusts the audience to suspend their disbelief in service of the show’s imagination.
We hope we see Rae Smith’s creativity in many more works to come.
Rock musicals make up a major part of the theatre scene; shows like Dreamgirls, Grease and Starlight Express have been delighting audiences for years. But the very first rock musical launched on Broadway in 1968, to polarising reactions and a place in theatre history.
Hair takes place in 1960s America at the height of the Vietnam War. It follows “the tribe”—a group of young hippies trying to escape conscription while staying true to their countercultural roots. Touching on topics like race, drugs, sexual freedom and pacifism, Hair reflected many of the USA’s contemporary anxieties. A review in the New York Times called it “the frankest show in town”, and “so new, so fresh and so unassuming, even in its pretensions.”
Hair‘s subject matter was a shock to the system; before its release, Broadway shows followed very narrow rules and traditions around music and subject matter. Hair introduced a countercultural flavour to Broadway shows—and wider society—that would go on to inspire a host of other stage productions. It was also a harbinger of today’s cultural landscape, with bad language, drug use and nudity common features of our entertainment.
Unsurprisingly Hair was highly controversial upon its release. Its use of (brief) nudity in the first act angered many audience members, as did its depiction of the American flag; after all, the Vietnam War was in full swing when Hair debuted. It was also at the centre of two American court battles in Massachusetts and Tennessee, while the cast was expelled from Mexico on a morals clause. Fortunately the UK’s Theatres Act—introduced in 1968—allowed it to appear here without legal wrangling.
With four Broadway revivals since the original closed in 1972, Hair’s legacy continues to endure into the 21st century.
One of the many musicals inspired by Hair is Rent, a 1993 musical based on the Italian opera La bohème. Set in Manhattan’s East Village, Rent follows several young artists trying to follow their dreams and pursue relationships during America’s AIDS crisis. Just as Hair was defiant and countercultural, Rent featured a diverse cast and placed HIV-positive characters at the centre of its story.
Besides its bold subject matter, Rent differentiated itself thanks to some stripped-back, inventive set design. Many productions of it use grimy, skeletal stairs and scaffolding to capture the New York setting. This minimalist approach is a far cry from the dramatic, complex sets of other Broadway giants like Phantom of the Opera.
After its release Rent went on to win several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Tony Awards and four Drama Desk awards. It’s spawned its own breed of uber-fans (called ‘Rentheads’) and inspired references in the likes of The Simpsons, Deadpool and Team America: World Police.
With 30 separate productions since its debut, this is one Broadway hit that won’t be clearing out any time soon.
Inspired by the Spanish libertine Don Juan, Don Giovanni is an Italian opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It tells the story of an amoral, promiscuous nobleman who grossly disrespects his fellow man, only to pay dearly for his actions. It was first performed in the late 1700s, but a new Israeli performance put a very exciting spin on it.
Running at Tel Aviv’s Opera House through February, this performance of Don Giovanni boasted an international cast of solo singers. However, its most exciting feature may be the set itself; it featured a miniature house that rotates on stage as the opera progresses. It also features projected images on the set, which act as a metaphor for Giovanni’s creative abilities. According to Ynet News, projected images are becoming a frequent part of today’s operatic productions, suggesting this one is very much in line with the latest trends.
Although this production has ended, it’s a testament to the amazing technical achievements today’s theatre shows are capable of. Our friends at Opera North have completed their fifth year of touring Don Giovanni and we’re looking forward to future Don Giovanni performances by them.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay figure animated by magic. That ancient idea was given new life in a bold stage play by a theatre company called 1927.
This theatre company tests our understanding of what theatre is capable of.
Golem is a stage play that combines live-action performance with intricate projected animation. Physical objects are essentially nonexistent, taking video projection to new levels of immersion. The play tells the story of a society in which the golem is introduced as a domestic servant. As time passes, the golems are replaced by slicker, newer models, but the society’s hunger for newer, better golems may prove to be its undoing.
It’s just 90 minutes long, but Golem was hailed as a theatre masterpiece after its debut. The Observer described it as a “glimmering evening; anyone interested in the theatre must attend”, while The Telegraph said it was a “witty collision of knowingly antiquated aesthetics, wide-ranging cultural influences and modern-day sensibilities”. Fans of the avant-garde should watch 1927 very closely going forward.
Think your show could be the next groundbreaking masterpiece? We at Stagefreight are here to help you bring it to life and get it touring!
We know how important planning and speed are to any theatre tour production. That’s why we’ve got a track record of perfect timing, whether you need a single van or 28 individual trailers. We’ve also worked with major companies like Opera North, Northern Ballet and English National Ballet, giving us the expertise we need to pull off any stage transportation job.
For more information, give us a call on 0113 238 0805 or visit our Contact Us page for other contact options.