All singing, all dancing and all grounded in hard-hitting realism – these are the musicals that actually happened
Did you know that seeing West End musicals is actually the most effective way to study history? (We don’t stand by that.) Whilst plenty of West End shows begin life as popular books or films, plenty others are inspired by events in the real world – sometimes recent history, and sometimes centuries old. If you’re interested in discovering a real story through the medium of actors unrealistically breaking out into song mid-conversation, we’ve got you covered.
Back in 2011, the BBC aired a documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen At 16. It followed 16-year-old Jamie Campbell, an aspiring drag queen from Durham who wanted to attend his prom in a dress. The documentary inspired Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom McRae to adapt Jamie’s story for the stage, highlighting Jamie’s journey from bullied teen to confident young performer. The show has had a couple of trips to the West End since it premiered in 2017 and returns in February 2024 for a six-week run at the Peacock Theatre.
If you aren’t already familiar with this one then we’d be genuinely fascinated to know where you’ve been. The groundbreaking retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life story made seismic waves when it opened on Broadway in 2015, eventually arriving at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 2017 where it’s been ever since. A few liberties may have been taken with the source material – you try fitting half a century of US history into one West End show – but for the most part this is a pretty faithful recounting of Hamilton’s impact on modern-day America. It’s truly one of those shows that everyone should see at least once.
The Old Vic debuts this new musical in February 2024, which sets out to tell the story of the day music brought the world together in 1985. Featuring songs from Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Queen, Diana Ross, Bryan Adams and more, Just For One Day will take audiences back in time to Live Aid, to relive the impact of one of the greatest concerts ever staged.
Based on the memoir of Henry Fraser, The Little Big Things tells the story of a promising young rugby player whose world is turned upside by a diving accident. It’s up to the whole Fraser family to pull together and figure out what direction Henry’s life might now go in. Fraser’s life story was adapted for the stage by Nick Butcher, Tom Ling and Joe White this year, opening at the shiny new Soho Place. The show has now been extended into March 2024, so if you’re after a dose of something life-affirming then you’ve still got plenty of time to get it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic doesn’t scream ‘faithful, historically-accurate retelling’, and that’s because it isn’t. But the story is partly inspired by real events at the Paris Opera House which found their way into Gaston Leroux’s original novel – including the fall of that huge chandelier. If you fancy dipping your toe into something historical without sacrificing any West End magic, this one’s for you. The Phantom Of The Opera has been running at His Majesty’s Theatre since 1986 and is considered a true West End staple.
This jukebox musical documenting the rise of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons is as ‘from life’ as it gets, employing a documentary style of storytelling and a score that draws entirely from The Four Seasons’ discography. Narrated by different members of the group throughout, the show chronicles the formation, rise, and ultimate break-up of the band. The musical first opened on the West End in 2008 and is currently booking at the Trafalgar Theatre until January 2024.
Inspired by the real life memoirs of Anna Leonowens, The King And I tells the story of a British governess who travels to 1860s Thailand (then Siam) in order to teach the King Mongkut of Siam’s children. A friendship soon blossoms between Anna and the King, but it’s one fraught with conflict, cultural differences and romantic tension. Call The Midwife’s Helen George plays Anna when The King And I arrives at the Dominion Theatre for a strictly limited run this January 2024.
Following Tina Turner’s journey from Nutbush, Tennessee to chart-topping success, Tina is one of the West End’s most recent hits, having run for five years at the Aldwych Theatre to a loving reception. The show is, of course, packed full of Tina’s biggest hits, but it also faithfully and sensitively tells her life story, with plenty of emotional gut punches lying in wait between ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and ‘Proud Mary’. It’s the catchiest history lesson we’ve ever had.