A musical playing to the West End is the culmination of many months (and sometimes years) of effort. Even then, London theatre runs can vary in length. To be successful, a musical must have memorable music, a moving story, and compelling characters played by believable actors. And to be a classic, a show must have these elements as well as something extra special to excite and delight audiences.
These 20 top musicals sustained success for years—some for decades—as they entertained both London residents and global visitors performance after performance.
1. Les Misérables, 1985 – present
Les Mis debuted in Paris in September 1980, before arriving in London’s West End on 8 October 1985. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel and set in revolutionary era France, Les Misérables is the story of former convict Jean Valjean and his quest for redemption.
Its first three-month engagement at Barbican Theatre sold out, and the show has been running continuously in the West End ever since, making it the longest-running musical in the world after The Fantasticks (off-Broadway).
2. The Phantom of the Opera, 1986 – present
Ben Forster as The Phantom Of The Opera (Photo: Johan Persson)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1986 and celebrated its 10,000th performance in 2010 and 30th anniversary in 2016.
The story of a deformed musical genius’s obsession with a talented soprano, Phantom has won more than 70 major theatre awards and has been seen by more than 140 million people. It is the longest-running show in Broadway history and the first to reach 10,000 performances in New York.
3. Blood Brothers, 1988 – 2012
Originally conceived as a school play, Blood Brothers is a musical about twin brothers who were raised separately but fall in love with the same woman.
It debuted and had a moderately successful but short run in the West End in 1983. A national tour in 1987 reignited interest in the musical, and it returned to the West End in 1988. It ran for more than 24 years before finally closing in November 2012.
4. Cats, 1981 – 2002
An Andrew Lloyd Webber-scored musical, Cats is about cats—specifically, a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and their decision as to which cat is to be reborn into a new life.
Cats opened in the West End in 1981 and closed 21 years later in 2002, making it London’s longest-running musical until Les Misérables overtook it in 2006. An updated West End revival of Cats ran from December 2014 through April 2015, then again from October 2015 through January 2016.
5. Mamma Mia! 1999 – present
Damien Buhagiar as Pepper (centre) with the cast of Mamma Mia! (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)
Another world premiere that took place in the West End, Mamma Mia! opened 23 March 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre. It transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre in June 2004, before moving to the Novello Theatre in September 2012.
This jukebox musical is the story of a young bride seeking her father on a Greek Island, told through the music of Swedish band Abba. It has been seen by over 60 million people in 50 productions in 16 different languages.
6. Disney’s The Lion King, 1999 – present
Nick Afoa as Simba and Janique Charles as Nala in Disney's The Lion King (Photo: Disney)
While many blockbuster musicals are adapted for the big screen, Disney's The Lion King is a musical that was adapted from a film, specifically the 1994 animated Disney film of the same name.
Like the movie, Disney's The Lion King follows the Hamlet-inspired story of Simba, a young lion who challenges his murderous uncle for the throne of Pride Lands, and features music by Elton John. The Lion King recently overtook Starlight Express to become the 6th longest-running show in the West End.
You can book Disney's The Lion King tickets here.
7. Starlight Express, 1984 – 2001
Performed by actors wearing rollerskates and featuring sets with racetracks extended into and around the audience, the rock musical Starlight Express wowed West End theatregoers for 17 years, finally coming to a halt in 2001.
The story of rival trains battling for supremacy lives on in Germany, where it has been performed continuously since 1988.
8. Chicago, 1997 – 2012
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, this musical explores the criminal-as-celebrity theme with its story of two rival nightclub stars-turned-murderers.
It initially opened at the Cambridge Theatre in April 1979 and ran for 600 performances. In November 1997, the revival Chicago: The Musical opened at the Adelphi Theatre where it ran for 9 years before transferring to the Cambridge Theatre in April 2006, running there until September 2012.
9. Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, 1989 – 2003
Considered the first jukebox musical, Buddy is the story of Buddy Holly’s rock ‘n’ roll career, including his years in a country & western band, his efforts as a solo artist, and his untimely death at age 22.
The bio-musical ran in the West End for more than 14 years and continues to play throughout England and at international venues.
10. We Will Rock You, 2002 – 2014
Featuring songs by Queen, We Will Rock You was originally intended to be a biography about lead singer Freddie Mercury, but ultimately became a fantasy story about resistance against conformity in a dystopian future.
Despite initially harsh critical reviews, the jukebox musical drew approving audiences to the Dominion Theatre and remained popular until it closed in 2014.
11. Billy Elliot The Musical, 2005 – 2016
Like The Lion King, Billy Elliot is based on a movie and also features the music of Elton John.
The musical tells the story of a boy’s pursuit of ballet in a town beset by a mining strike. It premiered at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 2005 and ran through April 2016.
12. Wicked, 2006 – present
Willemijn Verkaik as Elphaba in Wicked (Photo: Matt Crockett)
Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, an alternative version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as told from the perspective of Oz’s witches, premiered on Broadway in 2003 and the West End’s Apollo Victoria Theatre in September 2006.
More than 8 million people have seen the London West End production.
You can book Wicked tickets here.
13. Miss Saigon, 1989 – 1999
This retelling of Madame Butterfly takes place during the Vietnam War and portrays the doomed relationship between an American G.I. and his Vietnamese girlfriend.
Miss Saigon ran for 10 years at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane before closing in 1999, but returned to the West End in 2014 for a 760-performance revival run that included a 25th anniversary performance. The revival closed in 2016.
14. Jersey Boys, 2008 – 2017
The jukebox musical Jersey Boys played the West End for nine years at Prince Edward Theatre, before moving to the Piccadilly Theatre in 2017.
Presented as a documentary dramatising the career arc of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll group The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys features well-known hits like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry,” among others.
15. Jesus Christ Superstar, 1972 – 1980
Loosely based on the last week of Jesus’s life according to the Gospels, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar first opened on Broadway in 1971, closing two years later.
The show thrived in London, though, playing for eight years at the Palace Theatre and becoming the UK’s longest-running musical at the time. The musical was revived at the Lyceum Theatre in 1996 and ran for a year and a half, then returned again in 2016 and 2017 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, a production which won the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival.
Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (Photo: David Jensen)
You can book tickets to the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production here.
16. Thriller Live, 2009 – present
Thriller Live at West End LIVE 2017 (Photo: Pamela Raith)
More choreographed concert than musical, Thriller Live is a non-stop playlist featuring highlights from Michael Jackson’s 45-year career, from his time with the Jackson 5 to Thriller and beyond.
Originally scheduled from January 2009 to May of the same year, the show run has been extended numerous times and continues to draw Jackson and pop fans to the London theatre the Lyric.
You can book Thriller Live tickets here.
17. Me and My Girl, 1985 – 1993
This musical is set in the 1930s and tells the story of Bill Snibson, an unapologetically unrefined cockney man who learns he is the heir to the Earl of Hareford.
Me and My Girl had a successful original run in the West End in 1937, playing for 1,646 performances. It was revived in 1941, 1945, and again in 1949. A revised production opened in 1984 at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre and transferred to the Adelphi Theatre in 1985 where it played for eight years before closing.
18. Evita , 1978 – 1986
Another successful Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice production, Evita follows the life of Eva “Evita” Perón, the Argentine actor who became the country’s First Lady and a popular political leader.
The production opened in the West End in 1978 and on Broadway a year later, becoming the first British musical to win the Best Musical Tony Award. Its original run went until 1986 and it was revived twenty years later (2006) at the Adelphi Theatre.
Evita is returning to the West End this summer, with former Wicked actress Emma Hatton in the titular role.
Emma Hatton in Evita (Photo: Pamela Raith)
You can book tickets to this summer's transferring production of Evita here.
19. Oliver! 1960 – 1970
Charles Dickens’s classic Oliver Twist is the basis for this English musical. Oliver! is set in a Victorian-era workhouse and portrays the bleak lives of orphans and criminals.
Despite (or because of) its dark subject matter, it became prominent in popular British culture—many songs are familiar to the public—and was staged in thousands of schools. The original London production ran for nearly 10 years, closing in 1970. It was revived in 1983, 1994, and 2009.
20. Grease! 1993 – 2002
This 1971 musical follows a group of “greasers” (working-class American youth) as they navigate high school life in 1959.
The New London Theatre premiered Grease! in June 1973, but the show closed less than a year later. It was revived at the Astoria Theatre for a 4-month run, but it wasn’t until the 1993 West End revival that the show demonstrated its true staying power, running nine years between two theatres.
*Information supplied to Society of London Theatre, correct as of 4 July 2017. Ranked by number of performances.
Guest post by Matt Schneiderman
You can see tickets for all current West End shows here.