Olivier Audience Award shortlist: four musicals and a horse

Written for The Collective Review, 9 February 2010

I promised you a reminder to vote in the second round of the Olivier Awards’ brand-new category, the Audience Award – so here it is.

The winner of the Audience Award for Most Popular Long-Running Show of 2009 is determined by the votes of the general public – the first time an Olivier Award winner has been decided by anyone outside the Society of London Theatre.  The first round of voting whittled a long-list of 20 eligible productions down to just five.

Those five are (in alphabetical order):  Billy Elliot – The Musical, The Phantom of the Opera, War Horse, We Will Rock You and Wicked.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand the enduring popularity of We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s nonsensical jukebox musical featuring the music of Queen – but popular it is, and acknowledging popularity rather than critical acclaim is the point of the Audience Award, so I suppose I must grudgingly admit that it deserves the nod (while simultaneously grumbling under my breath that plenty of shows on the longlist managed to be both phenomenally popular and good theatre at the same time).

What is heartening about the shortlist is the eerily perfect proportional representation of musicals and “straight” theatre.  The longlist consisted of 16 musicals and four plays – an 80-20 split, if you want to talk percentages.  The shortlist contains four musicals and one play, War Horse – another perfect 80-20 split.

Now, unlike a lot of critics I could name, I don’t hate musicals (unless they’re We Will Rock You).  I’m perfectly happy to see musicals dominating the Audience award shortlist:  they’re the golden geese of the commercial West End, they get people into theatres and (with the aforementioned exception) the ones on the shortlist are actually good.

But all the same, it cheers me up to see War Horse holding its own up there.  It’s evidence that the taste of the British theatregoing public – your taste, in other words – is more varied than it’s often portrayed in the media.  Mindless handclappy escapism is not the only reason to visit the West End, and the spectacularly emotional War Horse – plus the intelligent, literate and iconic musicals featured on the shortlist – proves that.

Click here to help decide which of the five will take the gong, but be warned – I’m compiling a shortlist of my own, and voting for We Will Rock You is a surefire way to end up on it.

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