About musical theatre

Wales has produced many stars of musical theatre over the years, as Simon Rees discovers.

Since the first-ever International Festival of Musical Theatre in Cardiff in October 2002, musical theatre in Wales has been in the news as never before. But there is a history behind it.

Musical theatre in Britain is as old as theatre itself. Most shows in Shakespeare's day had songs in them, and most actors took it for granted that they might have to sing.

Alongside the rise of opera in the 18th century, another more popular kind of theatre, the ballad opera, was born. John Gay's The Beggars' Opera invented musical theatre in the form we know it now.

Despite Wales producing a host of musical theatre stars, it never hosted the biggest of the touring musical productions until the Wales Millennium Centre was opened in 2004 - designed to give the best possible venue for musical theatre.

Ivor Novello became the most popular composer of musicals in the years around the Second World War, and starred in them himself. His extraordinary flow of melodic invention and his glamorous, matinee-idol looks made his shows instant and lasting successes. The Dancing Years ran for a decade from 1939. Novello died in harness, a few hours after performing the leading role in King's Rhapsody.

Harry Parr Davies composed musicals that rivalled Novello's in popularity. Full Swing in 1942 was followed by The Lisbon Story, with its hit song Pedro The Fisherman. Red Sails In The Sunset was another of his songs that is still performed today.

Julian More wrote the texts of several post-war hits: Grab Me A Gondola, Irma La Douce, Expresso Bongo, The Golden Touch, The Man From The West, Quick, Quick, Slow and Can-Can.

Whether in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, or shows based on imported musicals from Paris, Vienna or New York, from the middle of the 19th century Welsh singers were making their mark in musical theatre.

Henry Bracy was one of the most popular Victorian comic opera tenors, spending much of his career in Australia, where he died in 1917, and Lionel Brough was another much-loved comedian, whose heyday was in the 1870s and 80s.

Gladys Homfrey, described as a musical comedy dragon, sang in the popular musical play The Geisha.

Catherine Lewis had an international career on the musical stage, performing with the Carl Rosa Company in such pieces as The Rose Of Castile.

Olive Gilbert was the contralto for whom Ivor Novello wrote some of his most entertaining roles. She went on to sing Sister Margaretta in London performances of The Sound Of Music.

Sir Harry Secombe, tenor and Goon, made a great career in the sixties musical theatre, and immortalised some of his best roles in film, especially the unforgettable Mr Bumble in Oliver!

Richard Burton made his musical name on Broadway as Arthur in Camelot and sang the role far better than Richard Harris in the film version.

Ivor Emmanuel began his career in Gilbert and Sullivan, and went on to perform in South Pacific, The King And I, Plain And Fancy and Damn Yankees. As Private Owen in Zulu (not a film known for its musical highlights) he rallied the troops at Rorke's Drift, leading them into battle to Men Of Harlech.

More recently, Welsh stars have threatened to take over the West End musicals scene completely.

Peter Karrie starred in most of the major musicals - Les Miserables, Chess, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. He is best known for his title role in The Phantom Of The Opera, which he has performed throughout the world.

Jonathan Pryce performed in Comedians in the West End and Broadway, where he won a Tony. He then starred in Miss Saigon, winning another Tony in 1991.

Michael Ball has starred in Phantom, Aspects Of Love, and Les Miserables, where he was the original Marius.

John Owen Jones made his name in the West End as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, and Sian Cothi is another of the many Welsh performers to have starred in Phantom.

Daniel Evans won the Olivier Award 2000 for Best Actor in a Musical for his role in Merrily We Roll Along.

Steve Balsamo won awards for the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar, and was in the original London cast of Notre-Dame de Paris, and Aled Jones - after his voice broke - starred in Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Catherine Zeta Jones started in musical theatre, playing her first role aged of 11 in Annie, and starring in Bugsy Malone in the West End two years later. At 17 she took the leading role in 42nd Street.

Ria Jones has starred in the West End in Les Miserables, and in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Welsh opera superstar Bryn Terfel has given many concert performances and made many recordings of songs from the shows, and devotes part of his Faenol Festival to music from the West End and Broadway.

Finally, an entry in the list of Welsh musical credits must go to Roald Dahl, who not only contributed plots to many musicals from his children's stories, but also wrote the book and lyrics for Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

Performances of musical theatre are given all over Wales, by local amateur companies and groups of touring professionals. And not just in theatres - leisure centres, concert halls and stadiums are all used for concerts and staged performances.


BBC Drama

Tragedy and comedy masks

Centre stage

From The Archers to EastEnders, explore the BBC's programmes.

Performing Arts Fund

Person standing in spotlight

Supporting new talent

Helping aspiring music-makers and performers.

TV & Radio Programmes

  1. 1/5. It's 1945 and the Allies are certain to win the war. Then an unidentified aircraft appears
  2. 1/6. Can a stolen library book lead to the reinvention of dragons?
  3. Helen feels confused.
  4. 1/5. As Pushkin prepares to fight a duel, his wife begs him to tell her his most famous story. (R)
  1. Available to watch
    Mae Mark mewn penbleth. Mark is confused.
  2. Available to watch
    Mae cyflwr Hywel yn dirywio. Hywel loses consciousness.
  3. Available to watch
    Mae Ffion, Gaynor a Jinx ar bigau wrth aros. Gaynor, Jinx and Ffion wait anxiously.
  4. Available to watch
    Mae Ffion ar gyfeiliorn. Ffion is distraught.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.