"Musicals can tackle anything," says Rufus Norris.
As the director who set to music the events surrounding the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, Norris should know.
His production, London Road, which is poised to transfer to the cinema screen, is part of a new wave of stage productions that are breaking the traditional feelgood musical mould and successfully pushing the genre into new, sometimes darker, territory.
London Road may not be in the Les Misérables league, but it was, nevertheless, a critical success. The production began as an experiment in 2011 by writer Alecky Blythe, who interviewed people in Ipswich, and composer Adam Cork, who turned their speech into music. It quickly transferred to the National Theatre's Olivier stage last year, when sell-out performances were seen by a total of 57,000 people. "It was like watching a circus every night," said Norris.
Now the musical agenda looks set to broaden further. Last week it was announced that a new production, According to Brian Haw, will tackle the life of the anti-Iraq war protester who camped outside parliament for 10 years in defiance of repeated attempts to remove him. The Youth Music Theatre show, devised by James Atherton and Sarah Nelson with the help of Haw's son, Peter, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London, will examine how the former merchant seaman's struggle affected his family life and helped to hasten his death from lung cancer in 2011.
Meanwhile, the National Theatre is preparing to stage three very different musicals in coming months tackling themes of homelessness, deprivation and the nature of capitalism. Among them is Home, a collaboration of musicians and actors that uses hip-hop, R&B, beat music, rap and the verbatim words of dispossessed people to explore its themes.
Another, Mission Drift, created by America's Team company and described as "a glitzy journey in pursuit of the soul of American capitalism", will be staged at the NT's temporary Shed performance space. The theatre's associate director, Ben Power, says music adds a powerful dimension to traditional stage performances. "We are more and more willing to blur boundaries. Music is so hugely accessible, so quick to act," he said. Norris agrees. "For a long time musicals were looked on as populist, limited, a sentimental art form," he says. "That is absolutely not the case now. It is fantastic that people are starting to push the boundaries. Music is the most direct art form: it gets to your heart without going through the brain."
Further proof of the musical's success in breaking genre boundaries can be seen in The Book of Mormon, a West End show which uses the misadventures of two missionaries preparing to evangelise Africa to provoke laughs at deliberately bad taste jokes. The production at the Prince of Wales theatre is one of the hottest tickets in town, with seats priced at up to £129 sold out until July. "In many ways, it is a traditional musical. There is nothing revolutionary in the way the songs are constructed; it is the subject matter and humour that mark it out," says Norris.
There are also standing ovations at the nearby Phoenix theatre every night for Zrinka Cvitesic, a Croatian actor previously unknown to British audiences who stars in Once, a bittersweet musical love story based on an obscure film that has won praise for dispensing with traditional chorus lines and orchestral bombardment.
Such successes are helping to turn 2013 into a sweet year for musicals after a relatively fallow period. "Musicals went through a bit of a dip last year. Producers held back until after the Olympics," said Alistair Smith, deputy editor of the Stage newspaper. This, he said, was also due to the higher expenses and risks involved in staging musicals rather than plays. Despite their potential for generating high profits, musicals require larger casts, as well as musicians and bigger venues, and take a long time to rehearse and prepare.
The Society of London Theatre, which represents 52 venues, reported a 3% decline in attendances for musicals, to 7.97 million in 2012, but confirmed this year they were "likely to pick up". Musicals dominate the West End's finances, contributing 60.8% of total revenue in 2012, or £332.2m of £529.7m.
Les Misérables, the Oscar-winning movie directed by Tom Hooper, is seen as elevating the status of the musical. The decision by Sam Mendes, who helmed the critically acclaimed recent James Bond film Skyfall, to switch to a West End stage musical for his next venture also reinforces this. Mendes's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, aims to emulate the success of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Matilda the Musical, another Dahl musical hit and is now filling seats on Broadway.
"Musicals can tackle anything, but the problem is if anyone thinks about it as a recipe to make money, designing a product, it can end up anodyne," says Norris. "Think of Cabaret, Oliver! and Annie: you can hum maybe five songs from each. You'd be hard pressed to do that with any musicals of the last five to 10 years."
This explains the ongoing success of hit-heavy tribute shows which run for successive seasons and have coach-loads of fans dancing in the aisles.
Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway signed off last week with a performance by cast members of Jersey Boys, the story of the US band Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, now in its fifth year. Recent musical Viva Forever, has scored success by stringing together Spice Girls songs, in a collaboration by Mamma Mia producer Judy Craymer and scriptwriter Jennifer Saunders.
"Hooper undeniably changed things," explains Norris. "Les Mis made money, it was a huge success – it's made everyone rush to have another look at their back catalogue."
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