This week Fiona Lindsay celebrates Shakespeare's Birthday and the wonders of musical theatre...


Today is Shakespeare’s 451st birthday and there is no doubt he’s ageing well. What’s his secret? Why does he have such influence?

With his feet in the mud and his eyes on the stars he has an enduring presence, even influencing the re-naming of popular TV shows such as the Great British Shake Off, not to mention Strictly Shakespeare and Breaking Bard. Oh and of course there’s Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off!!!

In 2006 – when I was still at the RSC – the company presented a musical version of the Merry Wives of Windsor. It was inventively re-titled Merry Wives – The Musical and spawned a whole host of similarly styled musical titles such as Matilda – The Musical, Spice Girls – The Musical and that big recent hit X Factor - (you’ve guessed it) The Musical.

Walking in the Windsor wonderland of Merry Wives – The Musical back in '06 was a family affair for me. My son, then aged 10, played William Page and shared the stage with Judi Dench and Simon Callow. I’d high hopes of him falling in love with musical theatre and living a life in song and dance with the rest of us enthusiasts being offered free tickets for the enormously successful shows he was going to star in. This was not to be, alas, and his heart is set on a life documenting the natural world and not transporting audiences to fantasy ones.

Today on Digital Theatre Plus as well as celebrating Shakespeare’s grand old age we’re also releasing the musical From Up Here. It’s produced by Perfect Pitch, an organisation that supports the development of new musicals. The company is still young but even so is giving voice to new talent with performers like Cynthia Erivo about to make it big on Broadway and George Maguire currently starring in Sunny Afternoon - The Kinks musical – awarded Best Supporting Actor in a Musical at last week's Olivier Awards.

As you can probably gather, I love a musical and so was in heaven last year when invited to host a conversation with the all time musical genius, Sir Tim Rice. When Tim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were starting out there were no Perfect Pitches around and getting a musical to the stage was trial and mostly error. It took huge amounts of time and even more enormous amounts of luck. 

Their first big hit – Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat - was born out of sheer luck. A former school teacher of Andrew’s was looking for a piece that the whole school could be involved with and asked if Tim and Andrew might be able to offer something. Their previous attempt at musical theatre – a very sombre tale of Barnardo’s Children’s Home had not ignited interest and both had gone back to their day jobs.

They wanted something epic and lively and looked through biblical tales for inspiration. Joseph’s story had a cast of thousands and was a good fit with the school. They created it as a piece for the choir and the school presented it as the centre-piece of a parents evening. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m not sure if they ever used Shakespeare as source material for work they created together but Tim did write the Lyrics for The Lion King, which is said to be the story of Hamlet. The show, created in 1994, is still running, which proves there is obviously nothing rotten in the state of musical theatre land - to appropriate the birthday boy!