Bradford Alhambra: On the musical map

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The Bradford Alhambra’s new season once again features the pick of the most successful West End musicals. Nick Ahad reports.

To convince the producers of one big musical to come to your theatre – especially when it is in a city with a ‘bit of a reputation’ – might be done through sleight of hand.

When you start convincing producer after producer and landing one huge hit musical after another to play at your venue, there’s something more than fast fingers responsible.

Bradford is a long way from the riots that tarnished its good name 15 years ago, but many outsiders believe the city is still a troubled town. It’s an undeserved reputation. Since the creation of City Park, centred around the mirror pool, Bradford has not exactly gone through a rebirth, but it has begun to look and feel like a very different city. Old wounds are healing.

On the far side of City Park and across the road is a building playing a key role in the battle to change exterior perceptions of the city: The Bradford Alhambra Theatre. It’s difficult to put an exact moment when the theatre made a leap into the big leagues, but look at this year’s line-up.

It is currently hosting Wicked, a big West End tour, for a month-long run. It is the only city outside London to be hosting the show in 2016 and has already sold 40,000 tickets. In November this year the theatre will host Mary Poppins the musical – another Yorkshire exclusive. And it recently hosted a month-long run of the musical Billy Elliot.

What’s going on? How is Bradford managing to bring these shows to the city with impressive regularity?

In 2008, the theatre did something unusual. Rather than just a week or two, it announced a musical that would run at the theatre for two months. The musical, which landed at the theatre in February 2008, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was a huge build, closing down the theatre for a couple of weeks while the technicians installed the show into the theatre. Closing a theatre down and hoping audiences would turn up in Bradford night after night for two months was a gamble. Or rather, a leap of faith. The man who jumped is the theatre’s general manager Adam Renton.

That was the moment the change came. When the fine four-fendered friend flew into town.

It gave the theatre confidence that if they built it, the people would come. That was in 2008. Five short years later, the theatre’s next big moment arrived.

“It took us three years of negotiations to get The Lion King. It was a case of having meetings in London, bringing them here to the theatre. They said one of the things that actually convinced them to come to us was how clean everything was backstage and how well looked after the theatre was,” says Renton.

It might sound mundane, but it’s indicative. Bradford Alhambra is a theatre that cares. Yes, the quality of the technicians helps, the building itself, but the small attention to detail makes a difference.

It’s also about patience. When you’re waiting for a decision on whether or not your theatre will host The Lion King the years tick slowly by. But eventually there comes a momentum.

If the producers of The Lion King, the mighty Disney corporation, tells the industry they have had a good time at your theatre, word trickles out. It means you end up with a year in which your Bradford audiences get to watch, in one calendar year, Billy Elliot, Wicked and Mary Poppins. That’s an impressive at least quarter-of-a-year that Bradford hosts high class, high quality musicals.

Does any of this really matter? There are 42,000 tickets sold for Mary Poppins. Add that to the more than 40,000 about to go through the doors for Wicked and the almost 50,000 who saw Billy Elliot. That’s three shows bringing 150,000 people into Bradford where they see some high class theatre and perhaps even a city that looks very different to what they expect.

I think it matters.

Wicked is at the Bradford Alhambra until August 21. Tickets 01274 432000.

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