How musicals became big business for Bradford

Mary Poppins comes to Bradford later in the year.
Mary Poppins comes to Bradford later in the year.
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The Alhambra’s new season once again features the pick of top West End musicals. Theatre correspondent 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.

Truism? Lazy journalism?

Not a bit – I’m a Bradfordian and, when I speak to people from outside the city about Bradford, I have to bite my tongue. The city does not always enjoy a healthy reputation outside of its own borders and I know. People aren’t backward in their opinions about my unfairly maligned city.

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. Or to give its proper name, and not the one by which I have known it for three decades, the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford. (The ‘h’ by the way, and I appreciate just how controversial a statement this is, is silent).

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the theatre made a leap into the big leagues.

It is a receiving house, which means it doesn’t make its own shows, save the always brilliant annual pantomime: it has to take the shows that are on offer and touring the UK. What this means is that the theatre is up against all the other theatres in the country in a competition to convince the big, bold musicals to come to town. If a theatre producer looks at Bradford and sees another, more attractive theatre nearby, another venue that might sell more tickets, then Bradford is going to miss out. It’s not show friends, it’s show business.

However.

Look at this year’s line-up. Next week Wicked, a big West End tour, comes to the city for a month. 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 – another Yorkshire exclusive. Did I mention that it recently hosted a month-long run of the musical Billy Elliott?

What’s going on? How is Bradford managing to bring these shows to the city with impressive regularity? Well, before we get there, let’s look a little more at what has been brought to the city.

Footloose starring X Factor contestants, Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat with former soap stars and day time TV presenters, and productions of Grease starring no-one you’ve heard of were, for a long time, the usual suspects in the annual brochures. It wasn’t inspiring.

In 2008, the theatre did something out of the ordinary. 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.

I’ve been visiting the theatre since Russ Abbott in panto when I was a boy and been writing about it for the Yorkshire Post, watching its fortunes closely, since 2004. 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. It’s also about patience. I was of course being ironic when I said ‘five short years’. 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.

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