'The band were in tears!' How karaoke musicals are conquering theatre

From The Sound of Music to The Greatest Showman, singalong screenings of musicals are no longer a novelty in cinemas. While stage shows such as Bat Out of Hell, based on the songs of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, have held similar performances, theatregoers are usually discouraged from joining in with all those rousing choruses. Tina – The Tina Turner musical has pre-show announcements requesting that audiences refrain from wailing out Nutbush City Limits during the drama. They are asked to save their singing for the medley finale.

However, a trend of karaoke nights is emerging in theatre. Surprisingly, it is original new musicals that are leading the way rather than revivals of classics or jukebox shows stuffed with hit songs.

The first singalong production of Six, at London’s Arts theatre, will take place in June and has already sold out. A second one is to follow in July. Six has grown from a student show at the Edinburgh festival to a West End smash in under two years and, later this month, will compete against Tina and Broadway successes Fun Home and Come from Away for the Olivier award for best new musical. While Tina’s producers have to emphasise that their show is a not a concert, Six is styled as exactly that. The premise is that Henry VIII’s wives have come back from the grave to form a girl group, reclaiming their stories in a live “histo-remix” gig. “Remember us from your GCSEs?” they ask, before each takes the lead vocal on their own song.

Runaway success … Alexia McIntosh as Anna of Cleves in Six. Photograph: Idil Sukan

It might be a new musical but, with the album getting 60,000 streams a day and its “queendom” fanbase expanding, plenty of theatregoers already know Six’s lyrics off by heart. Lucy Moss was in her final year studying history at Cambridge when she wrote the show with fellow undergraduate Toby Marlow. She says they didn’t want to create a ‘“classic book musical, going from scene to song” but aimed to use the conventions of a concert within a theatrical format. Now that the songs are better known, she says, the singalong nights will enable the actors to “use more call-and-response with the audience and play more on the pop-concert vibe”.

The six queens will encourage fans to join in with solo numbers such as Anne Boleyn’s sour bubblegum pop song Don’t Lose Ur Head and Jane Seymour’s aching ballad Heart of Stone. Or they can join the whole company in the oompah-techno number Haus of Holbein (about the king’s favoured painter), performed in neon rave glasses. The costume style is Tudor meets futuristic: robot corsets and studded jewels. So should audiences dress up? “One-hundred per cent,” Moss laughs. “That’s mandatory! I’m kidding – we just want everyone to come as their interpretation of who they are as a queen.”

When Six opened at the Edinburgh festival, Moss expected “maybe, like, four people would see it”. But the empowering musical sold out from the second performance on. “It’s struck a chord with a lot of young women and inspired them to be quite vocal,” she says. At the singalong nights, that’s very literally the case.

Marisha Wallace, Katharine McPhee and Laura Baldwin in Waitress.

Serving up the goods … Marisha Wallace, Katharine McPhee and Laura Baldwin in Waitress. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Six is a homegrown hit in an intimate underground venue. Up the road, the Adelphi theatre – with four times the capacity – is home to Waitress, one of a fresh batch of Broadway successes to transfer to London. The production, with music by multi-Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, stars American Idol contestant Katherine McPhee as an inventive pie chef. Waitress’s post-show karaoke nights have been a key ingredient to its US success, allowing the audience to get on stage and perform with a live band, sometimes duetting with the actors.

Nadia DiGiallonardo, who is responsible for music supervision and arrangements on Waitress, says they held the first such event soon after the show opened on Broadway and found that audiences already knew songs off by heart. “People were coming up and requesting the most obscure tracks.”

Karaoke in pubs and clubs is currently experiencing a boom in the UK, with musicals the most popular genre for punters. These theatre initiatives are taking fans closer to the shows they love – and providing another reason for a return visit.

Fiendish fun … Bat Out of Hell invited theatregoers to sing along.

Fiendish fun … Bat Out of Hell invited theatregoers to sing along. Photograph: Specular

On Waitress’s karaoke nights, participating audience members gather in the stalls after the production has ended and wait to see if their names will be drawn from the hat. If they’re chosen, they sing a section of their chosen track. Sometimes groups from the audience perform together. “Four people had planned out a whole performance of the opening number of the show, playing different characters,” says DiGiallonardo. One couple got engaged on stage after they had shared a duet. For most participants in the US, says DiGiallonardo, “it’s their first time getting on a Broadway stage – and they’re singing a song from their favourite show with a live band behind them.”

Waitress opened for previews at the Adelphi in February and has already held two karaoke nights in London. Three more have been announced for April, May and June. “It’s very emotional,” says DiGiallonardo. “The band have cried watching people sing these songs!”

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