Move over, Comic Con – Cats cosplayers are here

Fans of the hit musical Six recreate the distinctive costumes and produce their own art - Jeff Gilbert Photography

Fans of the hit musical Six recreate the distinctive costumes and produce their own art – Jeff Gilbert Photography

If you really want to test your devotion to musical theatre, try queuing at Excel London before 10am while a choir sings show tunes. In fact, almost everyone waiting for entry to the UK’s first-ever Musical Con on Saturday happily joined us – proof, with the 10,000 tickets sold for the inaugural two-day event, that there has a huge appetite for such a fan convention. .

The Americans got there first: BroadwayCon kicked off in 2016. And really, it seems strange that it took us so long. Musical theater is big business in the UK, and its fans are feverishly devoted. Take those from the recent hit Six, dubbed the Queendom (a riff royal on “fandom”). They don’t just attend the show multiple times, but recreate the distinctive costumes, produce their own art, and connect with others.

This is the key aspect: the community. And that’s what Musical Con achieved just by opening its doors and inviting all those fans to gather in one place. Well, they finally did. Delays have plagued this first outing – a problem given the busy schedule, with multiple events taking place simultaneously. The intention was probably to give good value for money: tickets started at £45 for a day pass, up to £195 for a VIP weekend pass.

Musical Con organizers Chris Steward and Shanay Holmes of West End Musical Productions, who spoke to me ahead of the event, revealed they had increased capacity twice due to huge demand. This scaling has manifested itself in both positive and negative ways. The atmosphere was extraordinary, as a veritable army of like-minded people – young and biased women, but with a decent range overall – exchanged excited chatter and stared at each other’s costumes. Ah yes: many came dressed to impress, with Heathers: The Musical the most prominent, but a strong representation of Waitress, Grease, Wicked, Frozen, The Phantom of the Opera, and even several brave souls in Furry Cats unitards.

However, this colorful batch was crammed into too small a space. The market area, housing stalls for merchandise and related businesses like physiotherapists or the new Musicals magazine, as well as exhibitors for theater schools, festivals, Disney On Stage and industry bodies like the official theater in London, were quickly shaken up. In fact, the longest queue was for Musical Con’s own stand, selling branded t-shirts and tote bags – a promising sign, as it suggests fans believe it will become an event. regular and want proof that they were there all along.

Musical theater enthusiasts Sam Bate and Fiona Johnston dressed as characters from the Phantom of the Opera - Jeff Gilbert Photography

Musical theater enthusiasts Sam Bate and Fiona Johnston dressed as characters from the Phantom of the Opera – Jeff Gilbert Photography

But if the convention is to become annual, it really needs to bring in the UK’s talented designers and sound engineers. The sound was close to disaster: the performances on the main stage were massively (and badly) over-amplified, and there was constant noise from both studios for the dance workshops, where one could learn the routines of the shows. This last pair was just closed with curtains.

Oddly, the Backstage Theater area, which was used for panel discussions and Q&As, was placed right next to the main stage. Even though the Backstage audience was given noise-canceling headphones, connected to speaker microphones, the ambient sound, including screaming fans, was deafening. Not ideal when it comes to addressing sensitive issues like representation or mental health. Although all credit goes to the determined speakers, who embodied the old credo “the show must go on”.

Likewise, Jenna Russell performed songs by the late Stephen Sondheim — with sensitivity and nuance — but the surrounding roar sounded like a plane taking off during a hurricane. “I laugh to myself imagining Stephen in heaven saying, ‘What is Jenna doing now? “Russell joked. Still, that’s surely a solvable problem, as are starter issues like lack of seats and a general disregard for accessibility, plus missing info like workshop difficulty levels. .

Heathers fans Emma Colbourne, Louise Starling, Terri Cash and Kathline Blake-Pink - Jeff Gilbert

Heathers fans Emma Colbourne, Louise Starling, Terri Cash and Kathline Blake-Pink – Jeff Gilbert

However, the convention has certainly delivered on its promise to give back to fans, whose unwavering loyalty has helped keep the industry afloat during Covid. You can get an autograph or a photo with your favorite star, take pictures with costumes and props, like DeLorean from Back to the Future, and get up close to performances by West End behemoths like Wicked – featuring four of the actresses who have played Elphaba – or enjoy an exclusive cast reunion for In the Heights.

Budding artists could also take center stage at competitions like Star of Musical Con (I was particularly impressed with the performance of 15-year-old Edward Flynn-Haddon’s Dear Evan Hansen). There was also a place for new, uplifting musicals and behind-the-scenes roles – demystifying the different paths to an industry that still excludes many, especially those from working class backgrounds.

A dance group from Leicester performed at the opening ceremony of the convention - Jeff Gilbert Photography

A dance group from Leicester performed at the opening ceremony of the convention – Jeff Gilbert Photography

Owen Smith, artistic director of Redbridge Drama and Dance College (which had a booth at the convention) reported that many teenagers brought their parents to prove it was a viable career. “A lot of people don’t realize how many job opportunities there are, in creative as well as performance roles,” he said.

He observed that it was the perfect time to launch Musical Con, given the number of cult musicals. “Before it was just Rocky Horror. Now there are a lot of shows where people want to dress like the characters, and a new generation that wants a full immersive experience.

Times are still tough for the industry, so can events like Musical Con galvanize sales? Based on this premiere, I’d say the infrastructure needs work, but the pure passion – from the fans and the whole industry – is definitely there. Hopefully we will get a repeat performance in 2023.

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