Things to Do in London in the Evening - 6 West End Musicals You Must See
Updated: Mar 6
London's West End is home to an astonishing number of musicals and if you haven't booked a ticket to see one yet, now's the time to do so as it's one of the best things to do in London in the evening. Whilst I am not a fan of conventional theatre plays, I do have a massive soft spot for musicals and the variety of shows on offer was one of my favourite things about living in London - there is literally always something going on in the West End. I have seen my fair share of different kinds of musicals and know that trying to pick a musical to see can be overwhelming. To make your choice easier, here is my recommendation for the top 6 West End musicals to see in London.
1. Wicked - Apollo Victoria Theatre
If I had to pick my all-time favourite West End musical, it would be a close tie between Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera (number 2 on this list). I love both, but Wicked is the one I have ended up seeing most times - I've gone there with colleagues, friends, my husband, alone... Wicked, enchanting the crowds in London since 2006, firmly got me under its spell!
I was initially attracted to it because of the storyline - The Wizard of Oz was one of my favourite books as a kid, so it's only natural that the story of the witches of the land of Oz would pique my interest. Is there more to Elphaba than just being the Wicked Witch of the West? And is Glinda the Good Witch really as good as she seems?
Based on a book by Gregory Maguire, the story doesn't disappoint, and of all the musicals I've seen, Wicked is probably the one with the strongest plot. It's about the difficulties of being different, about standing up for the right thing and what you believe in, no matter what.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwarz are as amazing as the plot, with lots of memorable tunes. I even got goosebumps during Defying Gravity, the 'key' song of the musical! There really wasn't anything in this show that I didn't like...
Incidentally, if you want to see Wicked and don't want to travel too far afterwards, I have the perfect hotel for you. The Grosvenor London is located just a few steps away from the theatre and I loved my stay there - click here to read my review of the Grosvenor hotel.
2. The Phantom of the Opera - Her Majesty's Theatre
The Phantom of the Opera is one of the longest-running West End productions - it's been playing since 1986 (the only show that's been around longer than that is Les Miserables, since 1985). That alone should give you an idea of how iconic The Phantom of the Opera is - truly a classic of the West End and an absolute must-see.
The musical is based on a French novel and tells the story of Christine Daae, a singer who becomes the protege of a mysterious phantom creature living somewhere in the opera house.
The Phantom of the Opera was my first ever musical obsession, which started after seeing the film with Gerald Butler back in 2004. I loved Andrew Lloyd Webber's powerful score and pretty much learned all the songs by heart, so I was extremely excited when I got the chance to see where it all began, live on stage. Even more so, because everyone who'd seen it before loved it.
And the musical delivered - it was everything I imagined and more. It's a 1000 times better than the film! Though the seats weren't great the first time I went (I've since been back in better seats), I was transfixed as the events unravelled. I mean I already knew the music was going to be wonderful, but that combined with the super clever stage decorations, like the chandelier or the mirror that Christine enters, took my breath away. Oh, and the boat scene.... I will say no more - you absolutely have to see it for yourself!
3. School of Rock - Gillian Lynne Theatre
Based on the film of the same name starring Jack Black and adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock is a mix of the original songs from the film and new songs written for the stage debut.
School of Rock tells the story of an unemployed musician Dewey Finn posing as substitute teacher and turning the class into a band. The musical first opened on Broadway in New York and then came to the West End in London in 2016.
Why did I like it? It's funny, it's energetic, and it truly rocks! Plus you get to see a lot of very talented kids singing and playing musical instruments (yes, they do actually play live!). What's not to like? This is a must-see musical, especially if you have seen and loved the original film with Jack Black. A super-fun night out!
PS - if you sit close enough, you will be able to see the sweat drops flying around Dewey! Whether you want to or not is another question...
Update: Since this post was published, the London production of School of Rock has unfortunately closed, so it is no longer possible to see the show.
4. Matilda - Cambridge Theatre
Matilda is a musical based on a children's novel by Roald Dahl. In the West End since 2011, it has a long list of awards to its name (and has even made it to the Guinness Book of Records), but that's not why I went to see it.
The reason for my interest was the fact that the music and lyrics were written by Tim Minchin. If you don't know who that is, you really need to check out his work because he's a genius at combining witty lyrics about topical issues and melodies that get stuck in your head and never ever leave. Honestly, Matilda aside, half the time when I go to the supermarket with my canvas bags, I have Tim Minchin's song in my head (yes, he did write a song about canvas bags and supermarkets!!!).
So of course being the massive Tim Minchin fan that I am, I had to go and check out what Matilda was all about. During the show, what impressed me the most was the clever way the stage was set up and how the choreography was arranged to interact with the props. That, and of course the little girl who played Matilda!
Matilda's parents, on the other hand, are portrayed in a very exaggerated manner, which kind of put me off. I understand that they want to make it very clear that they are annoying people, but just looking at them gave me a headache!
The musical doesn't have a score that blows your mind, like Wicked or The Phantom of the Opera, but then that wouldn't be the Tim Minchin way anyway. If fact, after I left the theatre, I couldn't really recall any of the tunes. Until, that is, I woke up the next morning and the songs wouldn't stop playing in my head. Tim Minchin did it again!
5. Aladdin - Prince Edward Theatre
Aladdin is a fun and easy musical to watch, filled with silly jokes (which, by the way, were adapted especially for the British audience as they didn't think the jokes from the US script would be relevant in London). It's the kind of show that doesn't take itself too seriously, which lends it extra charm.
A big fan of the original Disney cartoon, I was particularly interested to see how the story was going to be brought to life within the limitations of a theatrical production where one can't just draw everything that comes to mind. And I have to say the stage design and the special effects are incredible. From the market square at Agrabah to Princess Jasmine's quarters to the treasure cave, everything is detailed, beautiful and sets the scene perfectly. I know you are probably wondering about that magic carpet - yes, it's in there alright and it's amazing! Some compromises had to be made though and they were the animals - Abu and Rajah are sadly not featured in the musical, but I can see how it may be problematic getting a tiger to cooperate.
Apart from the lavish stage props, the costumes also deserve a special mention - there were lots of rapid costume changes, one more sparkly and colourful than the other. It was all thought through and perfected - the instant transformation of Jafar into a sultan and then into a genie was very impressive!
When it comes to the cast, my two favourites were the larger-than-life Genie who stole the show and the stereotypical Disney villain - cue evil laughter - Jafar. The rest of the cast spoke in an odd American accent, which grated on my ears, seeing as they a) were not American and b) the story is set in the Middle East.
Another disappointment was the new songs that were composed especially for the musical. While the tunes from the original cartoon are catchy and stay in your head for ages, the new songs are just not memorable at all. If I heard one on the radio today, I would't recognise that it came from Aladdin.
However, the pros by far outweigh the cons, so overall it was a very enjoyable night out and I wholeheartedly recommend the musical for the young and old alike.
6. Six - Arts Theatre
Last but not least, and very fittingly titled for number 6 on this list, Six is a different kind of musical. Whilst a traditional London West End musical sets the scene with abundant decorations and has a very large cast, Six relies on only six characters and a live band of four members playing on the stage. That's it.
Another difference to a normal musical is the length - Six is so short that there is no break in the middle and some evening performances start as late as 8:30pm. Plenty of time to have a nice dinner before the show without having to rush.
Six began as a production by Cambridge University students that first saw the light of day during the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2017, before being adapted for the London performances. It tells the story of the six wives of Henry VIII, so it's educational as well as a lot of fun.
As it's such a small show, Six lives through the energy and stage presence of the amazing cast members who rock every minute on stage. So it's a good thing that the musical is based at the Arts Theatre, which is very compact, allowing the members of the audience to see the mimics of the actors even from the circle.
The tunes are super catchy and engaging and, before long, you will be tapping your foot and humming along to 'No-no-no-no no way!' You have to be attentive and really listen to the lyrics here - they are humorous and very tongue-in-cheek. I loved the way the songwriter modernised the events and brought them into the 21st century!
Update: Since this post was published, the popularity of Six has only grown. It is now a winner of two Tony awards and is running at the Vaudeville Theatre.