Excel Centre 22 – 23 October
We sent Lily Middleton along to the first ever Musical Con to find out just what it is all about, and whether it could become an annual event for the legions of musical theatre fans.
I think we’ve found the place where we belong
Strolling from Custom House station up to the ExCel Centre and it’s easy to spot my fellow musical theatre fans. Whilst I’m sporting a “The show must go on” charity t-shirt, there are also a plethora of Queens from Six, residents of Oz, students of Westerberg High and much more. We’re all heading to the first ever Musical Con – a convention for fans of musical theatre.
The convention is a mix of performances, panel discussions and opportunities to meet the stars as well as workshops for budding performers. There is a small selection of stalls with musical theatre themed gifts, temptingly charming embroidery kits and the newly launched Musicals magazine. If you’re looking to train in the industry, there are plenty of theatre schools on hand to offer advice and guidance. I met Sam Rowe, a musical theatre student at Trinity Laban with dreams of being Javert in Les Mis, who is there to inspire prospective students. He stresses how everyone in the industry must be a fan to start with, and there’s no shortage of them in this hall today.
There’s a lot going on at Musical Con. And sadly, this is slightly to the detriment of the event. It’s very loud. Very, very loud. When watching the incredible Jenna Russell, she caveats her performance of one of Sondheim’s most exquisite songs, by saying “This is gonna be hilarious. It’s such a quiet little song.”, and she comically wonders what her friend, Sondheim himself, would have made of the situation.
The whole event is in just one hall at ExCel, so the music and shouting from the workshops easily carries across to the main stage. It’s distracting at best, but at worst it completely spoils the performances on stage. In the ‘Backstage’ area, home to many fascinating talks, there are headphones on each chair (the type you’d have at a silent disco) but again it’s quite hard to focus. You can’t help but feel sorry for the stars on stage, battling with the general volume of the event. We had to keep leaving the event space every now and then to give our ears a break.
Musical Con has also received some criticism online around accessibility issues, from not being clear in advance of the event for fans who were trying to work out if it would be possible and safe for them to attend, to issues on the day for those that did go. There is very little seating around the main stage; as a result you either have to stand for long periods of time, hope you can find a chair or just sit on the floor – not an option for all attendees.
Having said that, when this event is good, it’s fantastic. The opening performance on the main stage featured six West End icons performing a real mix of classic show tunes and more recent hits. Highlights were Ben Forster with his goosebump-inducing performance of ‘The Music of the Night’, Alice Fearn charming us with ‘Into the Unknown’ and Trevor Dion Nicholas thrilling the crowd with ’Friend Like Me’. And it was an absolute treat to hear the crowd erupt when Layton Williams burst onto the stage in his icon-making role from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
But my personal highlight was witnessing four past Elphabas, Alice Fearn, Louise Dearman, Laura Pick and Nikki Bentley, discuss their experiences of playing this iconic role in Wicked and performing some of Elphaba’s showstopping songs. Watching them perform ‘Defying Gravity’ together was an overwhelming experience, a real treat for the fans in the room.
A new event will always have issues, but Musical Con has some work to do for next year to make the event more accessible and find a way of controlling the noise levels. It’s also an expensive day, at £45 for the most basic day ticket and up to £195 for a weekend VIP ticket. At first, I questioned whether the event felt worth the money, and when you can’t get a seat at the Backstage talks stage to hear the panel discussions, or need to leave the event space just to avoid a headache, it feels hard to justify.
However, most of the visitors I spoke to were flying high on the buzz of the day. A sibling pair had travelled from Glasgow and said they hope it happens every year whilst friends who’d travelled for 2½ hours to be there loved the variety of things to see. A group of Phantom cosplayers told me about their “stand-off with Les Mis” with glee, before explaining how they felt the event was a safe space, where they can be whoever they want to be without judgement. It’s a place for musical theatre fans to come together and freely share their passion.
Hopefully Musical Con will iron out its teething problems and address the communication and accessibility issues to make this event a safe and welcoming staple in the musical theatre calendar, for all its audiences.
Musical Con took place on 22 and 23 October 2022. Check the website here for future announcements for 2023.