I used the lyrics “It’s New Year’s Eve and hopes are high, dance one year in, kiss one goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard to introduce my look back at the musical theatre year on New Year’s Eve last year, and it seems more than appropriate to do so once again. I say more than appropriate because during 2013 I had the unexpected opportunity throughout the year to see all four London Norma Desmonds live on stage. The original Norma, Patti Lupone, returned to London to appear in a series of concerts at the Leicester Square Theatre, revisiting the Sunset score for a dramatic rendering of ‘With One Look’. I saw the final Norma, Petula Clark, in fine voice on the last night of her concert tour, where she also sang that number, in a mostly pop programme. Her predecessor, Elaine Paige, was in jazz mode in a London Festival of Cabaret concert with Michael Feinstein, and I’ll see her again in 2014 for what is billed as her farewell UK tour.

However, it was ‘my’ Norma – Betty Buckley – an actress and singer who I had not had the pleasure of seeing on the London (or any other) stage for nigh on twenty years, who gave the most beguiling performance I’ve seen in any musical all year. Buckley led a talented cast in the West End premiere of Jerry Herman’s chamber musical Dear World at the Charing Cross Theatre, an inventive production directed by Gillian Lynne, which highlighted the intimacy and delightful charm of the piece. As Norma in Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi Theatre in 1994, Buckley gave one of the most dramatic and charismatic performances I’ve seen – to be reminded just how good she really is, in a Jerry Herman score full of beautiful lyrical numbers, was a real treat. As I wrote in my review here, Buckley brought a rare truth and poignancy to her performance and interpretation of the musical numbers – I very much hope that she’ll return to London very soon.

The big classic musicals were well represented this year, in both London and the provinces. My year started with a terrific and reimagined production of Phantom of the Opera on tour, directed by Laurence Connor who will bring Miss Saigon back to the West End in 2014 (I can’t wait!). Janie Dee starred in a joyous production of Hello Dolly at Leicester Curve too. One special highlight of the year was the superbly crafted ‘musical about musicals’ A Chorus Line at the London Palladium – a singular sensation of a show about the hopes and dreams of a group of dancers. A completely different musical that I would regard as a ‘classic’ is Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which finally had a West End run in 2013 with the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory production, directed by Maria Friedman. Merrily had an enormous amount to say about life, love and humanity, and thankfully this production is now gloriously preserved via Digital Theatre.

Alongside these highlights, there were some disappointments too: touring productions of High Society, The Pirates of Penzance and Joseph failed to make the mark, and new musical Lift never really got off the ground either. However, there were many more successes, with high class tours of 9 to 5, Ghost and Cabaret, along with a charming production of Salad Days at the Riverside Studios, now released on CD.

Chichester Festival Theatre once again provided many of 2013’s highlights. Richard Eyre and Stephen Mear worked their magic on the romantic musical comedy The Pajama Game at the Minerva, which will transfer to the Shaftesbury Theatre for a 20 week season from 1 May. It will star Joanna Riding (currently in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward which I look forward to seeing at the Aldwych in late January), and Michael Xavier (the Captain in Regent Park’s summer musical The Sound of Music this year). As the major RENEW project saw the main theatre having a major revamp, Cameron Mackintosh’s lavish production of the circus musical Barnum was appropriately staged in a grand circus tent in the grounds, named ‘Theatre in the Park’. Barnum will have a future life on tour with Brian Conley during 2014. Having completed a West End season, another Chichester hit, Singin in the Rain, has just started a major UK tour and was in fine shape when I saw it recently.   

There have been some high quality evenings with solo artistes too – one of my favourite leading ladies, Ruthie Henshall, gave a powerhouse performance in her new ‘intimate evening’ tour which will tour for a second season in the spring of 2014. Cabaret of the finest quality can be seen at the intimate London nightspot of the Crazy Coqs, where I thoroughly enjoyed evenings with original A Chorus Line star Donna McKechnie and Billy Stritch. And the aforementioned Michael Feinstein proved to be the cream of a glorious crop at the London Festival of Cabaret which will return in May 2014.

Looking ahead to 2014, Robert Lindsay will return to the West End in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy (from 10 March), while I’m likely to give the X Factor musical I Can’t Sing a miss at the Palladium (from 27 Feb). I’m most looking forward to the aforementioned West End return of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward (from 3 May), to Chichester’s transfer of The Pajama Game to the Shaftesbury and to the West End premiere of Broadway hit Urinetown at St James Theatre (from 22 Feb), three very different shows that look set to make their mark in the new year.