Postcolonialism in Musicals

The Big Life

Book and lyrics by Paul Sirett (British, also did work in America)

Music by Paul Joseph (British)

Directed by Clint Dyer (British, born in London)


The Big Life is a musical comedy following immigrants on the Empire Windrush and their lives in England.  It mimics Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, involving Cupid and love stories, portraying gender roles and stereotypes, and as a review in The Guardian mentioned, declares that “there’s no pleasure so sweet as a deferred pleasure.” (Logan).  The play follows four Caribbean immigrant men who vow to make their marks on England before paying any attention to women or relationships, and of course, are doomed to fail in this endeavor.  The work has a lighthearted and humorous take on race relations and social issues, giving it an environment that can be open with balanced (relaxed but not sugar-coated) means of communication (Ojumu).  For example, the work deals with racism, but in a way that is both educational and comedic–people of any race can learn and laugh at themselves because of the show’s creative twists.

The music in the show is described as ska style, a sort of predecessor to reggae in Jamaica in the 1960s.  These musical styles actually developed over time when people brought them over in Britain, jointly shifting and becoming something new as music grows and changes (Spencer).  The combination of these styles and their malleability over time are appropriately integrated into the work, giving a substantial historical and cultural background.  This meshes well with the characters and their lives and stories, but also tells another story of a group of people and reminds audiences of elements that tie human beings together.  The show’s opening (video cited) shows the catchy and pleasing sounds of ska on stage, giving a distinct, bright introduction to the music and to the play itself (Evans).  Immediately, this opening gives the play cultural characteristics and background as to where the characters came from and what their lives are going to be like.  The scores in musicals tell as much a of story as the dialogue does, and for this work in particular, the style is crucial to understanding the piece.  The very first things to note come from this scene–excitement, eagerness, anticipation, devotion, and hope are all to be central to the story.

The musical first debuted in Theatre Royal Stratford East (in London’s East End), then went to West End in 2005, as West End’s first ever Black British musical (Reynolds).

Works Cited

Evans, Victor Romero. “Victor Romero Evans – ‘The Big Life’ (Musical Theatre).” YouTube, 20 Mar. 2009, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

Logan, Brian. “The Big Life, Apollo, London.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 25 May 2005, Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

Ojumu, Akin. “Reach for the ska.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 17 Apr. 2004, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

Reynolds, Nigel. “Stage set for West End’s first black, British musical.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group Limited, 4 May 2005, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

Spencer, Neil. “Reggae: the sound that revolutionised Britain.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 29 Jan. 2011, Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.


Takeaway: Or the Devil in Tom Jones

Written by Robert Lee (has lived in Britain and the US–Princeton University and NYU Tisch alumnus, now Associate Arts Professor at NYU Tisch)

Composed by Leon Ko (has lived and worked in Britain, the US (NYU Tisch alumnus), and China)

Directed by Kerry Michael (has done extensive theatre work in Britain)


Takeaway is a musical comedy whose protagonist is Eddie Woo, a second-generation Chinese-British immigrant who works at his family’s business, a Chinese takeaway restaurant.  Throughout the musical, Eddie struggles with dealing with the death of his mother, maintaining various romantic relationships (of varying seriousness) in addition to friendships, following his Welsh pop-star idol, “Las Vegas legend,”  Tom Jones, and finding his identity as a Chinese-British person (‘TAKEAWAY’- a musical).  

Though the writers (of the book, music, and lyrics), Ko and Lee, are both Asian-American, the play was first performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East in Stratford, England.  Takeaway also takes place in England, specifically in East London where the father’s takeaway restaurant is.

The musical deals largely ideas present in pop culture, reality vs. fantasy, family dynamics/place in a family, place in society, dealing with the complexity of grief, friendships, relationships, sexualities, secrets, and dreams for the future.  An important piece of the musical is the focus on people of racial minorities finding their place in pop culture, a place that often doesn’t represent them.  Eddie’s idol is not of Chinese heritage, like he is.  Underrepresentation is a major modern problem in pop culture, such as in lacking characters of color portrayed in TV shows, movies, plays, even a significant difference in faces people see in the music industry, and this musical addresses that issue extensively.  

Lee finds it important to label himself as Asian-American, and his play as East Asian-British.  He touches on issues such as the commonality of underrepresentation, saying, “If race truly wasn’t a major issue in the UK, I might have argued, then why were there no British east Asian pop stars or romantic film leads – or musical theatre stars?” (Lee).  This is also why, he argues, that Takeaway is an important piece for a modern British audience–no matter what their race.  Non-Chinese-British audience members can learn from it; Chinese-British audiences can benefit from seeing parts of themselves represented.

The musical claims to be the first East Asian-British one in existence (“Theatre Royal Stratford East presents ‘Takeaway’- the first British Chinese musical.”).  It opened on Friday, June 10, 2011.  Theatre Royal Stratford East encourages boundary-breaking productions such as this that change the industry and reshape the views of everyone involved.


Works Cited

Lee, Robert. “Why I stand by my east Asian British musical.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 30 June 2011, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

“Robert Lee.” NYU: Tisch, New York University, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

“TAKEAWAY – a musical.” The musicals of Ko & Lee, Chinese Hell, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

“Theatre Royal Stratford East presents ‘Takeaway’- the first British Chinese musical.” Nee Hao Magazine, VIP, 13 June 2011, Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.


A Dream Across the Ocean

Written by Martha Samuels

Produced by Churchboyz! Gospel group (from Britain, music style is rooted in the Caribbean)

Directed by Ray Shell (from North Carolina)


A Dream Across the Ocean follows the journey of Winston Morgan, a Caribbean man immigrating to London by way of the Empire Windrush in the 1960s.  Morgan embarks on this journey and life-change in order to improve the lives of himself and his family.  He struggles with leaving his love, Annie, behind, and to adjust to such a new place, though he does eventually find some stability in a friendship while overseas with Patrick, an Irishman.

The musical first debuted at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, South London, in August 2012, and has also played at the Hackney Empire in London in July 2013.  

This work focuses heavily on themes of family, love, relationships (romantic and otherwise), friendships, home, heart, and faith.

The musical style varies between gospel and ska, experimenting with different genres just as people’s stories and experiences are different.  These two genres are particularly important because of the Black British and Caribbean history that which they indicate.  Ska has cultural ties to reggae, as a form of music that followed it–meaning what is found in Britain and in the UK, as well as that found in the Caribbean.  The gospel music also has significant ties to Black culture, which very obviously helps characterize the groups of people portrayed in the play.  In addition, gospel music helps the faith aspect of the work to be highlighted in a unique way, allowing the score to guide the messages of the piece.  The ska and gospel style music also help to bring out the importance of journey, hope, and changes in this musical.

To hear the music and the ideas it helps convey is important to learning about a new musical (ACTSemail).  The video cited provides insight into this idea, as well as a taste for the work overall.

Another beneficial part of learning about a play is seeing designs for it (Fisher).  Set designer Elly Wdowski has set renderings/thumbnail sketched released that provide vibrant imagery of the show’s concept.


Works Cited

ACTSemail. “A DREAM ACROSS THE OCEAN.” YouTube, 19 July 2012, Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.

“A DREAM ACROSS THE OCEAN, A New British Musical to Make Premiere at Ashcroft Theatre, 8/11 -8/12.” Broadway World: UK Regional, Broadway World, 11 May 2012,–812-20120511. Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.

Dixon, Marcia. “The Windrush Generation Set To Take Centre Stage.” The Voice, GV Media Group Ltd., 8 Dec. 2012, Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.

Fisher, Gillian. “Behind the scenes with Ray Shell and his latest show, Dream Across the Ocean.” Afridiziak Theatre News, Afridiziak, 23 July 2012, Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.