Ian McKellen, Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton star in new season at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Last year in one of its best-attended summer seasons ever, Chichester Festival Theatre audiences topped 200,000 – the venue’s best showing since 1997 despite raging recession.

So just how do you follow that?

For CFT artistic director Jonathan Church, the answer is simply to ramp up the ambition.

“This summer is the richest, the most complex season we have ever done,” Jonathan said. “Simply in terms of scale, it might just be the biggest season ever.”

Announcing his sixth season in charge, Jonathan is putting his faith in the musicals.

Having doubled attendances in his first five years, this summer he will be hoping to hold steady with a season which breaks new ground – three musicals in a CFT summer for the first time.

Closing the season will be Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd, directed by Jonathan Kent, Sondheim’s masterpiece of corruption and revenge (main house, September 24 to November 5).

Opening the season in the Minerva will be Joe McFadden and Dianne Pilkington in She Loves You, the musical which famously spawned the film You’ve Got Mail (May 9 to June 18).

Mid-summer, the big musical attraction will be Singin’ In The Rain, starring Adam Cooper, Daniel Crossley and Scarlett Strallen, directed by Jonathan himself (June 27 to September 10).

The recent big-screen version of Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp, came with an 18 certificate. If you wanted a cinema-style classification for the CFT version, it would be more of a 12a, Jonathan said.

The big attraction will be Michael Ball in his first CFT appearance: “It’s just a fantastic role for him to tackle. He is such an extraordinary performer, but I think this will be the most demanding role he has ever had. I don’t think Imelda Staunton – such an extraordinary actress – has ever played here before either.

“I think the show is a fantastic piece of story-telling. It will be the single biggest musical we have ever produced in terms of the company and the band. There will be two or three more people on the stage, two or three more people in the band than we have ever had.

“And the show will be the latest we have ever gone in the summer. Because of its darker subject, we didn’t think it would fit into the summer repertoire!

“With Sweeney Todd and also She Loves You, we thought we didn’t need perhaps to do a conventional musical mid-season. But 42nd Street last year outperformed any musical we have ever done, and it felt wrong in the middle of the summer not to do one of those big blockbusting Broadway musicals.

“Not everyone who came to see 42nd Street would want to come to see Sweeney Todd, and then we were suddenly able to acquire the rights to Singin’ In The Rain, one of my favourite-ever musicals.

“Partly the attraction is it is a musical that, given the importance of dance and singing, actually has a very strong narrative and requires a good deal of conventional story-telling from the leads. It’s also a period I am fascinated with.”

Another key strand in the summer season will be a celebration of Terrence Rattigan in the centenary year of his birth.

From July 13 to September 3, the main house will host Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea alternating with the world premiere of Rattigan’s Nijinsky by Nicholas Wright, both performed by the same company, and directed by Philip Franks who scored such success a couple of seasons ago with Rattigan’s Separate Tables.

Rattigan’s Nijinsky is based on a Rattigan screenplay, transformed into a new piece in which a dying Rattigan meets Nijinsky’s elderly widow. The Deep Blue Sea sees Hester Collyer fall obsessively in love with the attractive but callow Freddie Page, a younger man incapable of returning her love.

Rather like Taking Sides and Collaboration a couple of years ago, both plays stand alone or can be viewed on different nights for the full effect.

Complementing the pieces over in the Minerva from September 2 to October 8 will be Rattigan’s The Browning Version, a one-act play which will form one half of a double bill on the night with South Downs, a world premiere from David Hare.

“We have a festival within the festival in effect,” Jonathan said. “Like a lot of the country, we are celebrating Rattigan’s centenary. Rattigan has been phenomenally important to Chichester over the years.

“Often you feel his plays, like Coward and Wilde, are plays that are very much for enjoying. But I also think Rattigan is a bit more like Ibsen. They are often darker and deeper.

“I don’t know why, but I suppose 30 years ago Chekhov and Ibsen might have been more fashionable than Rattigan, but I think the tables are turning. I think Rattigan is now feeling more immediate, more psychologically truthful, more classically enduring than we might have predicted.”

Another highlight of the season will be the summer season main-house opener, a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (May 20-June 11) – a retelling of Hamlet through the eyes of two of its minor characters.

“Trevor Nunn will be returning to direct one of my favourite Stoppards. It is one of his early masterpieces. It’s a marvellous reinvention of Hamlet with two of the minor characters taking the lead, and Trevor has a life-long relationship with Tom Stoppard.

“It’s such a fundamentally theatrical play. What I love about Stoppard is he can make you laugh and think and he turns the whole thing upside down, which is very exciting. It just does everything I think good theatre does.”

Another coup for the season will be Ian McKellen starring in The Syndicate by Eduardo De Filippo in a new version by Mike Poulton (Minerva, July 21-August 20), a comedy which sees respectable Naples collide with its criminal underworld.

“It was a serendipitous coup. We have been developing this idea and we thought this might be something that might be happening two years in the future once he had finished filming The Hobbit. But he has now got a gap in his filming schedule which means he can come to us. They don’t finish filming until 2012, but gloriously, he was able to sneak us in.”

The season also features a Minerva revival in its 25th anniversary year of Top Girls by Caryl Churchill (June 23 to July 16).

Online public booking opens for everyone on Monday, February 28. Telephone and counter booking opens for everyone on Thursday, March 3. Tickets are available online at www.cft.org.uk or by contacting the box office on 01243 781312.