I’ve been trying to write this post for a few days, but kept getting lost in what I was trying to say. Now I think I have it – my thoughts are now in order.
There is one theatrical tradition that is sure to polarize theatre folk, The Musical, or to give it its proper title, Musical Theatre. People tend to either love it or hate it. It’s looked down on because its ‘populist’ or its celebrated because it is popular and draws a wide audience. I was reminded of this recently by playwright Howard Brenton when asked in an interview which art form he didn’t relate to, he said
Musical theatre. I love opera – I’ve written a libretto – but I can’t bear show music. Every song sounds the same.
I have always tended to agree with him, but while I was thinking about this I began to question why there are some musicals I do like – Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jerry Springer the Opera, The Threepenny Opera, The Lion King and on film, Moulin Rouge. Now this is an eclectic, if not quite odd, mix and I am aware of that, so what is it that they do that draws me too them? Why these, when I know that there are musicals that I simply don’t like and think are utter garbage (the likes of Starlight Express, for example)? Then I listened to this interview with Robert Gordon, who is Professor of Drama at Goldsmiths, University of London.
In it he reflects on the perception of musical theatre as pure entertainment and looks at key productions that have had significant political and social relevance across its history, from the 18th century production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera to new musical Mission Drift. It is well worth a listen. (Incidentally, Brecht and Weill based Threepenny Opera on Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and Mission Drift is, and I quote, a pioneering journey west and east across the USA in search of the character of American capitalism).
So I went back to my list. Superstar was a first of its kind, one that embraced a popular musical idiom and appealed, therefore, to my generation. Jerry Springer is outrageous and challenged society’s religious norms (and I loved the howls of outrage it produced as well!). The Lion King is an easy one – the beautiful use of puppets was a first. The Threepenny Opera because again, it was the first of its kind, a socialist critique of a capitalist world and remains hauntingly relevant today. Moulin Rouge, ditto Superstar. That leaves me with Les Mis and I guess its appeal to me lies in its pure expansive theatricality – and I did see it in its original incarnation many years ago.
Be warned of the ‘interesting’ language in the video below!
All of this goes someway to help me understand my diffidence to musicals, but not all the way. Then it struck me that part of my issue is that they don’t tend into fit my modus operandi as a theatre teacher. You are all aware that I see theatre a tool of challenge, change and confrontation – it should make audiences think and reflect. Most musicals simply don’t do this, so in terms of my teaching life I have simply dismissed them. There is another point I’d like to make here, but it is irrelevant at the moment so I will leave for later.
But still I didn’t feel this gave me the full answer I was looking for. A little bit of research got me to look at the numbers of musicals on in London this summer (36) and New York (38). Astonishing! And this is just two cities. The spread of the ‘western’ musical across the globe seems relentless – I refer you back to an early post as a good example, The Gweilos Are Coming. If you compare the two listings you will the same shows again and again. I realised that this irritates me – where is the originality? On the other hand (with my global citizen hat on) why shouldn’t audiences in New York, London, Mumbai, Beijing, Shanghai and Sydney have access to these shows?
Then I read these two articles – Does the mega-musical boom mean theatre’s bust? and Some musical theatre is still on song – and it clicked! The final piece of the puzzle. The phrase McTheatre summed up what I don’t like about the modern mega-musical. It doesn’t matter where in the world you see one of the really big musicals it will look and sound exactly the same (unless you are seeing Cats in Beijing of course, where it will be sung in Chinese). Only the original staging is unique and truly creative – all the others are just a facsimile, a direct copy, that’s how it works! I am a believer in the global village, but this kind of globalisation which strips theatre of its creativity just seems wrong. As Robert Gordon says in his interview and Lyn Gardner in her articles, there are fantastic musical pieces of inspirational social commentary emerging, but they come from small, innovative companies, with small budgets, not the mega-theatrical corporations of Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd-Webber!
So there you have it. I have managed to explain to myself why I have problems with musicals and the answer is complex. You might not agree but let us beg to differ. However, if you really do like Starlight Express don’t ever speak to me again!
By way of a post script to this post – I alluded to this earlier – I’d like to say something about the notion of the ‘school musical’. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, there is an expectation that a school will ‘do’ a musical. However, let me be frank here, it is not because they extend or deepen learning, it’s because they are good publicity vehicles for an institution. I don’t really have a problem with this as such (actually that’s a lie, but it is my job). What I do have a problem with is that they are exclusive and limiting. The pool of students who have the skills to perform in a musical is small and excludes a much wider range of students who are excellent actors, but can’t sing. They reduce opportunities for participation. That’s not to say I don’t celebrate the students that can perform in them, because I do, and am humbled by their skills. Our last musical outing was Little Shop of Horrors (pictured above) and it was superb. But, I want public performances to impact in the classroom/drama studio and for me, musicals just don’t do that.