Musicals Go Pig in the CommunityDate: 15 April 2011
On two successive nights in London, our musical theatre has produced two works of enduring and endearing quality, both prompted by inanimate pigs (one a farmyard beast, one a serial killer) and both showing ripples of disturbance and then solidarity in a close-knit small town community.
Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello is in many ways a conservative, throwback musical, with its post-War evocations of the Andrews Sisters, the jitterbug and even the English pastoral tradition of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But George Stiles' score is much cleverer than it first seems, not only in the areas of pastiche it occupies so confidently, but also in its orchestrations; the use of banjo and woodwind, for instance.
And the lyrics of Antony Drewe are skilfully sculpted, too, full of jokes and puns and sores and callouses (the reluctant hero so delightfully played by Reece Shearsmith is a chiropodist), as well as witty rhymes, weak and strong.
There are several notable firsts in musical comedy, too: a stage full of green methane pig fart clouds, a duet in nose pegs, and a row of town councillors discharging a chorus while emptying their bladders in an onstage urinal.
It's the first onstage, practical urinal since Max Stafford Clark's in King Lear at the Royal Court in which Tom Wilkinson played the title role. Unusual, too, to see our preoccupation with our feet so splendidly celebrated, notably in the song where Shearsmith massages the toes of three lady clients and establishes himself as an unlikely sex god in their eyes. The boy's got "magic fingers."
So what on the surface may seem a light and frothy "feel good" musical - and it certainly is that, to a large extent - is rooted in earthiness, sexual desire annd bodily functions, not least those of the flatulent Miss Piggy herself.
An even bigger surprise is London Road at the National, notable for the blossoming not only of the onstage floral displays in the neighbourhood stunned by the Ipswich murders five years ago, but especially of the talent of composer Adam Cork.
At one blow, Cork is suddenly the great new hope of British musical theatre, emerging from the shadows as a brilliantly gifted composer of sound scores for straight theatre productions by Michael Grandage and Rupert Goold into the full glare of the best musical theatre writing I've heard for years.
Unlike Stiles, Cork is not emulating other examples but forging his own style of setting words to music, sometimes atonally, sometimes melodically, always differently and freshly.
Most of the writing is choric in London Road, and much of it is to do with catching a tone, a nuance of expression, a surge of feeling, a pattern of speech, even a stutter, or a moment of psychological insecurity. Above all, it's always close, right on top of the words, which have been compiled by Alecky Blythe from her interviews with local residents.
I'd been thinking abut Kurt Weill a bit this week as I bumped into Rory Bremner at the Betty Blue Eyes opening and took the opportunity to tell him how stunning I thought was the excerpt he played on Radio 3 the other day from Weill's Silver Sea.
Bremner translated the 1933 piece - a musical play, really, written by George Kaiser, and Weill's last theatre work before he left Germany - for Broomhill Opera at Wilton's Music Hall about ten years ago.
Rory told me not only where I could track down a recording of the piece in London but also that he is currently preparing a translation of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld for one of the major companies.
I think we are at a new crossroads in musical theatre in Britain at the moment: if Adam Cork does not go on now to bridge the gap between George Stiles and Kurt Weill, and re-launch a mainstream post-Lloyd Webber "serious" musical theatre tradition, then I'm a Dutchman (said prominent critic Michael van den Coveney).
Andrew Lloyd Webber, meanwhile, was hardly tested on his thoughts on the genre by Piers Morgan in an immensely puerile and insubstantial interview on televison last weekend. The best thing were the views of the Lloyd Webber's Spanish retreat in Mallorca. Hacienda of the serious questions for now...
Piers was more interested in knowing about the rumours pertaining to the size of his lordship's downstairs furniture and even pressed his wife, Madeleine, on the subject. Why she didn't throw him straight in the infinity swimming pool I've no idea.
There was one bonus for ALW haters. Piers Morgan was even more irritating than Andrew who, of course, said more of interest and analysis in a single aside in his own TV reality shows than the giggling, gurgling, sycophantic Piers could manage in a month of Sundays.