One Word Titles Spell Disaster for MusicalsDate: 14 November 2000
Musicals are an often maligned art form, but sometimes you just have to say that their creators really bring it upon themselves. Whatsonstage.com correspondent Mark Shenton bemoans the musical state we're in.
There's a crisis in British musical theatre, and its demonstrated by the fact that - outside of the creative forces of producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber who between them galvanised the British musical into an international force - no one has emerged to rival them since their arrival on the scene a quarter of a century ago. The fact that both men, with shows like Moby Dick, Martin Guerre and Putting it Together (produced by Mackintosh) and Sunset Boulevard and Whistle Down the Wind (produced and composed by Lloyd Webber), have had their share of artistic and/or financial failure only accentuates the chasm.
Both, however, have returned to the West End this year with productions, The Witches of Eastwick and The Beautiful Game respectively, that show them attempting to travel in new directions. In the process, their sense of artistic adventure has finally been renewed as they've both tried to move away from the rut of the kind of musical that they helped to create. For Cameron Mackintosh, it meant finding a young(ish) American writing team to put a contemporary spin on the classic form of a traditional Broadway musical comedy, with humour rather than tragedy driving its plot. For Lloyd Webber, collaborating with British novelist, playwright and performer Ben Elton has also induced him to create a book-led musical that tackles a serious issue searchingly, and puts human beings rather than sets at its centre.
Meanwhile, however, ignoring the fact that they've now moved on and the form with it, Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber imitators continue to attempt to plough the same now barren soil. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also demonstrates a fatal lack of imagination - and since imagination is the lifeblood of theatre, no wonder the results are so lifeless. The only blood being shed is that draining from their investors' wallets. So, this year, we've had Notre Dame de Paris (Dominion), trying to turn another Victor Hugo novel into a pop opera spectacle, and La Cava (Piccadilly), not only giving itself a title that self-consciously imitates that of Les Miserables (but is easier to pronounce), but also attempting the same epic, panoramic historical sweep of battles and romance set to a through-sung score. But at least they're both trying to go where others have succeeded.
It's even more intriguing when imitators try to go where others have failed. No sooner was the dismal Lautrec despatched from the Shaftesbury than another bio-musical lined up to take its place, and one, moreover, about another Frenchman, namely Napoleon. This Bonaparte musical has duly been blown apart by every critic in town, and so looks likely to join the list of costly calamities that this venue seems to specialise in. (Collectors of the genre there forever relish the memory of a musical about the Hiroshima bombing, Out of the Blue, that itself bombed so quickly that it became redubbed 'A Flash in Japan').
Biographical musicals with one word titles (whether based on fictional or real lives) are invariably a dodgy prospect anyway: as well as Napoleon and Lautrec, other notorious London failures have included Leonardo, Bernadette, Ziegfeld, Blockheads (a Laurel and Hardy musical) and Tess. One word titles clearly seem to spell disaster. But they tend to have one thing in common: though they're about famous characters, they fatally lack any character of their own.
How on earth, though, do they get this far? In the case of Napoleon, I saw an earlier version of the show in Toronto in 1994, and though evidently much re-written since that original production, it's as appalling now as I dimly recall it being then (the one advantage of a forgettable piece being that it lives up to the label).
Numbingly replaying the ill-fated romance of Napoleon and Josephine, whom the Emperor only belatedly realises was his life's great love after he meets his Waterloo and she has met her end, it is full of bathos, not pathos. The faux-operatic score of Timothy Williams, to lyrics by Andrew Sabiston, is all troughs with no peaks. But that much we knew in Toronto. Someone, somewhere, presumably ordered the rewrite as a result, but did no one realise that it was more of the same?
And that's the crisis. Like all art, the musical needs to move forward, not remain stuck in the same tired, stagnant groove. It's time to throw away the safety nets of things like a well-known title and thundering, over-orchestrated through-sung scores, and get back to the basics of what musicals are there to do: to tell stories through song and play.