Magical Musical History Tour - But What Now?Date: 15 July 2001
As Lloyd Webber's latest closes after just a year in the West End and Mackintosh says no more new shows, Stephen Gilchrist wonders about the musical - where has it been and where on earth is it going now?
There's little point in theatre intellectuals and blue stockings sneering at musicals in blanket fashion. The genre comprises good shows, mediocre shows and bad shows. Comparing, say Notre Dame de Paris to Sweeney Todd, is like comparing Salieri's Tarare to Mozart's Magic Flute. In their time, both Salieri and Mozart had their audiences, but time has made only the latter a familiar favourite amongst operagoers still.
Musical theatre can be traced back at least to John Gay's 1728 'Newgate pastoral', The Beggars Opera. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht evidence the timelessness of this piece by its reworking 200 years later. It seems that audiences will never tire of drama containing satirical sideswipes at the establishment, sex, skulduggery and endearing lowlifes! Additionally, every audience has its favourite 'period' of musical theatre, from Gay's contemporary folk/popular tunes though the charm of Offenbach, Romberg et al., the rumpty-tumpty wit of Gilbert and Sullivan, the jazz orientated shows of the 1920s and 1930s, the "golden era" of Rodgers and Hammerstein, to the late 20th century sophistication of Sondheim.
Defining a Good Musical
So what makes a "good musical"? Is "good" synonymous with successful? Producers have long pondered this conundrum (and have often lost their shirts over bad judgement calls). Boublil and Schonberg's Les Miserables is undoubtedly successful but is it really in the same class as, say Carousel? Audiences love the epic sweep and panache of the Les Mis with its enduring themes of obsession, vengeance and redemption but, let's be truthful, what artistry exists in the wall-to-wall Europop or the bland and often silly lyrics?
Andrew Lloyd Webber's portfolio is also suspect with its potpourri of styles and frequent back references to other (and arguably better) composers. The success of these, largely sung-through, shows over the past few years has been due to both the financial clout of Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber (pictured left to right) and the available resources. They glitter and gleam, but are essentially heartless. Furthermore, there's been little competition from other aspiring writers.
It's trite to suggest that a "good" musical is that heavenly combination of powerful music, well written lyrics and book, and choreography which moves the story forward (as exemplified in West Side Story). Yet no one would claim that many of the, say, Gershwin, shows of the 1930s were great musicals. The music was of course great but the show as a whole...well...just think about those mind-numbing plots and hoary old jokes!
Music & Theme = Oscar & Hammerstein
In my view, the essence of a good musical comes down to music and theme. In this respect, good musicals are no different from opera. Music which touches the emotions (and the soul) and themes which are universal. So what links these shows over the past 80 years? Two words - Oscar Hammerstein. He has exercised an immense influence and continues to do so. He presented audiences with big themes, and controversial issues such as race hate (in Show Boat and South Pacific), crime and redemption (Carousel), and the nature of civilised society (The King and I). These are big ideas, which touched, and continue to touch audiences. His musical collaborators, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, were inspired to write music capable of reflecting these issues in powerful language.
Hammerstein's influence endures today in the work of his protégé, Stephen Sondheim. The latter, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, continues to deal with the complex nature of contemporary society in our relationships (Company), in the nature of Art (Sunday in the Park...) and in the moral dilemmas which we all face (Into the Woods). Some people feel that Sondheim's work is cold, but repeated listening reveals deeply felt emotions with which audiences can increasingly identify.
Dumbing Down the Genre?
Many of Sondheim's shows have been 'good' musicals, but fewer have been financially successful. Is this because audiences, at least on first viewing, have found them inaccessible or is it because they have been treated to, and have got used to an easy time by dumbed down shows? Why should audiences be expected to close down their 'little grey cells' when they cross the foyer of Drury Lane? I don't suggest that musicals need to ape Chekhov or Eugene O' Neill, but surely a little intelligence wouldn't go amiss?
Over the past year or so, we in the UK, have been treated to simple-minded treatments of Napoleon, Notre Dame de Paris, Lautrec and others. I suspect that Willy Russell's Blood Brothers will still be running when these have been consigned to a footnote of musical theatre history.
Back to the Future
Where's the musical going and where are new writers coming from? In the United States there are a number of writer-composers who have had limited success, although their aspirations often exceed their achievement (e.g. the turgid Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel). Jonathan Larson's Rent (a contemporary reworking of La Boheme, relocated to Manhattan's East Village where its young protagonists deal with drugs, AIDS, creativity and death) had more success with its strong score and audience -identifying pathos.
Here, we now know that Sir Cameron won't be producing any more musicals. Whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing, it does raise the question, who will replace him in championing the form? George Stiles and Anthony Drewe hit the spot with their cute show Honk! but otherwise our supply of new writers appears to have dried up. The Vivian Ellis showcase award show has been stopped in its tracks - I suspect through lack of funds and the fact that little worthwhile was coming out of it - and so London and regional audiences are being treated to a plethora of long runners and revivals.
Personally, I'd rather see a decent revival of My Fair Lady than another Boublil-Schonberg opus, or an Abba or Lennon-McCartney compendium. Revivals of classics are fine but only in balance with good new work. Where is it coming from? You tell me!
If you have a view on the current state and/or future of the musicals genre, please do air it in our discussion forum.