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Are Musicals that Magical?

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For many people musicals are the essence of theatre. They offer the spectacle; the glitz and glamour that allows a blissful escape from dull reality. The producers of the shows have helped to create this impression. 42nd Street was written to sustain the myth of the magic of musicals.
This might explain why I’m fairly cool about musicals. I live in the regions and, as a result, have become accustomed to seeing versions of musicals where limited budgets run only to shaky sets and tatty scenery that have very little glam left. Look at the version of Starlight Express that’s currently doing the rounds. The great reputation is based on the London production in which the cast skated around the auditorium and the action took place with the audience in the centre. Nowadays filmed inserts have replaced the live action. As a type of compensation the audience watches through 3-D glasses but be honest: could anyone tell one of the races from another?
The same cheap and cheerful approach applies to the touring version of Monty Python’s Holy Grail - Spamalot. One of the numbers in the show is entitled "The Song that Goes Like This"- a parody of the clichéd showstopper that tradition requires in every musical. The humour comes from the song being performed in the style of the massive production number that it is mocking. Trouble is that in the touring version there isn’t the funding for such a big scale so the point is lost with just a couple of dancers trying their best.
Having experienced this type of disappointment a few times you get defensive and accept that you’re not going to see the full-blown production and make do with second best which is all regional audiences deserve. Or just give up and go and see a play instead.
You could argue that we should be satisfied if producers allocate their limited resources on the things that really matter – getting a cast that can hit the right notes and so on. But a tangential effect of musicals attracting audiences by their scale and offer of escapism is that it draws attention to their major limitation: the music. I’ve been impressed the lyrics of musicals which can be witty and even moving while helping to tell the story but, with a few exceptions, have never really been touched by the actual music.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Musical taste is so very personal it is hard to find common ground even among people who share your other interests. The only musicians my friends and I can agree we all like are Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon and Roy Orbison – and two of them have passed on. Faced with the difficulty of finding a score that will appeal to audiences of varying tastes producers inevitably take the safe option and offer generic music that might not really satisfy everyone but at least will be inoffensive. Which is fine – it makes for a reasonably pleasant night out as long as you accept that it isn’t exactly sustaining. It’s more like a snack than a meal and the music soon slips from your mind.
This might explain the attraction of the jukebox musicals. The audience gets exactly what they expect and so can’t really feel let down. As many of the groups whose music is featured have spilt up or are past their best the shows offer fans the rare chance to hear beloved songs performed in a live theatre environment. In that respect it achieves the goal of all entertainers- giving the public what they want.  I’m pig-headily purist enough to say if I can’t have the original I’d rather not bother but can see why others might not feel the same.
Doubt that I’ll ever really understand the appeal of musicals. For me part of the joy of theatre is using the imagination - either my own or the set designer- to fill in the gaps in the production by conjuring up places and things from a few props. Having the whole thing just delivered to me feels a bit like cheating. If I need to escape from grim reality I’d prefer films and TV and imagine myself as Bond or Buffy. Besides musicals might offer a diversion but don’t seem to provide decent music.
- Dave Cunningham


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