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How Musicals Went Global

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For many people in the performing arts and allied trades, BBC4 is the default programme of choice on television, and the channel is living up to its reputation with a solid new series, The Story of Musicals.

Last night's hour-long programme was the first of three, and the narrative (spoken by a hard-to-recognise Imelda Staunton, who sounded like a girly version of Sue McGregor), took us from Ivor Novello and Sandy Wilson through to Hair and Evita via Lionel Bart and Half a Sixpence.

Several interesting points emerged: Wilson's The Boy Friend failed on Broadway because the producers insisted on turning it, said the still dapper octogenarian composer, into a burlesque. The whole modern synergy between Broadway and the West End had been kickstarted by the arrival here of Oklahoma! after the war, but we didn't keep our part of the bargain until Lionel Bart's Oliver! -- written, it was contentiously claimed, in response to West Side Story -- showed that Brits on Broadway meant business.

There were lots of too slick to be true statements along those lines, but Hal Prince's assertion that he found the same sort of "fresh, new and electrifying" qualities in Evita, which he directed, as he had found in West Side Story, which he produced, had the ring of truth.

Lionel Bart was rightly honoured with some great footage and good interviews with Sheila Hancock, Ronnie Corbett, Victor Spinetti and my friend and neighbour, David Stafford, whose new book about Bart (co-written with his wife Caroline) proved a useful source of material.

The coming of Rice and Lloyd Webber was correctly heralded by reference to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, as well as to Hair, and there were great stories of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar from Paul Nicholas, who starred in both, and a crucial contribution from the wonderfully sleazy producer Robert Stigwood, who taught Lloyd Webber about taking music and shows to foreign markets.

Elaine Paige explained how, after Evita, the show that changed her life, Rice and Lloyd Webber simply grew apart, not out of animosity or particular disagreement, but because, simply, they worked at a different pace and gave theatre a different priority in their lives. For Lloyd Webber, musical theatre was (and is) everything; for Rice, it's just a part of everything else worth doing.  

The second programme will obviously launch into Cats and Starlight Express and lead on to Les Miserables, but you couldn't help feeling that something had been lost by the end of this one. Even Rice briefly regretted that he and Andrew weren't going to be Gilbert and Sullivan. And Bart was last seen, lonely and bankrupt, tinkering at an old piano on a devastated wasteland.

Bart's phenomenal natural talent was blasted in drugs, misplaced egotism and a lifestyle that swamped his verve and hunger, neutralised with showbiz adulation from his peers such as Noel Coward and Judy Garland. On screen, he sang some verses from Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, his breakthrough success, that made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

If anything, the programme made too little of the music itself. Something from Bart's wonderful score for Maggie May would have been good, and when Paul Nicholas talked about playing the crucifixion scene in Superstar, we could have done with a more sustained extract from the "John 19-41" setting that sweeps across the theatre in such gorgeous desolation.

Still, this was that increasingly rare thing on televison, a serious and genuinely informative programme about the theatre. Bart's last big mistake was to sink his own fortune in his doomed Robin Hood epic, Twang!! After all the footage of onstage hurlyburly as a grey-suited Burt Shevelove tried to salvage something from the ruins of Joan Littlewood's improvisatory rehearsals, a few newspaper headlines flashed across the screen as the celebrity first night audience gathered at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

One headline ran: "Twang!! goes Plonk," and the review underneath was written by one Herbert Kretzmer. Kretzmer doubled as a newspaperman (on the Daily Express in its glory days) and a redoubtable West End lyricist on shows such as Our Man Crichton and The Four Musketeers.

But Herbie himself would hit the jackpot years later when he replaced the poet James Fenton as lyricist on Les Miserables, and the critic for once became part of the story he'd been telling for over twenty years.


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