In Defence of the Musical

This Saturday, by pure chance, I picked up The Independent. Pure chance because I usually read The Times at the weekend, more out of habit than anything else, and the only reason I was flicking through the pages of The Independent was because the local shop had sold out of my newspaper of choice. But it was a very happy little turn of fate, because as I perused their Saturday magazine I came across an article that made me want to jump up and down in joy; an article entitled How I Learnt to Love Musicals.

I felt like personally thanking Michael Bywater. Thanks to the high culture vs low culture divide, it is not fashionable for theatre critics to stand up for the musical. A fanciful sub-genre of theatre, light entertainment for the masses – this is the position to which musical theatre is often relegated. The adjective frequently assigned to the musical is ‘commercial’, that dirty, damning word in the arts world. Yet theatre is, let’s face it, a business. As much as I wish it could be otherwise, money does to a certain extent make the world go round (anyone else having sudden visions of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret?) and to be a commercial success does not necessarily mean sacrificing quality and integrity.

There are also many musicals that are not commercial hits, some deservedly and some not, just as there are successful and unsuccessful plays. Musical theatre is too often judged purely on the basis of a clutch of jukebox shows and film spin-offs, which does not begin to do justice to the range and variety of the musical. I would also like to stress that I am not trying to disparage the aforementioned types of musical; I like Jersey Boys and Priscilla just as much as the next person. These shows are pure entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of entertainment. There are times when all of us want to lose ourselves in sumptuously silly storytelling and hum along to some comfortingly familiar tunes.

But musicals can also confront contemporary issues and provoke serious thought. I will take as examples two musicals that have recently had critically acclaimed (though sadly short-lived) West End runs: Hair and Spring Awakening. I should probably mention that these are two of my favourite musicals, so I am a bit biased, but nevertheless I hope that my points will stand. Hair, when it first opened in 1967, sang to the tune of America’s youth and tackled controversial current issues, notably the Vietnam War. Although its most recent incarnation comes over 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Claude’s poignant fate still prompts questions about the justification of any conflict – questions that seem particularly relevant in the light of the news reports we hear every day from Afghanistan. Likewise, despite its nineteenth century German setting, Spring Awakening‘s themes of sexual awakening, teenage depression and the often deplorable way we treat our youth are just as current today (see my review of Punk Rock if you need any further proof).

So in my opinion critics need to take a leaf out of Michael Bywater’s book and take time to appreciate the musical. For me it is a little baffling why there is still such a huge gulf between opera and musical theatre, when essentially they both unite music and drama. I understand of course that the music itself differs greatly, but why is opera held in such high opinion and the musical in such low? I must admit that, cultural heathen that I am, I have never been to the opera. I would love to go one day, hopefully soon, but I doubt that it will instantly displace my love of the musical. Surely it is possible to embrace both?

Thankfully musical theatre seems to be going from strength to strength. Bywater suggests that this is a symptom of the recession – musicals cheer us up. He might well be right about that. The main current threat to the musical is not a lack of punters but a lack of new musicals making it on the West End. Few producers are willing to take risks in these tough times and with good reason, as the unfortunate commercial failure of Spring Awakening illustrated. What the musical really needs now is people who are willing to push the boundaries and bring exciting new musical theatre to audiences.

But whatever the future of the musical, I don’t see it going away any time soon. Which for me, Michael Bywater and musical lovers everywhere is very good news.

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  1. […] And something for the weekend … Finally, for those of you who can’t bear to spend a night away from the theatre on a Sunday, this week sees a very special event on Sunday evening at the Criterion Theatre, hosted by the one and only Stephen Fry. The night is a celebration of British musicals in aid of Perfect Pitch and features the likes of Alfie Boe and musical theatre’s girl of the moment Julie Atherton. This follows Fry’s blog post yesterday sharing his rediscovered love for musicals, from Legally Blonde to the recently opened Betty Blue Eyes. Musical theatre seems to be a hot topic of conversation at the moment; those who want to read more should check out a recent feature on The Public Reviews on the subject or take a look at my arguments in defence of the musical. […]



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