Thursday, 28 February 2013

Musical Theatre: Love it or Hate it? Why do you have to choose?

I find musical theatre a divisive subject, squished between serious theatre and opera, and frowned on from both sides for being, heaven forbid, 'popular'. The thing that confuses me is that people think it's a case of liking all musicals or none. People assume because I often go to musicals that I'm a musical fanatic who likes everything I see. I do know people like that, but isn't that a bit like thinking that because I go to the cinema I like every film I watch? 

There's a real stigma attached to liking musical theatre. I've had people tell me they hate musicals, but the one time they did actually go to see one in the west end, they really loved it. Friends who love jazz music and the great American songbook have told me they don't like the songs in musicals. Other's have snobbily tell me that musicals are artistically inferior to opera, an opinion that seems to have stemmed from watching lots of opera and very few musicals.

But it works the other way as well. Musical fanatics are shocked when I tell them I dislike a show, or want to have an intellectual conversation about the pros and cons of a particular production. 

Les Miserables is one of the few things my husband and I strongly disagree on: my husband adores it and I... don't. We've seen it together several times and while I really like some of the songs, I just can't get past the fact that the characterisation and storytelling is appalling: the women are utterly two dimensional and it's never properly explained what the climax of the piece, the barricade, is actually in aid of. What are the students fighting about? Most people who watch it actually think it's about THE French Revolution (the fact characters wear crinolines dresses means it's obviously not, but apparently not everyone dates period pieces by the costumes.)

My husband and I disagree a lot about musicals. I hate Rogers and Hammerstein and he loves them, I like Gilbert and Sullivan whom he can't stand, but we both adore Stephen Sondheim. We have both seen enough to make informed choices, and we enjoy enough of the shows we do see to keep going back and giving new shows a try. Sometimes it's a car wreck, and sometimes we have experiences that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

I suspect when most people say they hate musicals they mean 1940s musical films, of the type starring Doris Day, or they harbour high school memories of being forced to perform in or watch a terrible production. Schools tend to pick  shows which can support a large supporting cast and even bigger chorus, and songs that the Mums and Dads can hum along with. But don't judge an art form on amatuer productions. While I am a huge champion of good amateur theatre, I don't believe being unpaid is an excuse for some of the rubbish that's out there. Minimal resources can be the birth of fantastic creative decisions and some people who actually prefer a well paying job to a difficult career in the arts, are very talented performers. Some of the best, and the worst, productions I've ever seen have been amateur or or semi-professional.

There's also the case of seeing a bad professional productions: I'm a massive Stephen Sondheim fan, but after seeing an average version on stage, and then the film, I concluded that I just didn't like Sweeney Todd. As a final attempt, after rave reviews, I saw the Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton West End version last year and it will go down as one of my top 5 theatre experiences of all time. But I will never see another version of Sweeney Todd again, because it's such an easy piece to get wrong. It requires such a fine line of combining almost opera singing, with intensely powerful acting without spilling over into melodrama, that few performers, let alone directors, have the understanding or talent to carry it off.

Enjoyment is also vastly dependent on where you sit; I've seen two versions of We Will Rock You, once from the third row and once from the balcony. Needless to say I enjoyed the high energy, rock musical much more sitting inches from the stage.

As someone who loves clothes and costumes, it's impossible not to love musicals. But I tend to like the two extremes: 1930s big, glamorous, jazz inspired musicals with copious amounts of sequins and feathers, or very modern, minimalist musicals that are practically plays with well-developed characters and storylines, which just happen to have songs. 

Film musicals can be just as great, or even better, than seeing them in the theatre. One of Australia’s best known and respected film critics, David Stratton has always declared 'Singing in the Rain' is his favourite film of all time, the clever parody on film history and transition to 'talkies' is disguised as light and fluffy entertainment. Some of my favourite movie musicals I've never had the chance to see onstage, such as Pal Joey or The Slipper and The Rose (I know it's trashy, but I've loved it since I was five). I've avoided watching Top Hat, Singing in the Rain and The Sound of Music on stage, because even though they look beautiful from the pictures, I'm just not sure I want to see people who aren't Julie Andrews, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire pretending to be them. I have no problem with a different interpretation of the same script, but no interest in watching a lukewarm remake of the film onstage. I'm aware this makes me unusual in the world of musical go-ers, so I choose not to see productions which sell themselves on this premise. Cabaret and Chicago are good examples of shows that work independently and successfully in both genres because they don't try and be carbon copies of each other, but allow the medium to tell the story in different ways.
So stop being a culture snob. Maybe it's time to give musical theatre a second chance?

Here's my Top 5 Musicals for People who think they hate them:

A Little Night Music

You may have worked out already, I think Sondheim is a genius, and I think this is his best work. I saw the West End Trevor Nunn version of this a few years ago and it was possibly the greatest theatre experience of my life. This clever examination of love and lust is beautifully told, as the characters try and work out what they really want in a partner. Anyone who can watch Send in the Clowns sung in context and not cry is very hard hearted indeed. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Elizabeth Taylors version in the film, but if you can't get to a stage version it will do. It may not be everyone's taste, but it's Sondheim's ability to make musicals seem like a play with well thought out plot and character (even when sometimes they're not) and his phenomenal use of harmonies, that makes him stand out from the crowd.

Pal Joey
Frank Sinatra playing a womanising, con-man, nightclub singer, with Rita Heyworth and Kim Novak completing for his affections: What’s not to love? Also starring beautiful costumes by Jean Louis, the majority of the songs are sung in the context of performances, so there's no big spontaneous dance numbers to scare off the cynics. This is Sinatra at his absolute best, charming but a bit of a arrogan bastard. The songs by Rogers and Hart, Hammerstein's predecessor, include The Lady is a Tramp, My Funny Valentine and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Oh, and there's also a lot of references to 'stripping' in that wonderful, burlesque, PG way that makes taking a glove off the sexiest thing in the world. I adore proper old school 30s musicals of Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby: Top Hat, Royal Wedding, etc but for me it will always be Frank Sinatra who takes first place in my heart. While we're on the topic of old school movie musicals, I have to give an honourable mention to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, famous for Marilyn Monroe singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, but also starring a brilliant a Jane Russell.

Singing in the Rain

It had to be done. But apart from the dream ballet sequence I don't know anyone who doesn't like this film. The adorable Debbie Reynolds, the funny man Donald O'Connor and the king of musical theatre films, Gene Kelly. It was a toss-up between this and The Wizard of Oz as a classic movie musical everyone loves, but the way Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont manages to steal this film from under the noses of the three powerful leads, makes this film the masterpiece that it is. I think I speak for everyone when I say 'Oh Pierre, you shouldn't have come'.


Beautiful, funny, risqué, poignant, and political: surely this is the ultimate in musical theatre. Liza Minnelli proved she wasn't just Judy Garland's daughter in the movie, and yet the stage production also manages to stand alone as a masterpiece without trying to simply copy the film. Legendry director and choreographer Bob Fosse directed the film. Kander and Ebb's music is wonderful and catchy, but with serious themes so it never crosses the line into corny. When I saw it in the West End I couldn't speak for about 10 minutes after I left the theatre, which is really saying something. Chicago is a very similar vein of musical, emphasising the fun and glamour of serious subjects in a subversive way, but for me Cabaret is the superior of the two. If you're a fan also watch Christopher and His Kind (2011), based on the life of writer Christopher Isherwood, whose book the musical was based on. It stars Dr Who's Matt Smith and tells the story of the author’s time in Berlin which inspired the fiction. 


There has been a new wave of musical theatre with a much more comedic, audience friendly trend. There is a self-awareness to these shows, almost mocking the genre. The Producers, Avenue Q, Legally Blonde and Matilda all are fantastic examples of this. They are a reaction to the serious, self-important Andrew Lloyd Weber/Cameron Mackintosh musical successes of the 80s/90s, particularly The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And this is a genre that's getting the non-musical fan's bums on seats. I think 'Gay or European?' in Legally Blonde is one of the funniest songs I've ever seen, but for me Matilda has that extra heart, so that you cry as well as laugh, which makes it superior.

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