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Sing for your supper

There's more to film musicals than Les Misérables

The premiere of Les Misérables in London (Getty Images)
The premiere of Les Misérables in London (Getty Images)

Each year I have high hopes that the film musical will be revived. (I’m talking about western cinema, of course: Bollywood will never want for jubilant song-and-dance numbers. Even Tezz, the recent remake of Speed, found room for a totally bananas vampires-and-toreadors routine.) There has been the occasional bright shoot over the last 15 years — On connaît la chanson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 8 Women and the minor but still appealing sparky High School Musical 3. Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You was a pleasing confection that insisted on the real singing voices of even those actors who were not professionally trained, hence the faltering vocal turns of Tim Roth, Edward Norton and Allen himself. (Only Drew Barrymore was too poor a singer to belt out her own songs: depending on which source you read, she was either outraged or relieved to be the sole dubbee among the cast.)

As well as being a particular high-point, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street represented progress for the movie musical. The trend in modern assaults on the genre such as Chicago or Moulin Rouge has been toward chopping up the shots to achieve a berserk energy. There was plenty of carving in Sweeney Todd, but it was all done in the barber’s chair rather than the editing suite. (Here is a question for another time: why aren’t more Sondheim musicals filmed? With its reverse chronology, Merrily We Roll Along — currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory — could be pitched easily as the Memento you can sing along to.)

The musical seems increasingly to be considered an antiquated and irrelevant genre with limited box-office potential. Commercial hits tend to ride the bridal train of existing stage phenomena (such as Mamma Mia!) and are considered by the industry to be exceptions, freak hits, rather than signs of a revival. The big news in screen musicals right now is the film version of Les Misérables, which opens in January. The decision by the director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) to record his actors’ singing live on set as part of the performance marks an important break from tradition. As this featurette explains, the convention is to record the soundtrack several months prior to filming, and to have the actors mime along to their own recorded vocal tracks. It’s clearly within the capabilities of most professional actors to modulate their performance accordingly, but it does mean that creative decisions made at the microphone have to be fixed in sound and adhered to further down the line. It’s been good enough for performers in movie musicals since the birth of the Talkies, but surely no one would spurn the search for innovation.

In the stampede to drag musicals from the stages of the West End and Broadway and onto the screen (or vice versa: Sam Mendes’s stage version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, will open in London next spring), I worry about those overlooked smaller gems, unsung in both senses. It would be mildly depressing if the respective histories of the film musical and its stage counterpart turned out to be virtually identical, with hits batted back and forth routinely between the two art-forms. Far better for some enterprising producer or director to take a chance and depart from the beaten soundtrack.

These thoughts were much on my mind last week as I watched Gene David Kirk’s crisp production of Boy Meets Boy at London’s dinky Jermyn St Theatre. It’s hardly surprising that I was unfamiliar with this off-Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Bill Solly and book by Solly and Donald Ward: it ran for 463 performances back in 1975 and 1976, and has scarcely been heard of since. But it hinges on a winning conceit which has insulated it against the changes that have occurred in its lifetime. It’s a 1930s-set musical-screwball love story in which the main participants are male. No one brings up this fact; the celebrity reporters lining up to snap the two grooms at a London society wedding don’t marvel at the scandal of a man marrying another man because there is no scandal: this is a parallel 1930s where such freedoms are too ordinary to be remarked upon.

The massed ladies and gentlemen of Fleet Street worry only that they won’t recognise the mysterious Guy Rose (Craig Fletcher), the sheepish Brit who is about to be betrothed to the flamboyant narcissist Clarence Cutler (Ben Kavanagh). Among the ranks of mackintoshed press struts the American ace reporter, Casey O’Brien (Stephen Ashfield), whose propensity to fall for his own subjects is fast becoming his undoing. Having been in a champagne-happy daze when he should have been reporting the abdication of Edward VIII, Casey is determined not to let another scoop elude him. His pursuit of the story warps deliciously into a pursuit of Guy.

I had anticipated that any edge the material once had would be dulled by now. In 1975, the dust had not yet settled from the Stonewall riots (which erupted six years earlier, only a few streets away from the Actors’ Playhouse where Boy Meets Boy received its premiere) so this blithe, blasé vision of an alternative reality must have felt subversive. The surprise is that it still does. Even now that gay marriage is no longer an outré concept, any sense of daring has not so much dissipated as been transformed into a retrospective impatience, a feeling of “Why couldn’t it have been this way all along?” The 1930s costumes and sets, the staging of a gay love triangle against backdrops more readily associated with Cole Porter or Astaire & Rogers musicals, keeps the ironic disparities between reality and wish-fulfilment fully sharpened.

This being a musical, it should also be noted that the songs are buoyant and seductive (particularly the delicate “Does Anybody Love You?”), nudging the narrative along or providing replenishing pit-stops and commentaries. The performances are emphatic but never forced: a dexterous supporting cast deployed in multiple roles flits around the three dynamic leads. They’re all sublime, but special mention should be reserved for the various comic nuances that Ben Kavanagh brings to the bratty pout and the clenched jaw.

Boy Meets Boy is exactly the sort of show that filmmakers should be lining up to rescue and adapt. Have we all forgotten the superb revisionist job that Todd Haynes did on the Sirkian melodrama in Far From Heaven (which, incidentally, became a stage musical itself this year)? There must be other forgotten treats every bit as relevant and worthy of rescue as Boy Meets Boy. Now is the time, people. And quickly, before “Les Misérables” becomes a description of those of us waiting for a film musical that feels like more than a mere contractual transfer.

"Boy Meets Boy" is at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1, until 20 December. "Les Misérables" is on release from 11 January 2013