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  1. Culture
  2. Theatre
27 March 2024

Opening Night: why was this confusing, unloveable musical made?

Ivo Van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s adaptation of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film is a chaotic and masochistic project.

By Kate Mossman

I saw Opening Night, which is set on Broadway, with an intellectual friend of mine. “Do you think it’s the writing?” she whispered after two hours. “I’m looking for a way in here! There’s no way in!” Sitting in the blizzard of play-within-play, strobe lights, camera crews, stage-slapping, rapid libretto and sections of dialogue played over and over, I had only questions about the fictional show. Why would an actress take a part she hated? Why is she trying to change the script three days before opening night? Why is everyone shouting at her? Are we supposed to care for these people? They’re awful! And why are they singing?

Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright based their new musical on John Cassavetes’ 1977 film of the same name, which starred his wife Gena Rowlands and was made straight after their Oscar-nominated A Woman Under The Influence. It centres on an ageing (Van Hove’s new script suggests pre-menopausal) actress called Myrtle Gordon, wrestling with a part she doesn’t like and having a nervous breakdown on stage. The film is a relentless experience: there is no release for Myrtle, who slips into the liminal space between theatre and reality. It was critically panned at the time, but is now a cult classic. The big problem is, many people coming to the West End to see Sheridan Smith’s latest turn will not know about the film and fewer will have seen it. With that in mind, this is what you get from your night out.

We watch many broken rehearsals in advance of the “opening night”. The play’s metaverse – it has no fourth wall to break – makes you strangely uncomfortable, as we watch our beloved Smith and her crew working so hard to produce a play their own characters think is terrible. We have a writer (played by Nicola Hughes) who hates her lead actress; a director (Hadley Fraser) who keeps saying he doesn’t understand what the play is about. Oh, and a documentary crew filming the rehearsals for no clear reason. It is a masochistic project for any director to bring to the stage.  

Watching fictional, highly-strung middle-class creatives straining to make their art feels less and less relevant, and without the intimacy of the film camera the suffering of the lead actress loses its immediacy. Early in proceedings, she witnesses the death of a young fan, who is hit by a bus straight after getting her autograph: she becomes tormented by this, and the woman (Shira Haas) appears, following her about like a kind of Banquo-esque doom-sprite. In the movie, this is a big part of the story, but in the musical, the tragic core is in no way strong enough to withstand all the nonsense that is going on around it. The real tragedy, of course, is the fact that Myrtle is getting older, which feels more 1950s today than it would have done in 1977. She won’t say her age, like Blanche Dubois. She spars with her writer, a woman a fraction older than her (we know this because she gets hot flushes). When the director loses his temper with his fragile leading lady he spits, “did you ever regret not getting married, having kids”, and a woman in front of me actually turned round and rolled her eyes.

London theatre is in an artistic crisis, obsessed with movie adaptations and casting famous people in one man shows to lure in audiences. How exciting in theory, then, to have a new musical by Rufus Wainwright, with his dual talent of big tunes and lyrics often so poignantly mundane. The story of Myrtle Gordon could be a musical if the music were tender enough – and there is thankfully no dancing. There are some moving moments, like the repeated refrain, in one number, of “she’s not even a housewife!” – what a great line. But the tunes are unmemorable, hookless, adding to the sensory onslaught. There’s a fantastic performance from Nicola Hughes, who starred in Trevor Nunn’s Porgy and Bess: she gets a close up on the big screen, tears rolling down her face, belting her heart out, yet I honestly have no idea what she was upset about, and I was really trying to concentrate. 

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One scene in the imaginary play, between Myrtle and her former lover (Benjamin Walker), is rehearsed again and again, improving and deepening after each of their ‘real-life’ fights on stage. On opening night, this scene returns as five minutes of exquisite, intimate dialogue. You see Smith at her warmest, strongest, most natural: you see Walker as you’ve not had a chance to see him since the curtain went up. In Cassavetes’ film, this final scene is supposed to be improvised, setting Myrtle free and inviting rapturous applause from the imaginary audience. But there was no rapture at the Gielgud theatre. The curtain call was rather muted, until the cast performed an extra song linking arms at the front of the stage, and looking us in the eye, till we couldn’t not clap along.

[See also: How Swan Lake became a cultural phenomenon]

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