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  1. The Staggers
27 March 2023

In defence of musicals

Cultural snobs fail to see the wisdom, political power and joy that makes musicals so popular with the masses.

By Katherine Cowles

Some people – say, Neil Postman and now possibly the Times’ theatre critic Clive Davis – are afraid, in this age of entertainment, we might amuse ourselves to death. Not me. I live to be amused. I could die happy knowing I devoted my life to the pursuit of amusement. 

Which is why I seek out nights at the theatre, specifically the musical kind, that self-restrained sophisticates might tastefully decline. Yes, musicals are very amusing, they say, but where’s the substance, the meat to chew on? Somewhere in our cultural evolution, those on a sugar-free diet have decided musical theatre will rot your teeth; that is nothing but fluff designed to make you stare stupidly like the bourgeoisie with their TV screens and their square eyes. That musicals are theatre for the masses (and I think it’s fair to say they imply, for women).  

The playwright David Hare looks upon it all with dismay. Writing in the Spectator, he complains of London’s West End: “Musicals have become the leylandii of theatre, strangling everything in their path. It’s a crushing defeat to see Wyndham’s [theatre] without a straight play.” A straight play, as opposed to… a camp one? Of course, I know what he means: a play that is serious and meaningful and edifying. Deliver the lines and the punches, please, none of those delicious three-part harmonies. 

Hare is certainly not alone in his disdain, but it’s misplaced. The best, most ambitious, experimental musicals carry great expressive weight. Hamilton is an education in the US Constitution, Les Misérables a pacey adaptation of a book with 1,200+ pages (!). Stephen Sondheim gave us Shakespeare, and now we have a feminist retelling (& Juliet). Fiddler On The Roof brought Jewish culture and imagery not only to gentiles but to the diaspora, the bleakness of shtetl life made watchable through perfect, poignant melody. I first learned about Aids from Rent. And I cannot be the only one who learned that smoking is cool from Grease

Perhaps the snobbery towards musicals stems from the belief that they are childish because sometimes they involve witches and cats who can sing. Yet we all agree that, consumed individually, there is artistic value in music and choreography and storytelling. Why not take them all together?

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Besides, it’s unfair to say the West End is caught in the musical’s sparkly stranglehold. Tomorrow marks the opening of the much-anticipated “straight play” A Little Life with James Norton at the Harold Pinter Theatre, while Sophie Okonedo stars in Medea at Sohoplace. Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird was a recent West End hit, as was James Graham’s Best of Enemies, transferred to the Noël Coward from the Young Vic. Just outside of Soho’s clutches roam the giants of the brilliant The Lehman Trilogy, and one is never too far from Tennessee (Streetcar Named Desire, Phoenix Theatre).

Yes, there are many musicals showing too, some of them good, some of them ugly. That musicals are so bold about who and what they are is a trick of marketing, but means they are easily disappointing: if the dancing is not that dirty, if the lady is not very fair. Was anyone actually rocked when they promised to Rock You? But this boldness helps sell tickets because people know what they’re getting, and because they’re getting the music they know. And when people know they’re getting the music they know they go, and the musical becomes a commercial success, and it spreads out far and wide like a fast-growing hedgerow – and that, I’m afraid, is the lay of the leylandii.

This has long been the case. I fail to see how – as Hare suggests when he asks if “producers mislaid their balls during lockdown” – this can be a post-Covid phenomenon, given that the most popular play of the 18th century, John Gay’s ballad show The Beggar’s Opera, held the record in 1728 for London’s longest run for nearly 100 years, and out of the top ten longest-running West End shows, seven have been musicals. Musicals are not, as Hare says, “squatting” in the West End; the West End was built on and for them.

Mr Musical himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has suggested Hare might bear a rather more personal grudge against the genre because of the “disaster” that was his own musical, The Knife (1987). Which, from the man who brought us Cats, seems predictably… catty. But we should not be surprised that a highbrow playwright such as Hare may have too subtle a palate for musical theatre, which is the “chick lit” (also a wildly popular genre among the spending classes) of the performing arts: romantic, sincere, packed to the rafters with handsome, beach-tanned bodies. Where is the post-modern irony the literati craves? Where is the meditation? Where is the STATE OF THE NATION? 

Well, the nation is broke Mr Hare, and unhappy, so it’s going to blow its pocket money on the make-believe for a minute and watch the lovely men do their pirouetting. It is going to enjoy the embarrassing swelling in the chest when the violins kick in, when the lights dim, when the lovers finally lean in…  

The other night I saw Nicholas Hytner’s immersive Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, which involved extremely clever use of modular staging, space and lighting. We’re shown around by a gambler with Marlon Brando’s shoulders and a voice like Clark Gable; entertained by a woman with a vocal range the reach of the Chrysler Building. Everybody had charisma. Everybody had a smile on their face. My mother too, who for the full two-and-a-half hours wore on hers a small, involuntary grin like an enchanted child. It is my favourite face she makes; all the happiness £30 can buy. I expect Mr Hare would think it a very sad sight. 

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