“Putting on a show is absolutely a microcosm of what we wish the world would be. It’s people of varying talents, varying intelligences, getting together and making something that wasn’t there before. And that is the most wonderful thing.”
Coming from Stephen Sondheim, musical theatre giant and innovator, this probably isn’t so surprising. However, in light of the recent media hype around musicals as being “immune” to the recession due to ever-increasing audience numbers he is far from alone in his appreciation for the genre.
The arts cuts have long been the cause for a sense of doom around the culture sector, both in the UK and internationally. The more time spent waiting for them to be instated, the more anxious, and frustrated become critics and artists.
Yet now attention is being drawn to musical theatre’s comfortable position under the radar, as their revenue is, in fact, increasing, in the face of economic downturn. Despite more reluctant spending worldwide, and fears that travel and tourism would dip, ticket sales for musicals in the UK have risen by 4% in the past year, and the West End remains one of the greatest generators of money for the UK.
Indeed, Rosemary Squire, co-founder and co-director of Ambassadors Theatre Group attributes very much of musical theatre’s success today to the messages it conveys as adapted to ideas that are relevant to our the culture of the time.
“When putting on a musical I’m open to it being new or a classic. I think it needs to be something that’s going to resonate with a lot of people, and I think tells a good story. We should never get away from the fact that all theatre is about telling stories to each other. I think it needs to be something that benefits from that musical form.
“Like Wicked. I think, particularly it means a lot to young women between perhaps 10 and 20, about how it’s ok to be different, and women coming through adversity. I think they give very positive, strong messages to young women that they identify with. Something like Legally Blonde, again, has predominantly a female audience, and is something that potentially women can identify with. It makes you feel you can do things; that the world’s your oyster, and as well it’s good fun, and brilliant catchy pop music. You end up having a great evening, but at the same time there’s a bit of meat in it because there’s the idea of role models for girls and girl power and being able to do things that you felt otherwise you couldn’t do – it’s very powerful.”
What becomes apparent talking to both Squire and Caswell is that the origins of musical theatre in archetypal story, and Greek myth are still very much of fundamental importance, with emphasis placed on a direct plotline above anything else.
Stemming back to Greek theatre and Commedia Dell’Arte, musical theatre is the latest stage in the canon of projection and heightened expression, incorporating music, drama, and dance in a way that provides the ultimate form of escapism for the audience. Beyond simplicity of understanding, to make it more accessible, there is a sense of familiarity with a story and its conventions.
Indeed, Andrew Lloyd-Webber maintains: “the most important thing with musical theatre is the story. That is where you have to start. It is always the story that is the most important aspect and when they haven’t worked, as with Woman in White, it was because the story wasn’t right.”
And it is with this simplicity that musical theatre gains such popularity: on top of an archetypal framework it is something which can be altered, adapted; chopped and changed, to suit any society or era. Associate Director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., and director of 19 Les Miserables productions world wide, Ken Caswell, acknowledges the fluidity of the genre: “styles are constantly shifting and there seems to be room for many different genres.”
Indeed, the list of genres in which musicals have taken shape is vast to say the least. From the French Revolution (Les Miserables), to racism in Baltimore (Hairspray), or infidelity and imprisonment (Chicago). And these aren’t even the tip of the iceburg: hardly any storyline or genre has been left untouched.
New things just aren’t being put on; it’s as simple as that. I think there’s a stronghold, but there are lots of brilliant pieces in the wings waiting to go
Since performances such as Hair, in 1968, La Cages Aux Folles in the 80’s, and, later, Rent, musicals now are less restricted in what they’re able to do and portray, opening up a pool of contemporary issues that, before, had featured very little, if at all. Caswell continues: “Musicals have become more varied over the last 30 years. More and more complicated issues have been tackled both in dramatic content and musical content. The musical has expanded in several different directions giving the public more and more variety.”
One such theme in particular that Caswell speaks of is the ‘Gothic’ musical. “It seems successful at the moment. One of the most successful Gothic musicals (although not on Broadway) is Roman Polanski’s Dance Of The Vampires (Danz der Vampyr) which has been playing in Austria, Belgium and Germany for over a decade. The appeal is the “kitsch” story and the outrageous behaviour of the characters I suppose. The German production is very spectacular and entertaining with great theatrical rock based music. the big hit being “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”.
This trend is equally prevalent in York, with Central Hall Musical Society’s production of Jekyll and Hyde, set in old, gothic Victorian London: “it’s got that supernatural element,” says director, Katherine Timms, “like you have in Phantom and Wicked, both of which are really successful, so it definitely has that appeal.”
The production takes a very different turn to last year’s production of Rent, the radical and neo-bohemian show which had huge success with a student audience. However, Joe Hufton, Rent director, sees this diversity as part of the essence of student musical productions: “I was in the CHMS before mine, it was The Full Monty and was a lot of fun, before that it was Sweet Charity and before that West Side Story. I think that the beauty of CHMS is that anyone can bid with any show and they just have to convince the panel that they can put the show on and achieve a quality production. I hope that that diversity will continue to be one of the society’s strong points.”
Yet outside of University, with theatre moguls trying to push the genre in new directions, diversity has lead mainstream musicals slightly astray: “the current trend,” says Caswell, “is for compilation musicals such as Mamma Mia where the story is built around existing music or musicals based on films such as Love Story (soon to close) or Shrek.”
It is here that the genre has, in the past couple of years, found its hardships: with its broad range and the ease at which it can be manipulated as a style to suit any genre, that has lead to to maintain a secure position in society, commercial demand has come to shape the kind of musicals that we see today on stage and screen.
Particularly in the last year, musicals were seen to be given a new lease of life in terms of broader commercial success as such things as Glee, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s reality shows, that indeed create a performance out of compilations, rather than stories, generated the now very popular trend of TV-musical culture.
Peter Auker, director of New Musicals Network – a website allowing for interaction between and publicity of writers of new musical theatre, is unconvinced by the credibility of what he calls “Jukebox Musicals”, as they are merely disguised forms of revivals, restaging an already established success:
“Plenty of producers have jumped on the “Jukebox Musical” bandwagon in the wake of Mamma Mia’s success believing they had found a formula. They were wrong. Most jukebox musicals have been flops. I believe that a show should have an engaging story, interesting characters, and well-written songs, and that it should be skillfully performed. Get those things right, and you may have a winner on your hands”.
Annemarie Lewis Thomas, principal of Musical Theatre Academy, shares a similar concern, that commerciality in the genre, favouring compilations, and revivals, prevents the emergence of new material: “We haven’t really had any commercial success [with new work] over here for years. New things just aren’t being put on; it’s as simple as that. I think there’s a stronghold, but there are loads of brilliant pieces in the wings waiting to go. Organisations like MTMUK or MMD, all of these places – the Stage Kindly – there’s loads of organizations that are actively doing stuff, but it’s because musicals are so expensive, nobody can take a risk on it. I think if we go into partnership producing then that will give us more of a chance to get new exciting stuff on.”
Thomas cannot see this “stronghold” lifting: “I think we’re going to see a lot more revivals, we’re not going to see new work for quite some time, we already see very limited new work.”
Unfortunately this is the overlooked consequence of musical theatre’s rapidly expanding commerciality: the new writers will lose out. But who knows what may flourish in reaction? As Ken Caswell says: “It could all change tomorrow. That’s the beauty of the musical theatre world, It’s full of surprises.”