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The International Writers Magazine
: Musicals - a pause for thought?

Whatever happened to the musical?
Ben Macpherson

It all started amazingly well. Five Guys Named Moe; Clarke Peter's successful revue show of Louis Jordan’s greatest hits. Cameron Mackintosh did a fine job on the theatrically overblown colour and sound; with six talented black men (five of whose names end in ‘Moe’) dancing, singing and joking their way through loss, hope and love. Frothy, a vaudevillian style show with songs from another age. In other words, this show could be called a ‘compilation’ musical. I must confess at the outset, that I do have a bias towards Five Guys as it was my first ever experience of West End magic (and, at the tender age of nine, the only minor ever to do the conga at the end of act one. To my knowledge).

Compilation musicals began with things like Five Guys and Buddy. I’ve never seen Buddy but, I simply cannot understand how Buddy: The Buddy Holly Musical; Elvis: The Musical; Mamma Mia: The Abba Musical; Our House: The Madness Musical; We Will Rock You: The Queen Musical; or Tonights the Night: The Rod Stewart Musical actually have to gall to call themselves ‘musicals’.

For the record I’d like to state that in no way would I call myself a purist (principally because unlike me, most ‘purists’ discount Andrew Lloyd Webber as serious). Also, it’s not the concept of the shows that I have a problem with. It is merely the labelling of them.

These shows, that have to market themselves under the laboriously unoriginal catch phrase ‘Pop group: the musical’ should be reclassified as ‘popular entertainment shows’; or ‘commercial compilation theatrical crossovers’ (that, of course would be the ‘high-art’ definition). And why do they have to shout out the fact they are a musical?...Is it because people wouldn’t understand the concept otherwise? If a punter would genuinely class Oh What A Night as a good musical, then maybe they do need the ‘ABC’ tag of ‘...:the musical’ attached to a show in order for it to have any chance of being valid?

The ‘big players’ of the industry themselves acknowledge the growing trend for revue shows being classed as musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of true works such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Sunset Boulevard says that compilation musicals are ‘like a rash’. Irritating, a sore point and don’t seem to be going away. In fact, with the opening of his new show The Woman In White, critics themselves state that should this new musical (in the ‘true’ sense) fail, it will signal a severe sea change for the theatrical climate. Webber rationalises,
"We are living in a time where everything is dumbing down, vastly".

And this is true. Consumers want it and they want it yesterday. So, that in itself accounts for this ‘rash’ that has enveloped the West End. Yet compilation shows are show of yesterday. People know the music, they don’t then have to work at it. With a new show such as The Woman In White at three hours long, doubtless it may challenge the ‘ordinary’ punter, whose idea of Lloyd Webber is ‘Memories’ and ‘No Matter What’.
Cameron Mackintosh, renowned producer and entrepreneur has ‘retired’...from trying to produce new work", with the reasoning that pre-existing material sells better. Fair enough, but what of the new authors who are struggling to gain some appreciation? What of the new shows for those seemingly few of us who want to see a good ‘old fashioned’ original musical?

Well, there’s always Jerry Springer The Opera (Currently starring David Soul). (Please note, that the clarifying suffix is ironic and bears no relation to any ‘Musical’). This show is the future of musical theatre. Tough, fresh, ‘arty’ and commercial. Surely this is trying to make ‘high-art’ out of the by now ‘dumbed down’ chat show format? And besides, it’s hardly a family entertainment. I picked up the vocal selections in a music shop yesterday and certainly would not want my children being subjected to the content and language of that show. But again, the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker is guaranteed to sell more work. However, one question is one my mind with this show is ‘Could the ‘tough’ ‘adult content’ be a cover over for inadequate originality?’ I openly admit I cannot pass judgement, having not seen it, but it is a thought.

The idea of new musicals comprising of contemporary subjects and ideals is a valid one. And, to summarise my case in favour of Five Guys Names Moe, the writer chose an era of musical which was inherently theatrical, thus disguising and acknowledging his source. In short, shows written as shows - as musicals (such as West Side Story, The Musicman). If people want to see young RADA graduates struggle to hit the high note in ‘Under Pressure’, then that’s fine by me - but please, let’s rename, rethink; and revitalise the dying and increasingly bland art form that is ‘the compilation musical’.

© Ben Mcpherson October 2004 - now a 2nd year Creative Arts student at the University of Portsmouth



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