Variety calls them tuners, and they clog up well over half of the city’s theatres. Andrew Lloyd-Webber has done more damage to West End theatre than any single person I can name, with a string of tenth-rate musicals stuffed with TV talent show nonentities aimed at tourists who’ll pay over £70 a ticket for a big dumb night out.
The latest manifestation of this rot is the jukebox musical, taking a pop singer’s back catalogue and shoving it onstage with a risible book, the worst example being the Queen musical, in which Ben Elton completed his fall from grace as a once intelligent alternative comic.
Now Tim Minchin, another smart writer, has allowed himself to be seduced to the dark side and is starring in a revival of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. What’s saddening – apart from the fact that bad musicals take up theatrical spaces that could be used for good new plays – is that there are actually brilliant musicals available that don’t consist of sequin-covered chorus lines getting everyone to clap along.
If I said a pair of writers specialised in issue plays about the rise of fascism, communism, rape, racism, rapacious property developers, the underbelly of celebrity, imprisonment, homophobia and poverty you’d think of the Royal Court Theatre perhaps, not John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composers of what looks increasingly like an astounding body of musical work. Ebb has now died and only one show from their canon regularly appears; ‘Cabaret’. In the new Will Young-starring version, the ending evokes the concentration camps that await all those who oppose the rising Nazi regime.
In Kander & Ebb’s ‘Flora, The Red Menace’ (recently seen here) a young idealist comes to realise the moral flaws in communism. In ‘The Visit’, a millionaire promises to bail out a bankrupt town in return for condemning an innocent teacher to death. In ‘The Scottsboro Boys’, a black cast acts out the true events leading to a faked conviction for gang rape in the deep South. In ‘Steel Pier’, the Great Depression forces starving couples to dance for pennies until one of them begs to be killed. They have staged numbers around drug addiction, sexual cruelty and ageism.
But these are not entirely grim tales; balancing them is music that points up the irony of dark situations. Kander & Ebb weren’t the only subversives working to create thought-provoking theatre under the guise of musicals. ‘Rent’ reset La Boheme in AIDS-era New York. ‘Parade’, a big success in the West End’s fringe, concerned anti-semitism and political corruption. ‘Poppy’ told the story of British involvement in the Opium Wars through the medium of pantomime. ‘The Book of Mormon’ deals with religion in a smart if cruder, more knockabaout fashion. Even ‘Legally Blonde’ took a subtler approach than it needed because it was created by former fringe writers.
When plays present big ideas they don’t need elaborate effects, but can use music, dance, satire, non-naturalistic dialogue and a thousand other tricks to engage the mind. But we are now in the trap created by Broadway, wherein out-of-towner arrive expecting expensive spectacle, and that means checking your brain at the door. Which is why we have ‘The Bodyguard’ featuring the songs of Whitney Houston instead of ‘Grey Gardens’, the bizarre true story of Jackie Kennedy’s incarcerated aunts.
I was raised with Gilbert & Sullivan, and it’s where I first discovered how clever words could fit with music. Written off for the best part of a century, their work still looks sharper than ‘Spice Girls – The Musical’. Of course, cleverness doesn’t mean that something can’t be camp and silly too – witness below.