The Dark Musical Gene

London, The Arts

I listen to an insane amount of music at home. This comes down to personality type; I’m an annoyingly perky fidget, which makes me hell in the mornings and a sucker for musicals. I know all the words because the cadence of language is very important to me. I don’t like conspicuously camp shows or anything with Andrew lloyd-Webber’s name on it, so I’m drawn to Kander & Ebb (who wrote ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’), Stephen Sondheim and the darker stuff. Music is where drama goes when words are not enough.

As panto season approaches and I turn out last year’s theatre programmes, I realise I’ve seen some real oddities. You’ve got to love passionate British producer Cameron Mackintosh, who gets it wrong as often as he gets it right. I remember seeing his ‘Moby Dick – The Musical’ and thinking ‘you’d have to be mad to see this!’ The Melville novel was refiltered through old St Trinian’s films, the lead was in drag, part of it required 3D glasses and the whale was made out of white umbrellas) but I love him for trying.

I can count many similar shows that have failed with X-Factor-satiated audiences and have been too clever or painful to be popular – ‘Floyd Collins’, which is the musical version of Billy Wilder’s bleak ‘Ace In The Hole’, ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ a musical about failure and compromise, ‘Bat Boy’, about a mutant destined to eat his lover, and ‘Poppy’, Monty Norman and Peter Nichol`s Olivier award-winning musical which exposes the hypocrisy, racism, drug dealing, greed and sexual repression of Victorian Britain – in panto. It featured Randy the pantomime horse, a flying ballet, a transformation scene and even the traditional song-sheet brought on to tell the dark story of the most profitable crop of the British East India Company, Opium.

The charmingly ramshackle Madness musical ‘Our House’ followed the two paths of a boy’s life after committing a crime – in one he stays to face the music, in the other he runs from the law and ends up causing his mother’s death. The outcomes, dark and light, cross over each other through the show. Sweeney Todd is heading back into town, now set in the 1930s depression.It ends in madness and death. Sondheim shows rarely end happily. It seems that for every ‘Wizard of Oz’ there’s a bleaker musical to be found.

The bleakest – Kander & Ebb’s last – is called ‘The Visit’ and concerns a girl who left town after being abused, only to return years later when that it has economically collapsed. She’s wealthy now and offers them a deal – she’ll give the town a fortune if it kills one man. The gradual moral erosion of good people is its subject – and yet there’s great music to be enjoyed in it.

You can’t convince those who hate singing to enjoy such plays, but often they’re the best the theatre has to offer.

6 comments on “The Dark Musical Gene”

  1. Wayne says:

    My Partner should chat with you Chris. You have a lot of the same taste in show music. We have a house full of the stuff. Rack after rack of CD’s and rare records from way back when. Maybe not such a morning person as you though so chatting later in the day would be best 😉

  2. Philip Jackson says:

    We saw a stunning production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Derby Playhouse a few years back. It’s a show that does really need to be seen (rather than heard on a disc) to be fully appreciated. The clever ‘telling the story backwards’ structure leads to one of the most heartbreakingly sad ‘happy endings’ I’ve ever seen in a theatre. I can understand it flopping in its first production. Like many Sondheim shows, it was ahead of its time. Although I’m looking forward to seeing Sweeney next year (tickets already booked!), it’s a shame some of his more obscure shows are often overlooked. I think the world is ready for another production of Pacific Overtures – an absolute gem of a musical!

  3. RobertR says:

    Dark musicals are the counterpoint to the musical haters who think the form can only be light & frothy. Even R&H’s ‘Carousel’ is dark in its own way.

    Of modern shows ‘Next to Normal’ – an everyday musical story of a family falling apart in the face of the death of a child, electro-shock therapy and a disintegrating marriage, has to be that remarkable combination of something that shouldn’t work, but does because the characters can express their inermost thoughts via the lyrics.

  4. Wayne says:

    Oh I agree, I forgot to add in my first post that one of the best productions I have seen was an Am/Dram at Stantonbury Campus (Milton keynes) of Assassins. A super production and full of tension, Truly inspired with minimal scenery.

  5. Roger says:

    The Visit is based on a play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, fairly often performed, who wrote some fine crime stories. It’s been adapted as a film several times and is just as effective set in Senegal asin switzerland.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Even Oklahoma! has a very dark thread running part way through.

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