Downbeat Shows For Lockdown

The Arts

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a total theatre rat, going at least once a week, travelling miles and taking risks on the unlikeliest productions. The virus has wrecked my playgoing plans for the year, so I’m going back over old albums and recordings. This week the Lockdown showbiz show to beat them all (‘Sondheim 90’) was put up free on YouTube. It’s exhaustingly ‘New York’ but has some terrific highlights, one of which is this, although it’s always Audra McDonald’s voice that knocks everyone else out of the way.

I started thinking, what other cast albums are good for a lockdown? If you want something grand and heartbreaking that will test your speakers and have the neighbours complaining, try ‘Titanic – The Musical’, which could have been risible but instead took a surprisingly affecting look at the politics behind the ship’s construction. Backed by a dark choral score, all classes were represented on stage by boxes containing different cabins that slowly tilted. The UK revival ended with the names of the dead projected over the sobbing audience. The album is superlative.

A show where everybody dies at the end? Not bleak enough for you? Then try ‘The Visit‘, a very, very dark parable about the rise of fascism, played straight recently in London but also more tightly produced as the final Kander & Ebb musical which has a distinct ‘Cabaret’-era sound, and makes an unusual cast album. Here’s the trailer;

How dark do you want to go? I love the musical ‘Parade’, which doesn’t have a parade at all but a rape-murder resulting in an anti-Semitic trial. Or how about ‘Grey Gardens’, another true tale of Kennedy bad behaviour. ‘Urinetown’ – probably the first ever show to have a phonetic pun in the title – was a grimly funny look at rampant capitalism and a lot cleverer and funnier than it might at first have seemed. Like many minority-interest oddities it made its way to London (we get the best of the obscure bombs, lavishly restaged) The cast recording is interesting, and shares the dank aesthetic of the others mentioned here.

‘Bat Boy’ was a genuine oddity based on a fake National Enquirer story, and was given a brilliant score, including a standout fantasy number about woodland spirits. It played in a tiny empty damp theatre in London one rainy winter night. I went along with a very game Maggie Armitage, and we remembered this song, in which a mother and daughter attempt to make a panicked flight from an abusive spouse, not realising the danger they’re taking with them…

Still not strange enough? The hero of ‘Floyd Collins’ plays the entire show hanging upside down from the roof, suspended by his ankle. The London version was staged in a creepy old Victorian swimming bath. The score is demanding and unusual, but grows on you. It’s a cynical, true tragedy about a poverty-stricken farmer who discovers caves beneath his house and gets trapped there. The media folk exploit his plight, and realise they’ll make more if he suffers for longer. It became Billy Wilder’s film ‘Ace in the Hole’, and there’s a good Spanish update called ‘La Chispa de la Vida’. Be warned; it does not end well. All other weird cast album recommendations accepted for a follow-up article.

16 comments on “Downbeat Shows For Lockdown”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Here’s weird enough to set everyone’s teeth on edge. A teacher friend of mine is convinced that my party piece should be The Ladies Who Lunch a la Elaine Stritch. I could never do the last part the way the ladies above do but I can certainly do a slow sinking into drunken stupor (which option they very wisely avoid.)

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and I certainly do wear hats, mostly cloches, actually.

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    Sinking into a drunken stupor rings a bell. I loved Elaine Stritch, a dame of American theater.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    My dad loved Elaine Stritch because of the wonderful acerbic edge she gave roles.

  5. Bronwen Rowlands says:

    Somewhere I read that Sondheim had planned for the audience to be moved to rise to their feet at the end of “Ladies Who Lunch.” That explains the odd lyric.

  6. snowy says:

    Do you find conventional stories unsatisfying? Have you flirted with Comic Book Action Heroes? Have you even experimented with Hard Sci-Fi and still not found anything strange enough?

    Welcome to the World of Musicals, where the train has not only gone off the rails, it has shot up into the air and is currently sky-writing “BOLLOCKS TO NARRATIVE SENSE!!” in letters 50′ high.

    Squirmed uncomfortably through ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and disappointed there was only one rather lack-lustre musical number? ‘Silence!’ fixes all that with 17 specially written songs for the stage, including the love ballad delivered by Dr Lecter, [which people seemed reluctant to whistle leaving the theatre, Track 4, I’m not listing it here.]

    ‘Gay Bride of Frankenstein’, to quote one of the authors: “It’s sort of a cross between ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘South Park’ with a love interest.”
    [Written by Dane Leeman and Billy Butler.]

    ‘It Happened in Key West’, Boy meets Girl, They fall in love, She dies, He digs her up. [Written by Jill Santoriello and Jason Huza.]

    ‘In My Life’, “a love story about a female Village Voice personals editor with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a musician with Tourette’s syndrome who are brought together by a jingle-singing God”. [The composer gassed himself].

    ‘Repo: The Genetic Opera’, the perils of not keeping up with your payments, if you buy replacement organs ‘on the drip’. Filmed with that smoothie from the coffee ads.

    An filmed oddity to round off, ‘Metallica Through the Never’. Is it really a musical? Or is it a concert film? Is it a concept album? Is it an over extended music video? Is it any good? It is certainly LOUD. [Cost $34M, made less than 25% of that back at the box office, but is quite widely praised for the visual style.]

  7. admin says:

    Snowy, you can add to that list ‘Evil Dead – The Musical’, featuring the song ‘All the men in my life keep getting killed by Canderian Demons’ and the wonderful RSC production of ‘Poppy’, kindly sourced for me by our very own Ian, featuring the Opium Wars restaged as a panto.

  8. For me, most musical theatre is horror of one form or another, ranging from vomit inducing to embarrassing. I recall two exceptions: ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ and ‘School of Rock.’

  9. snowy says:

    Peter, there is a lot of it about, if exposure cannot be avoided, begin treatment immediately with 50ml gin, repeat dose until symptoms improve.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Foo bazz. Musical theatre is fun. Fun, I tell you. The Silence of the Lambs is not a suitable topic for it, nor, I feel, is Sweeney Todd. The closest it should get is the Little List from Mikado, although it seems you people would add G&S and their ilk to the list.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – As I’ve said before, the only musical I can stand to listen to, is ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. It’s basic premise is so utterly hatstand, that people belting out earworm packed tunes every now and then, makes an odd kind of sense.
    Oddly, when I was a kid, my parents would often play records from musicals – although I didn’t know that at the time, and I liked the tunes. But when, later, I saw the movies featuring those same tunes, I couldn’t stand it. It seemed so forced and unreal. A bit stupid, in fact. It’s probably the same reason that I hate opera, which I will reiterate here: Beautiful music ruined by fat people shrieking over the top of it, who steadfastly refuse to die when killed. If you are going to tell a story, do so, but without the ‘let’s have a shindig in this barn now!’ kind of pricking about. It annoys people. If you love it, then keep enjoying it, but (and I have no idea why this just popped into my mind) don’t ask me to join in. It’s just not my bag, man. (I’m so very sorry for that, really I am).

  12. admin says:

    Sweeney Todd really conforms to the tradition of opera, based on an English folk tale (or at least penny fiction) and is sublime – although not in the largely tone-deaf Tim Burton version.

  13. snowy says:

    If we take Helen’s hypothesis that we are all terrible rotters and don’t deserve to have plays with nice tunes, musicals should be fun.

    Not… the most solid of ground:

    She’s dead when it starts and dead at the end, in between there is a lot of warbling. [Evita]

    One bloke hangs himself and another is whipped, nailed to a tree and then stabbed with a pointed stick. [Jesus Christ Superstar]

    Gang warfare, two killed in knife fight, attempted rape, fatal shooting. [West Side Story]

    Ex-convict, hunted by police, lots of people die horribly over about nine hours. [Les Miserables]

    Three women pick up sailors, suck them dry use them for their own pleasure and then discard them; before heading out to find new conquests. [On the Town]

    [If anybody else feels the urge to condense an entire musical into a single line, feel free to add them.]

  14. Helen Martin says:

    A gambler bets his friends that he can persuade a Salvation Army girl to go to Cuba with him overnight while the friends gamble, evade police, and try to stay engaged to a girlfriend without actually marrying her. (Guys and Dolls) What is immoral, fattening, or illegal about that (except the gambling) unless you’re going to go for the crossing state lines for immortal porpoises thinking. She was perfectly able to avoid it and was an adult and I love the songs in that. It was compiled out of Damon Runyon, of course.

    A girl wins a contest to be the first one to kiss a musical heart throb after he leaves the army. (Bye,Bye Birdie) (Or was it the last one to kiss him before he went into the army? It was a long time ago.)

    A novice nun takes on the seven children of an Austrian Naval captain. (Sound of Music)

    A linguistic specialist bets a friend he can have a down market flower girl speaking sufficiently upper class she could pass at Ascot (My Fair Lady) That was taken from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.

    Foo bazz, I still enjoy musical comedy and light opera and even grand opera on a good night. I can even tolerate Wagner, provided no one is extrapolating from the mythic basis.

  15. Ed DesCamp says:

    @ Helen – foo bazz? I link that with Walt Kelley, and I don’t think he ever wrote a musical…

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Ed, as a long time Walt Kelley fan it is quite possible that that is where I got it. Probably Porky or Turkle.

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