Song and dance of death: the musical – archive, 11 December 1972

Having seen no less than six musicals in the past month, I can stay my hand no longer. I have decided to write the show critics have long been pining for: the musical to end all musicals. I’m still searching around for an ace tunesmith but I have already worked out a skeleton book based on a close analysis of the current hits.

Setting: backstage at the Palace Theatre, Broadway. The heroine: an incurable American diseuse who, in spite of her 87 years and the fact that she has made only one film and two armpit-deodorant commercials, has acquired the campest set of followers since Richard Coeur-de-Lion. In the privacy of her tiny dressing-room, deserted save for a 72-strong dance ensemble, she is a helpless prey both to production numbers and to weird nocturnal fantasies in which she imagines herself to be Mary Queen of Scots (cue for song: “I and Bothwell” or “ I’m losing my head over you”)

Magically the scene shifts to Holyrood Palace where the dialogue (“Hello Rizzio,” “Hello Darnley”) quickly establishes an authentic sense of period and where the presence of a vivaciously jiving John Knox suggests the spirit of ecumenicism is abroad. Revels are interrupted by the arrival of a band of strolling players, led by a louche transvestite claiming to be the last of the Red-Hot Mummers. Asked to improvise a little show, the group instantly mount a scintillating 20-minute production number based on the Book of Deuteronomy (“Verily a hit”: Bishop of Southwark).

In the second half the scene unaccountably shifts to Plymouth Hoe where Good Queen Bess (Carol Channing) is scanning the horizon for the Spanish Armada while Sir Francis Drake does conjuring tricks, magically producing his bowls from a pocket handkerchief. While the Armada is being defeated by the fine olde Englishe art of back-projection, a posse of green-haired Cheapside tarts come on and dance a savagely ironic rhumba; another band of strolling gipsies led by one Will Shakespeare (“ Give us a song, Will”) present a musical sneak-preview of “Henry VI Part 2”; and, though executed several months earlier, Mary Queen of Scots reappears to do a hat-and-cane number (“Just a couple o’ Queens”) with her English counterpart.

Mercifully at this point the heroine comes to on her dressing-room couch where the company psychiatrist announces she is suffering from an obscure complaint known as Strouse and Adams disease: the delusion that anything goes in order to make a musical. Handing over to her ambitious Tibetan understudy (fresh from “Hello Dalai”) she announces she will retire to her 15-bedroomed Connecticut mansion with her 15 ex-husbands, 12 Mardian eunuchs and three Buicks to pursue the simple life. And to symbolise her renunciation of the tawdry tinsel of showbiz. she appears lowered from the flies in a crescent moon singing “There’s no business like show business.” The curtain falls to the sound of thunderous applause – directed by the cast to each other.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But, on the evidence of recent shows, the musical is in dead trouble. Many of the productions themselves have an air of hectic vitality: but the more one watches dancers catapulting across the stage as if fired from a cannon and leading ladies baring their tonsils, the more one has the sensation of seeing cosmetics applied to a corpse. The musical, once a celebration of both urban and rural life and of the reunification of the diverse arts of the theatre, has become less an art-form than an investment: less a paean than a product. The professionalism usually remains but the driving spirit that once sustained it has gone.

In terms of the American musical (still potentially the best) the reasons for this decline are many and various. Partly it’s to do with the erosion of confidence in the actual quality of American life – could anyone but the most fanatical Nixonite today write a lyric like New York, New York’s a wonderful town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down” or even Oh What a Beautiful Morning? Partly it’s to do with the understandable departure of talent like Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins to more mind-stretching fields. But also suspect it’s to do with the widespread assumption (affecting both the rock-musical and the staple Broadway product) that the book is only a minor part of a musical’s appeal: that such matters as internal consistency, narrative fluency or an articulate viewpoint are a luxury few musicals can afford.

Lauren Bacall, star of the Broadway musical comedy Applause. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

I don’t want to belabour Applause unduly since it’s a sight more cohesive than some shows around town. But for a perfect example of the inevitable dilution that occurs when a musical is based on an existing book, play or film, one has only to read Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s More About All About Eve (Random House. $7 95) which includes the script of the celebrated movie. Reading the original screenplay one is struck by the utter moral bleakness of the world described and of the futility of plotting to achieve stardom and a statuette when they are no sooner won than lost.

Mankiewicz’s Eve stoops to anything (even blackmail) to conquer; and at the end one gets a sense of genuine emptiness as she and her Machiavellian paramour, Addison De Witt, sit surrounded by the desolate remains of a banquet like a pair of Manhattan Macbeths. Take away that sense of desolation, as Applause does, and you have something embarrassingly close to the chorus-girl-into-star format of Dames at-Sea. Moreover the attention in Applause is shifted so much from the usurper to the one usurped that the show might well be retitled Scarcely About Eve.

If further proof were needed as to the vital importance of a good book in creating a musical, one has only to look at some of this year’s products. Shows like The Rock Carmen, Stand and Deliver and, Pun Both Ends bit the dust because there was no sustaining idea to carry the score along. Whereas the two best musicals of the year, Company and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were both much more than a sequence of unstrung tunes. Company actually had something to say about the perennial conflict between the dignity of solitude and the security of emotional commitment; and was wrongly condemned as a cop-out because it came down on the side of a one-to-one relationship. Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Joseph also knocked Superstar into the middle of the Sea of Galilee because it realised that the Good Book by itself doesn’t make for a good book, that there must be some consistent attitude to the source material.

The lesson is clear enough: as with any other theatrical form, the musical works not when it is a mechanical repetition of a proven formula but when it is sustained by an intelligent idea. A simple lesson, but who is learning it? Strangely enough the one show I’ve seen recently that suggested Company may have had some impact was a Dutch musical, Happily Ever After, which has been a great success through-out Holland. It seemed to me to have got its priorities right in that it wasn’t trying to condense The Dynasts, The Brothers Karamazov, or the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett into musical form.

It was, in fact, an original script by Annie Schmidt about the problem of living in a world with no fixed moral values: and, unless I misunderstood it, was suggesting it was better for young marrieds to live with their chums in a state of communal bliss than to be stifled in the suburbs. Moreover Harry Bannink’s score, with its occasional obeisance to Weill, managed to be tuneful without suggesting musical invention expired with the death of Franz Lehar. No British managers, I was told, had taken the trouble to see the show. They should: they might actually learn something.

For the future, there seem to me two courses open to the musical. Either it goes on repeating the effects it knows it can achieve until it disappears up its own semi-quaver. Or it must accept the need for an intelligent original concept and for music which earns its position in the story instead of simply being a wave of meaningless sound washing over the audience. Otherwise I’m very much with Philip Hope-Wallace: Prokofiev’s War and Peace is far and away the best musical in London.

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