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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Springtime for the Musical

By Norman Lebrecht / November 15, 2004


It seems like only yesterday that we were reading of the imminent death of the West End, of shows closing, theatres crumbling, tourists staying away in droves, the end of entertainment as we know it. Come to think if it, it was only yesterday (or the week before). And then The Producers opened at Drury Lane and everybody came out wreathed in smiles.

No surprises here. The Producers has been the hottest ticket in New York since April 2001 and, before that, a cult movie which had millions of viewers in fits since 1968 with its preposterous proposition that the best way to make money on Broadway is by a staging a first-night flop, and the most bankable disaster is a happy musical about Hitler. Even a one-sentence summary of Mel Brooks's plot is enough to put a grin on your face.

But in theatre, as in love, timing is all. The Producers may have gently lit up Broadway in the months before 9/11 but it did not capture a particular moment. Now, three and a half years, two messy wars and a weary world later, it chimes so intuitively with the public mood that I believe it will run for years and people will return to it, on birthdays and anniversaries, for a dose of its feelgood snakeoil and a remembrance of what it is like to be entertained, literally beyond belief.

Intrinsically, as theatre business, The Producers can be credited with setting a trend for cinematic derivations. The next musicals coming our way are Mary Poppins and Billy Elliott; the West End's future is surely safe in their hands. But these are just the crest of a wave of musicals that is surging more thunderously than at any time since the Great Depression, and for much the same forget-all your-troubles reasons.

Barely a month now goes by without a new musical - Vicki Baum's 1920s Grand Hotel is next, in a fortnight, at Michael Grandage's Donmar. The state-fuinded sector is getting in on the act. The Almeida made a brave stab last month at Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. The Young Vic has moved Simoply Heavenly to the West End. English National Opera is planning Leonard Bernstein's On The Town in March with two miked-up West End singers - a travesty of its funded purpose and a symbol of opera in retreat (New York City Opera is doing much the same).

Many top directors, designers and choreographers are moving from opera into high-risk musicals, many of which crash on landing. The salsa-based Murderous Instinct shut so fast and with such backstage shenanigans it was almost a real-life replay of Bialystock and Bloom, the wacky pair at the heart of The Producers, brilliantly brought to life by Nathan Lane and Lee Evans. 

There is no ignoring the energy that is flowing into stage musicals - to the point where the genre is fast becoming the art form of the decade. The first to his feet at The Producers' opening night ovation was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Well, he owns the theatre. But Lloyd Webber is shrewd enough to recognise that Brooks's masterpiece is a century apart from his dark, narrative blockbusters. It speaks, in fact, to a very different time.

More than a just a one-way ticket to merry oblivion, The Producers confronts some underlying anxieties and inverted prejudices in the post-9/11 world. The show is riotously incorrect. It mocks Jews, gays, accountants, Scandinavian girls and every kind of German. Half of its gags could be prosecuted under UK race relations and sex equality laws. Yet Jewish suburbanites, gender-bending couples and briefcase-carrying number-crunchers have been reduced to helpless mirth by the show, their deepest sensitivities defused by its sheer outrageousness. Is The Producers offensive? You bet, it's offensive. That's the whole point.

The smaller the world gets, the more we try to protect our multifarous neighbours by buttoning our lips and repressing our feelings. Political correctness rules. English has been distorted beyond reasonable usage. There is a forthcoming book about Hitler's euthenasia plans. It is called The Holocaust and People with Disabilities - not the Disabled, mind, because to designate a person disabled brands him or her offensively with minority status, violating their human rights.

Into this whirlpool of PC absurdity, The Producers - along with Jerry Springer: The Opera - allows us to share in the self-mockery of protected minorities. The best jokes I have ever heard about the disabled come from a friend in a wheelchair. It takes a self-aware, tenement-reared Jew like Brooks and, as he calls himself, 'a card-carrying gay man' like Nathan Lane to allow us into the in-jokes. But these jokes, once heard, do not make us antisemites and homophobes. On the contrary, they serve to increase our respect and affection for people who have endured extreme inhumanity and emerged with a quip on their lips.

The Producers acts as a litmus test, usefully separating PC apparatchiks and professional lobbyists from the truly enlightened majority who rejoice in social diversity and celebrate the things that make us different from one another, appalling as some of them may superficially seem. I would happily take a Holocaust survivor to see The Producers, though I doubt that anyone involved in Holocaust Memorial Day would appreciate the utterly outrageous 'Springtime for Hitler' with its all-singing, high kicking, swastika-shaped human flowerbed.

That, I believe, is the ultimate proof of the work's modernity and of our society's maturity. It is an affirmation of humanity that overrules the human rights lobby. It is also the ultimate validation of the resurgent stage musical. You could not bring off Springtime for Hitler as po-faced opera, twinkle-toed ballet or precisely-enunciated dramatic theatre. Only a musical could pull that trick, and that is why the stage musical is triumphantly back in business.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001