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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Musical numbers that don't add up

By Norman Lebrecht / March 17, 2005


When times get tough, the desperate cross genre. Symphony orchestras are playing movie soundtracks in a pitch for younger listeners, few of whom would ever watch a movie without pictures. Sadlers Wells, London’s premier dance house, signs up the hip-hop artist Jonzi D. Universities offer courses in cookery and soap opera. The Church of England allows its celestial liturgy to be displaced by electric guitars.

Against this backdrop of compromise and cultural cringe, the current staging by English National Opera of an amplified Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein is neither extreme nor irrational. There has been an early rush on the box-office, with the first six shows pretty much sold out. Whether the surge will continue after a slew of tepid reviews remains to be seen, but if ENO’s aim was to plant the suggestion in the public mind that an opera stage is not just for squally sopranos in soppy sagas then In The Town has scored a useful point – and not only with New Labour’s social engineers.

There is more to opera than Mozart and Wagner, and if Johann Strauss could upgrade from music hall to opera house then why not Oscar Hammerstein? La Scala, after all, is preparing to stage Lloyd Webber’s Phantom and, as for preserving the purity of the naked voice, it is an open secret that New York’s high-church Met has, on occasion, amplified a mezzo or two. Covent Garden took on Sondheim and the National Theatre has made Cole Porter core repertoire without anyone questioning their core purpose. Why, then, is ENO under fire when all it wants to do is reach a wider audience?

Cavils don’t come easy when there are new faces around you in a theatre laughing at lines they have never heard before. On the Town was, on paper, worth trying after an absence of 40 years. It’s a flimsy piece – three sailors on a 24-hour furlough in New York – and its first flowering as the ballet, Fancy Free, was powered by Jerome Robbins’ electrifying choreography. Expanded into a Broadway show, then condensed as a Rat Pack movie, it perfectly captured the wartime mores of love tonight, gone tomorrow. To make a 21st century impact, it would require high-octane dance moves and a moral update to an age of Aids and recreational drugs.

Neither was in evidence at ENO, a company which has no dance culture nor any appetite to risk political confrontation. The choreography was copycat plod and Jude Kelly’s staging sternly avoided post-Iraq contextualisation - unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Jude is a cheerleader in light in Arts for Labour and a chum of Cherie Blair’s. What we got was a hop and a skip down Memory Lane, a hollow indulgence in movie-buff nostalgia.

The unique selling point of this enterprise – indeed, its official justification – was the use of half an opera orchestra and chorus, which added a dimension of depth seldom enjoyed in scrawny-pit musicals. There were moments of nirvana for fans of musicals but, just as we prepared to suspend disbelief, a blare of badly amplified voice bubbled up, like a blob in blacmange, unbalancing the sound and dispelling any illusion that the Coliseum is a natural home for retired Broadway hits. On the Town may have been the right piece to put on, but it was decidedly in the wrong place.

Setting aside artistic considerations, the confusions of purpose became painfully apparent. Where the ROH and the National embraced Sondheim to display the versatility of such as regulars as Judi Dench and Felicity Lott, ENO imported a pack of hoofers from Grease, Chicago and Les Miz. Sean Doran, the artistic director and chief executive, has avowed behind closed doors to restore the company by attracting a West End audience, if necessary with West End attractions.

That seems both unwise and improper. At a time when the BBC has been ordered to end its public-funded ratings war with commercial television, ENO cannot justify using its £14 million state subsidy to compete with commercial producers – the more so when the odds are stacked against any lasting success.

Mary Poppins. Billy Elliott and Anything Goes come into the West End with a budget of £3-4 million and up to six months of rehearsals and previews to get the high-jinks slick-perfect. On the Town had a fraction of the spend and a quarter of the time.

Seasoned West End producers put its cost at half a million. ENO, through gritted teeth, said the budget for On the Town was no more than for a new Traviata – say, £200,000 – plus £100,000 for amplification. But those sums are not the full monty.

A West End musical is able to spread its technical costs over 100 nights and more, to the point where they become insignificant. On the Town’s sound system has cost one-third of the admitted budget and for a mere 17 nights; it will cost the same again if the show is revived. That is barmy. It’s less efficient than the private sector and a misuse of public cash. Someone should be called to account – and it’s not Sean Doran.

The Irishman was parachuted in from Australia, untested at running an opera house but well intentioned. He got the job because no-one of proven merit wanted it. The detractions were an over-anxious board and a chairman whose signature hymn was My Way.

Martin Smith, an investment banker, stepped up to the plate in 2001 with a £3 million gift to the reconstruction fund – an act of generosity rare among British arts chairmen. He offended sensitive members of the staff and press with arrogant quips about artists and audiences, but he revitalised an elderly board and ran a tight set of budgets. ENO is financially sounder than it was four years ago and its future is reasonably secure.

Smith, however, is a City animal, a lone wolf. He has cost ENO much good will in the arts community, especially in the commercial theatre which regards him as a predator on its audience. Where the National stages musicals in perfect harmony with Drury Lane, Smith’s ENO is at war with its neighbours – and for no good reason.

Smith, 62, has sworn to serve another four years, and On the Town serves notice of his competitive intent. His defiance is admirable, but it defies reality. What On the Town shows is that the Coliseum is unfit for musicals, artistically and structurally. ENO should get back in its generic box. If it won’t, the Commons select committee on culture should subject the chairman to an inquiry.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001