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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Show me some ID

By Norman Lebrecht / May 29, 2005

Something is simmering in the state of musical theatre. While opera stagnates and ballet marks time, a roar of energy comes burning off an art form that is not just dead but four times dead, cremated by the remembered intensity of past combustions.

The musical was dead, they said, when Rodgers and Hammerstein quit. Dead again when West Side Story exposed its creative sidewalls. Dead for sure when Stephen Sondheim refined its tonality to a point where only aesthetes and intellectuals could whistle the show tunes. And dead for all eternity when the later Andrew Lloyd Webber and the miserablists wallowed for the umpteenth time in Victorian melodrama.

The musical belonged to an age when people believed what they saw on stage, an age before television and remote-control cultivated nightlong credulity and an expectation of instant gratification that could never be sustained over two and a half hours in a draughty theatre with nothing more for comfort than an overpriced ice and a never-ending queue for the Ladies. The musical, as a driving force, peaked in Prohibition and the Eisenhower years. We shall not see its like again. Here endeth the thesis.

And then an event happened that turned stage history on its head. At the turn of the millennium, amid a shoal of tepid revivals, a 1968 cult movie was reborn as a musical comedy that ran through 9/11 to keep Broadway in stitches. The phenomenon that is The Producers was remarkable both for its conformity to cold-cast form – practically, a period homage to the musical genre – and for its edgy, neurotic contemporaneity. Audiences who roll in the aisles are laughing as much at their inhibited selves as they are at Mel Brooks’s racially spiced melting-pot gags. The magnetism of this musical is its unsettling modernity, an attitude that filtered around the same time into other shows in preparation

Jerry Springer: The Opera was a National Theatre stage musical that reduced television to ridicule and inflamed nationwide protest when television, opiate to the masses, sought to cram its subversion into the 24-inch living-room screen.

And now we have Billy Elliot: the Musical, a movie conversion which one trudger of nightlife proclaimed ‘the best British musical I have ever seen’, and this without risk of contradiction. The music of Billy Elliot is top-drawer Elton John and Peter Darling’s choreography is wonderfully unindulgent, but what sets the show above the grot and grit of Stephen Daldry’s successful film is its invention of an alternative reality through the means of musical comedy.

The resurgence of the musical as a creative form, evidenced in the length and diversity of West End queues, is no mere coincidence. Seeing several hits in close succession suggests a chain reaction, a common attitude. The Producers introduced a genre of self-mockery in which the action halts momentarily to reflect sourly upon itself. This hiatus device appeared at the NT as the so called Jerry Springer Moment and now, in Billy Elliot, as the episodes at the start of each act when the audience is exposed to the legend of British coalmining without the requirement of empathy that came with Daldry’s film.

The music in each of these shows amplifies this element of separation, licencing us to stand apart from what we are seeing and enter a third dimension where each of us can individually decide whether to take the plot literally or sardonically, whether to take offence or simply collapse in giggles. This degree of Ironic Detachment is the very making of the post modern hit musical.

Ironic Detachment would be unattainable in a Tom Stoppard play because ID requires musical inflexion; it is impossible in opera and ballet, which are stiffened by tradition against self-mockery. Its application is unique to the musical comedy, an ephemeral entertainment which has found new relevance through its philosophical engagement with 21st century concepts of irony and alienation.

Preposterous critical theory? Actually it's the fulcrum of revival and its seeds are carried in some of the greatest musicals ever made. It earliest appearance is in a seminal work that has never faded for very long from our stage.

Guys and Dolls, about to reopen in Michael Grandage’s production at the Picaddilly Theatre, is superficially a comic romance between two reformed gangsters and their everloving molls. Except it never was. The Damon Runyon tales on which the musical is founded are unblushing glorifications of mob rule in Prohibition NooYawk. Runyon's apologists claim that he identified with the little guy, the outsider. But his little guys were criminal hustlers and Runyon, a night-desk newspaper hack, worshipped the power of thugs like Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone whose whim sent men to sleep in cement waistcoats.

No matter how laconic his prose, how inventive his wit, Runyon’s work could not have been staged in a literal representation without inviting ridicule or arrest. What Frank Loesser did in his music and lyrics in November 1950 was to take a long step back from the material, allowing viewers to choose their own level of involvement with the people on stage. Where Runyon sanitised and humanised his petty hoods, Loesser disinvested them of character, building his musical around situation alone.

To appreciate how far ahead this was of its times you have only to set Guys and Dolls beside its immediate rivals, South Pacific and The King and I. Both of those classics demand an emotional response to the love story; without it, they fail. Loesser in Guys and Dolls throws the emotions into neutral: feel what you like, he tells audiences, it’s your show as much as mine. When Big Julie threatens to shoot Nathan Detroit, no-one on stage or off is bothered, one way or other. Loesser's detachment anticipates Beckett and Pinter. It is the quintessence of modernity.

Everyone who has ever seen it feels they own a part of Guys and Dolls, whether it’s a line (‘why does a doll when she loves a guy want to take him in for alterations’), a Straussian Lied (‘I’ll know’) or a Marlon Brando swagger from the 1955 movie. Richard Eyre, who directed a National Theatre production that ran for 17 years said recently that ‘most of the best time I have ever had in a theatre have been watching it and working on it.’

The secret is ID. Guys and Dolls broke the mould of prescriptive theatre and created a realm in which the audience is aware of its part in the drama. If the stage musical is bustling back on track in the 21st century, some of its vitality derives from the degree of separation that Frank Loesser discovered in Guys and Dolls.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001