Music Theatre, the genre which gave us Andrew Lloyd Webber and the tribute show, combines the worst aspects of music with the worst aspects of theatre to create a mutant hybrid that is the worst form of live art that exists. There are few aspects of human artistic endeavour that are of less moral or aesthetic worth than Music Theatre. Music Theatre is worse than pornography, although the two have much in common. A two and a half hour, all-singing, all-dancing West End smash is the equivalent of the triple penetration gang bang scene on some unpleasant German hotel room in house video channel. It doesn’t look much fun for the people doing and it isn’t especially enjoyable for the people watching it, but you have to admit it takes guts, commitment and stamina, an engenders a weird form of respect. The main difference between pornography and Music Theatre is that you cannot masturbate to Phantom Of The Opera. Even if you thoughtfully masturbate in the back row, and affect no-one’s enjoyment of the show but your own, you are still likely to be asked to leave the theatre, unless you are Andrew Lloyd Webber, in which case you probably own the building and can wander in and out at will doing whatever you like and none of the ushers will say anything because they don’t want to get sacked.
As you may have guessed, I hate Music Theatre. What you may not have guessed is that for that last three years, without even realising it at first, I worked in the medium itself. In the spring of 2001 the composer Richard Thomas asked me to help direct, and write some extra words for, an opera he was writing about the American talk show host Jerry Springer. We worked the show up for eighteen months with friends and acquaintances who gave their time largely for free in small rooms at Battersea Arts Centre and The Edinburgh Fringe Festival and eventually the finished product, Jerry Springer The Opera, was staged at the National Theatre and then London’s West End, where it won 4 Olivier awards. Somewhere along the line, a hit musical had been created. This was a strange and delightful surprise for everyone involved, and especially for me, as before I started work on Jerry Springer The Opera I had never seen a musical. I had always assumed Music Theatre wasn’t something I’d enjoy. Out of professional curiosity I went to see some, and found Music Theatre to be even worse than I could ever have imagined. It is important for me to point out here that my views in no way reflect those of any of my co-workers or employers in Jerry Springer The Opera, all of whom I have nothing but immense respect for.
Admittedly, my initial exposure to the genre of Music Theatre wasn’t ideal. The first musical I ever saw was not Carousel, or West Side Story, or Guys and Dolls, but We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen. It’s as good a metaphor as any for the problems inherent in the genre. We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen is set in a dystopian future where all rock music is banned. Some BBC comedy show wardrobe department style punks who live underground in an old tube station covered with generic rebel graffiti are inspired by the music of Queen to overthrow the state. In real life, Queen’s relationship with politics is less clear cut. Miami Steve Van Zandt was compelled to form Artists Against Apartheid after Queen broke an international cultural embargo and played South Africa under apartheid in the early 80’s, and who will ever forget Brian May playing the National Anthem off the Queen’s roof in jubilee year? When Hendrix massacred The Stars And Stripes it threatened the status quo. What Brian May did to God Save The Queen merely confirmed it. At one point in We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen a list of people who, like Freddie Mercury, ‘died for rock and roll’, invokes Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Ironically, Kurt Cobain’s own suicide note offers Queen’s relentless professionalism as an example of one of the things he didn’t want to become, as one of the reasons he is taking his own life. The teenage American hardcore punk in me wept fan tears of anger.
But the real problem with We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen, is not these moral-philosophical quibbles. It was just the sheer lack of ambition. Put 1000’s of people in a room, get them to sing along to a bunch of songs they already know, string them over the loosest story line possible, give them glow sticks to wave and send them home happy. All you can take away from We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen is huge admiration for the way the cast do their best to make it work, confirmation that music theatre performers, whether they love a show or hate it, remain the super-efficient, highly trained warrior-ninjas of the stage. Most British people go to the theatre only three times in their lives. It is sad to think, that for many people, We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen will be one of those three times, and that it is a wasted opportunity to show them what great theatre can be.
We Will Rock You, The Queen Musical By Ben Elton and Queen remains the worst musical I have ever seen, and obviously the show can only have been conceived in a spirit of extreme cynicism. But its problems define the genre’s physical limitations. There is a perceived crisis in Music Theatre. Where are the new ideas?, ask opinion pieces in the industry papers. The answer is, they are out there, but not in Music Theatre, and under current circumstances, never will be. Music Theatre is fatally compromised. Some art exists to ask questions, and to play with expectations. Some people want art to take them to a place they would never have imagined going to in the company of people they would never have imagined meeting. Bob Dylan, Samuel Beckett and Reeves and Mortimer all do this. Other people want art to reconfirm the things they already know, and send them away feeling better about themselves. This is the job of Coldplay, Music Theatre and those kind of Comedy Store/Jongleurs stand-up comedians who invite the audience to think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what happens whenever I try and open a sachet of tomato sauce too, brilliant!” These polar opposite intentions can be equally difficult to achieve, and I’d wager that there’s an element of genius involved in simply thinking of the idea of Singalonga Sound Of Music equal to the moment of epiphany enjoyed by Beckett when he realised it would be a good idea to strap Billie Whitelaw into a harness and light only her mouth while she rambled all but incoherently for twenty minutes in Not I. But one of these end points is clearly vastly more valid than the other.
The tragedy of Music Theatre is that it cannot afford to occupy the superior position. West End ticket prices, caused by the vast overheads such shows incur, are high. Broadway prices are even higher. Seats are filled up with coach parties whose bookers can’t risk alienating their clients, and people for whom seeing the show is the one big night out of their year, possibly even of their lives. Economically, tribute shows to Abba, Queen and Rod Stewart are safe. Demographically they’re hitting the exact strata of society and generation of music fans that has the money to sustain them. The Madness musical, Our House, discovered a viable musical coherence in the working class milieu of Madness songs and played some interesting games with narrative structure. But Madness fans aren’t yet old enough or wealthy enough to give such a show a long run. And they fight in the bar at half time which scares of the American tourists who make up 50% of the audience of any big London theatre show.
Musical Theatre can’t afford to be the space that punters enter in order to be challenged, changed or confused. When I was genuinely baffled by the appeal of a recent West End production, a music theatre professional, whose abilities I respect, explained to me why I hadn’t got it. “You check your brain in at the door,” he explained, “and just go along with it all.” It seems sad that even industry insiders justify the genre as an opportunity to suspend your judgement, rather than engage it.
I saw The Producers, which opens in London this Autumn, on Broadway last year. On some level, part of its impact was due to embracing Music Theatre’s limitations. It is the story of two producers who try to actively loose money by staging what they imagine will be the worst musical ever, a song and dance show based on the life of Hitler. The Producers is very funny. It seems to be a surreal, panic response the Nazism and the Holocaust. You either cry, or make a comedy musical about it. But it also addresses, sublimely, the basic insincerity of Music Theatre, its reliance on camp humour and kitsch values, and shows how ineffectual they are for dealing with significant issues. When the audience have hysterics at The Producers, they are in a way acknowledging the banality of the medium they themselves are complicit in endorsing. Great art exists in the spaces between the certainties. Economically, culturally and artistically, Music Theatre can’t afford spaces, only certainties.