Originally written for The Public Reviews
Last week I went to see the ENO doing Katya Kabanova at the Coliseum, a meaty piece of classical brilliance. The next day I went to see Hairspray, a bubble gum piece of theatrical whimsy. Katya was awe inspiring at points, and infinitely thought provoking, but for sheer balls out joy, nothing could beat Hairspray.
Whilst one is seen as a bastion of high art and the other, a guilty theatrical pleasure, opera and musicals have more in common than one may originally think. Both art forms (and yes a great musical can be ‘art’) use music to transport the viewer into a heightened emotional state of ecstasy. Deeply emotive, both do exactly what Aristotle championed, promoting a very healthy sense of catharsis.
And it’s even more than this. High School Musical may be Disney certified but the effervescent energy of the songs mirrors the joyfully satirical winks that Glee nudges at us. Musicals can be social commentary (Hair or Rent) they poke fun at modern life, (Jerry Springer The Musical), be inspirational soothes for those in a crisis (midlife in the case of Mama Mia), epic (Phantom of the Opera) or just good old fashioned fun (Grease). But from the cheesy to the knowingly ironic, it’s the most intrinsic moment at the heart of every outstanding musical whether it be in TV, film or theatre is a transcending one. Something about the MGM dream speaks to the most extreme points of our soul – the very part that opera tugs at so convincingly – the parts that normal life can’t touch. It’s the out of body experience of sharing a moment of unified movement with a group or singing words that everyone knows, that, although occasionally sickening, leads us all into a communal high that should be celebrated, not patronised.
Straight theatre seems to be waking up to the importance of music to move an audience with the phenomenally successful David Creig’s Midsummer at The Soho or Che Walker’s plays Frontline and Been So Long selling out and garnering rave reviews. Even opera is expanding its audience base with shows like La boheme at the intimate Cock Tavern breaking boundaries of snobbery with an irreverent joie de vivre.
And so why the condescending attitude to Musical Theatre? The public attend musicals in their droves so it can’t be from the general populace. It seems that this feeling of inadequacy comes from none other than the professionals who work within this very business we call show. Maybe this is the reason there is so much potpourri on the musical theatre stage; the smells there but it’s not fresh anymore.
Because how can anyone take an art form seriously that so degrades itself? Whilst musicians of the highest water work within opera, MT performers are seen as ‘twirlies’ and ‘airheads’. Sadly Producers looking for cheap thrills employ substandard Z-star performers, only reiterating the thought that the musical world is the frivolous Barbie doll sister to it’s older, more meaty intellectual siblings.
I’m not the only writer to be bemoaning this snobbery. But we don’t need commentators to relight musical theatre’s fire, we need artists who believe wholeheartedly in its importance. For all his present weirdness Lloyd Webber got it once, Fosse always saw it, Sondheim embodied it, but the next generation of musical theatre impresario’s need to feel it.
We need passion not embarrassment. TV and film seem to understand this; if we are to get a fraction of their glory, the theatre needs to follow suit, get their jazz hands out and do the whole fabulous she-bang without a drop of cynical irony.