Time to rock the boat

CFTguysdolls2014JP-01936-Edit Johan Persson
Sophie Thompson and the cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Having recently fallen in love with the current production of Guys and Dolls, I got to thinking about the state of musical theatre. There has been an ever-growing trend in converting films into stage shows (musicals, more often than not), as well as the ever-popular jukebox musical format. Whilst these are unquestionably new to the stage, to me it quite often feels like a lack of originality. So would we be better off being provided with more revivals of classic shows, rather than re-hashed (& often inferior) versions of films?

The obvious downside to revivals is that they are not new works. However, there is always room for creativity in terms of how the show is produced – set designs & costumes can provide a freshness to the material. And if you can assemble a top-notch cast, you really can’t go wrong. Even if the shows are well-known by name, the music will be new to some – and others may know the songs but not be aware that they’re in a particular show. Further still will know all or most of the songs, and that is the draw for them to go & see different versions of the same show. In short, as long as it’s done fairly well, it’s a guaranteed income. That’s obviously not the be-all and end-all, but for production companies it is important to know that there should be a good revenue on the cards – this gives them more freedom to perhaps take the chance on new work, that could potentially be less commercially successful.

As a fan of the style of music that predominates classic shows, I am always keen to hear it played live – and for it to be introduced to new audiences. These can be the perfect shows for parents to introduce their children to the magic of theatre.

guysndolls0701a1 Johan Persson
The cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Musical versions of films, whilst new, are too prevalent for my liking. There is an element of laziness about it, in not coming up with a new story. Most times there is at least an original score, but sometimes it actually ends up being a kind of jukebox musical, playing unoriginal songs rather than coming up with new ones that enhance the story-telling. That’s not to say that I think we should do away with the concept entirely – some of these adaptations can be daring & attempt to fill a bit of a niche. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is an excellent example. All new songs with a sunny, Spanish tinge; there really was nothing like it, and it’s a shame its ambition wasn’t met with greater success. Bend It Like Beckham also tried the same thing, but fell short because the vibrant Bollywood numbers were grossly outnumbered by generic pop-sounding songs.

Now, jukebox musicals. A real can of worms! Broadly speaking, these can be split into two sub-types: biographies & stories. Whilst the latter do have some semblance of originality about them, it is notoriously difficult to find a story that brings the songs together without forcing it. Mamma Mia!, for all its faults, does at least have a credible storyline – Queen’s We Will Rock You, on the other hand… Not so much! Biographies, on the face of it, may seem completely lacking in originality. True(ish) tales, already written songs, what more can you do? It does take something quite special to elevate this into a bit of an art form, and make it more than just a quite enjoyable night out. Jersey Boys does this pretty well (& to great commercial success) but for a really smart example you need look no further than surprise hit (& love of my life) Sunny Afternoon. Not only is the story an eminently suitable one for the dramatics of the stage, but the songs fit like pieces of a jigsaw – and not just in chronological order. There is also a superb mix of genres incorporated – so, unlike Jersey Boys, it’s not all performed in the band’s style. With a brilliant musical arranger, these kind of things become possible, and enhance both the story & the audience experience.

Oliver Hoare (as Dave Davies)  in Sunny Afternoon. Credit - Kevin Cummins.jpg
Oliver Hoare in Sunny Afternoon
Photo credit: Kevin Cummins

But, as much as there are good examples of the film & jukebox genres, I yearn for a proliferation of truly original new musicals. Miss Atomic Bomb is an example of a tantalising step in the right direction. It’s inspired by real events, but is an original story, with original characters & an original score. And it just so happens to be brilliant too! It has been a bit of a labour of love (five years in the making), but I’d say this patience & creativity has paid off. If you have the right creative team & backers who are prepared to let them work on it, you can end up with spectacular results. You may even end up with the next new classic! It is vital for writers to be encouraged in their creativity, for the sake of the arts in general.

Stephane Anelli (Professor Alvin Schmul) & various cast in Miss Atomic Bomb, St James Theatre, photo Tristram Kenton
Stephane Anelli and the cast of Miss Atomic Bomb
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

The downside, or risk, to completely new musicals is that audiences can be reluctant to take the leap of faith. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but it definitely shouldn’t deter originality. The St James Theatre is due to become a hub for new musical productions, so we can only hope that this helps – and produces some interesting new work.

So, in conclusion, it seems like all I want is a bit more of a balance – and definitely as much new material as possible.


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