I love musicals. I do. I wouldn’t put myself through an entire week of them if I didn’t! Though, for me, variety is absolutely the key to enjoying theatre – I genuinely cannot get inside the minds of people who will only watch musicals and not even think about embracing a play. Even with the range of genres and styles that musicals employ, that’s not enough variation; it’s not like all plays are all three hours of talking with plain sets, boring costumes, and no music – in fact, there have been a fair amount of plays with music in recent times, which can be the perfect compromise between play and musical.
But then the snobbery that’s shown towards musicals also really frustrates me. As if hard work doesn’t go into developing and performing them, or as if singing is a cop out and means the performers can’t really act; for one thing, acting through singing is a real skill that should get more appreciation than it does, and plenty of actors cross over between plays and musicals anyway. The argument that people don’t just go around singing about their feelings or what’s happened in their day is fair, but we also don’t stand around declaiming or talking poetically with a great big hole gouged in the side of our houses either… The weird balance & imbalance at the Oliviers always irks me: they seem to place more importance on musicals in that their big awards are the climax of the night, but then they don’t feel the need to label ‘in a play’ to counter ‘in a musical’. It smacks of the organisers recognising the popularity of musicals, but remaining a bit snobbish about them.
Honestly, I just wish everyone would treat all shows the same – theatre is theatre, after all. None of it’s real, and you need a certain amount of imagination to be able to follow any story through on a stage. The sooner people start to realise that, the better! Just as many Shakespeare plays are having a bit of a rebirth, with more women taking on prominent male roles (and vice versa, if the context is right), musicals are also ripe for reinterpretation; one of my favourite productions last year was Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, partly because the design side of things was subverted and Audrey II was played by a person rather than a massive puppet, and Stephen Sondheim’s Company was given a gender switch to give it a female lead as well as a gay couple – and it felt like that was how it should have been written all along. In this vein, I genuinely can’t comprehend the uproar about Les Mis losing its revolve when the Queen’s Theatre is refurbished.
But what do other people think? I opened this post out to anyone who had strong feelings about musicals (for or against them), and here’s what I found…
I love musicals because they are an escape from the real world. From the moment the overture starts, I am transported away from my day-to-day worries to another world, taken into the lives of the characters and given their story, all wrapped up in a neat few hours. My favourite musicals include Half A Sixpence, Les Misérables, Mamma Mia! and Matilda but my current recommendation and the show that I am telling everyone they should watch is Come From Away. I saw it early last month and have already booked another trip for June. It’s an emotional roller coaster like no other; it lifts you with laughter then drops you with heartbreak before rousing you once more with joy and friendship. Everyone should see this show.
Natalie O’Donoghue – BroadwayWorld Scotland
I have unabashedly loved musicals for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a record player and owned a Sound of Music vinyl that would just mysteriously disappear when I wanted to play it for the 400th time. I’ve always loved music and storytelling, and musical theatre combines the two.
While it isn’t really my business if somebody doesn’t like musicals, I remain unconvinced that they really do hate all musicals. One of my best friends is steadfast in her hatred of musicals – yet readily admits that seeing The Lion King onstage was one of the greatest things she’s ever witnessed. Many naysayers can be won over with the likes of The Book of Mormon or Avenue Q.
Often, the joy doesn’t end when you leave the theatre. There are cast recordings, script books and a wealth of enthusiastic individuals on Twitter desperate to chat about the show.
Loving musicals doesn’t mean I love every musical. I’ve never cared for My Fair Lady and I think Cats is an abomination. The latest musical to capture my heart was Waitress in the West End. Although I liked the cast recording well enough, seeing the show onstage totally blew me away and just brought me pure happiness. And what more could I ask for?
Ksenia – Muswell Hillbilly Girl
Musicals then. It’s not that I hate them, it’s just that they rarely make me want to go back and see them more than once. There’s been a couple of exceptions over the years, other than that, even if I enjoy myself I hardly ever think of going back. The story’s what’s most important to me so if it feels like the dialogue’s been written to link the songs together, it’ll put me off completely. For that reason, I’m not keen on jukebox musicals: they mostly bore me half to death. There’s been a few exceptions, although I’d fight anyone who calls Sunny Afternoon a jukebox and put it in the same corner as, say, Beautiful or even Jersey Boys.
Normally, I’ll see a musical for one of two reasons: the story sounds like something I might enjoy or someone I know well has been involved (either behind-the-scenes or playing a more or less major character). Other than that, I’ll happily avoid musicals altogether and see a new play.
Musicals were the first introduction I had to performing and the theatre world when I was younger, and the film adaptations of musicals were my main theatrical source of entertainment. I wasn’t able to go to the theatre as a child (apart from to be in dance shows) and so I was always aiming to grow my musical DVD collection. Grease, Hairspray, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz…they were some of the main ones. In fact, I remember owning the video of Wizard of Oz when I was about 8 and constantly rewinding it so I could write down the words and make my own script!
I know there’s a lot of snobbery around musicals; they’re not seen as a ‘pure’ art form and they’re saturated with commercialism, but for many they’re the gateway into theatre. They’re the thing you see with your friends for a dance, a bit of fun, an escape. They have catchy songs and memorable catchphrases and colourful costumes. Some of them may not teach a lesson or educate, but I don’t think there’s harm in something being pure fun, especially when it’s really needed.
That being said, I am enjoying a new era of musicals based on history – and not necessarily way-back-when like Six or Hamilton. Shows like Come From Away are changing the landscape of musical theatre and proving that it’s not always about the aesthetics. Instead it’s about what’s at the heart of the story and how music can help push that forward. I think that’s why we as a nation cling to musicals: because of the stories they tell, and the medium through which they tell them.