The cinematic success of Les Miserables will herald the rejuvenation of musical theatre as quickly as it was written off in the first place. And all the times before that.
Many will argue there hasn’t been a good musical written since Les Mis premiered on the West End in 1985. Or none better, at least. But the imminent death of the form is always greatly exaggerated.
That the two creative (and increasingly uneconomical) hubs of musical theatre — New York and London — are entirely geared towards family tourist dollars, with endless revivals, jukebox shows and more bankable movie adaptations, has been the case for some time. Now it seems we’re at the end of an era, waiting patiently for someone to come along and reinvent the musical.
I’ve been watching the excellent BBC documentary series Broadway: The American Musical which slices the history of the Great White Way, birthplace of music theatre, into distinct eras inspired by visionary artists and promoters. Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies galas created an entirely new entertainment form in the early 1900s along with composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and (Richard) Rodgers and (Lorenz) Hart; Show Boat weaved tunes into a full-length narrative for the first time in 1927; the “golden era” of the 1940s and ’50s tapped into real America for the first time in productions like Rodgers and (Oscar) Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and South Pacific, Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and (Alan) Lerner and (Fred) Loewe’s My Fair Lady; the provocative stories and radical staging of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957, Fiddler On The Roof in 1964 and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in 1966; embracing Vietnam-era counterculture with Hair in 1968; the wildly contemporary, rule-breaking Company by Stephen Sondheim in 1970 (and a string of daring shows since); the pared-back, dance-driven, emotionally raw A Chorus Line in 1975; the British invasion led by populist composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and entrepreneurial producer Cameron Mackintosh with shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera in the 1980s …
So who’s the new Sondheim, the new Rodgers and Hammerstein, the next Fosse, to turn the musical on its head? We’ve been waiting for a decade or more.
I think they will come. And in the meantime, all is not lost. To those who lament the direction of Broadway, the copy-cat culture of the West End and the absence of genuinely thrilling musical theatre, I offer some examples that, if not advancing the form, certainly got the best out of it. There has been quality shows in the last five years — and certainly in the last 10 …
TOP FIVE MUSICALS OF THE LAST FIVE YEARS
The Book Of Mormon
Much more wicked than Wicked. That South Park alumni Trey Parker and Matt Stone would write a shockingly funny script for their Broadway debut was not in doubt; that it has such heart and such a killer score — I Believe is the best show-stopper from this list — is not fair. Its obscene commercial success (the show makes US$1.6 million on Broadway alone each week) is just plain rude. The big screen is next.
Next To Normal
This broke me on Broadway — listen to Alice Ripley on the original soundtrack as bipolar, drug-dulled Diana wail I Miss The Mountains. It won the Pulitzer Prize and, while Tom Kitt’s score was (unfairly) criticised for its homology, it demonstrated what contemporary musical theatre can be. New York Times doyen Ben Brantley called it “brave, breathtaking”; “something much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical”.
Remember when they used to make films from theatre rather than the other way around? But this was truly brave: a cheap-as-chips indie feature that nobody saw turned into one of the most simply staged musicals Broadway had ever seen. The folk-pop set list (by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová from the film) feels like the soundtrack of our times, and the fleeting romance strokes your heart before breaking it.
Rock Of Ages
OK, we’re scratching a bit here. Rock Of Ages is less theatre (the plot is paper-thin; the characters cut-outs) and more a karaoke singalong to every classic hits radio station. But Chris D’Arienzo’s book is fast, funny and affectionate. And all those embedded hits — Poison, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Slade, et al — make it hard not to rock out to. Just avoid last year’s film version.
Not entirely successful as a piece of musical theatre, but captures not just the biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti (played so infectiously by Sahr Ngaujah) but the Afrobeat rhythms of the turbulent fledgling nation in the late 1970s. The Broadway production was critically acclaimed and a National Theatre adaptation in London (broadcast to Australia in 2010) rocked the Olivier Theatre.
TOP 10 MUSICALS OF THE LAST 10 YEARS
It just sneaks into the decade, and there hasn’t been a better show since. Traditional Broadway fare in every sense, a microcosm of civil rights struggle decades old, and yet nothing has seemed as fresh or as fun. That’s mostly due to Marc Shaiman’s score — it’s been a long time since one show had so many hummable tunes. A high-tech Australian production directed by David Atkins was even better than the original.
The Book Of Mormon
“What do you do with a B.A. in English,” asks the opening number. Make the Muppets swear and write a show even your friends will like, decided music theatre nerds Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. The Kids loved it, of course, and had no idea what a cleverly orthodox piece it was. Avenue Q reinvents the musical by not reinventing the musical, at least in its marvellously melodic score. Mormon is darker; Avenue Q might be even funnier.
The touching coming-of-age drama about … masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. The act two showstopper Totally Fucked comes as sweet relief. Another show that defied some conventions (and sentimentality) while celebrating others. Duncan Sheik wrote a head-nodding alternative rock score, from quasi-gospel hymns to stabbing ballads and the sweetest pop hooks.
Those West End types tend to polish shows until they sparkle. And god knows Elton John, hired to write the score of the movie adaptation, likes glitter. But Billy Elliott managed to maintain its Durham-spun grunge. Spectacular staging and choreography, remarkably easy on the sentiment, and a potent political/historical backdrop makes it a surprisingly powerful piece of theatre.
Next To Normal
Before Mormon the only modern-day blockbuster; already the 12th longest-running show on Broadway. It got beaten out for the Tony Award by Avenue Q, and fair enough. For all its spectacle and ingenuity, as a parable on scaremongering and an allegory of George W. Bush, there aren’t enough great songs in Stephen Schwartz’s score (Defying Gravity aside) for this to be a real classic. But it’s pretty bloody good.
The Drowsy Chaperone
Melbourne audiences were lucky to see Geoffrey Rush in the lead of this gentle parody in 2010. The first musical, perhaps, that tells the story of much of its audience: a camp, mousy middle-aged man listening to records from when musicals were really musicals. Its magical pop-up design and nostalgic showtunes charmed the cotton socks off fans of the form.
Not a token local pick but deserved (and the only Australian show you can make a case for, despite Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert making it to Broadway). It’s more cabaret than musical, though Neil Armfield’s Belvoir St production had plenty of theatricality. Casey Bennetto’s prime ministerial love letter isn’t just screamingly funny, he skilfully crafted a score of at least half-a-dozen indelible tunes. The Light On The Hill aches.
OK, one more for good luck. This should never have worked: a documentary-turned-musical on two eccentric relatives of First Lady Jackie Onassis living in a squalid Hamptons mansion. The 1975 doco is seminal; that it works as a musical — with a story spanning generations — is the major achievement of playwright Doug Wright and songwriting duo Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Musical books are rarely this rich.
Best of the rest: I’m yet to see/hear the Tim Minchin-scored Matilda, which London critics raved about ahead of its Broadway opening this year; Jersey Boys will be the pick of baby-boomers everywhere (and gives jukebox musicals a good name); Legally Blonde was smarter than it looks; so was Xanadu thanks to Douglas Carter Beane’s wry book; a spectacular Mary Poppins added to the narrative and subtracted from our childhood memories; but what else should be here …?
*Note: timeframes based on when the shows first premiered on Broadway, the West End or an Australian main stage