Artillery Row

Good-natured amateurishness

British musical theatre has nothing on the American slickness

Pick a Pocket or Two by Ethan Mordden (OUP, £22.99).

Ah, the history of the Great British musical. My Fair Lady; Anything Goes; Camelot; Sweeney Todd. Oh, wait. It is a much-lamented fact amongst cognoscenti that the musicals that we have produced in this country are simply not as good as what has emerged in America over the past century. They have Stephen Sondheim; we have Andrew Lloyd Webber. They have the Great American Songbook; we have jukebox musicals using the hits of bands such as Queen, Madness and Abba. They have Rogers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, to say nothing of more contemporary figures such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. And we have Elton John, although we have to share him with the United States, too.

Pick a Pocket or Two by Ethan Mordden, OUP, £22.99

Ethan Morden’s engaging and mischievous history of British musical theatre, then, begins with a disadvantage from its inception. Yet to his credit, Morden does not attempt to make grandiose claims for the genre, even if he gives suitable weight to the acknowledged classics that this country has produced, including Me and My Girl, Oliver! and whatever one makes of the Lloyd Webber oeuvre. Instead, he offers a well-researched and intricate guided tour of the medium, beginning with John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which he convincingly suggests was the very first musical theatre produced – in 1728 – even if it has now largely been overshadowed by the later Brecht and Weill adaptation, The Threepenny Opera. And he concludes with recent successes such as Tim Michin’s Matilda and Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, which indicate that there is still life in the genre, to say nothing of lucrative overseas transfers.

Morden’s narrative is straightforward enough. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, which achieved stratospheric success in the late 19th century, defined the British musical with their mixture of humour, satire, sentiment and inimitable characters, all while laced with indelible tunes. But difficulties arose thereafter, as figures such as Ivor Novello and Noël Coward (both of whom merit a chapter to themselves) rose to prominence. Neither man was quite as good as their reputations might suggest – Coward was better as a playwright and actor than as a composer of musicals, and Novello’s relative lack of recognition today stems from a certain second-rate quality to his talent, as well, perhaps, as the scandal that arose from his serving a short prison sentence in WWII for misusing petrol coupons. And even as they bestrode British musical theatre like arch colossi, other talent was being squeezed out. It would return, but only sporadically, and there would often be disasters and flops in its wake.

There are numerous interesting observations about the genre’s relationship to other popular culture

There are numerous interesting observations about the genre’s relationship to other popular culture. PG Wodehouse’s evergreen creation Bertie Wooster, for instance, was inspired generally by a foppish, vain character called “the knut” who appeared in Edwardian shows, but more specifically by the figure of “Bertie” who first appeared in the musical The Shop Girl. And Mordden is strong on the way in which British theatre has always taken its inspiration from wildly unlikely sources, whether it’s TS Eliot (for Cats), Henry Fielding and John Vanbrugh (for the once-popular, now no doubt unstageable musical Lock Up Your Daughters) and, of course, Dickens, for Lionel Bart’s endlessly popular Oliver!

At times, one wishes that Mordden could delve deeper into the lives and careers of the people he explores. This is not a lengthy book, and could, perhaps, have usefully spent more time on some of the subject’s major figures than offering recaps of now long-forgotten shows. Bart’s rise and fall is an especially fascinating one. He began writing pop songs for the likes of Cliff Richard, had a legendary hit with Oliver!, and then an equally legendary flop with his Robin Hood musical Twang!! – there is probably a thesis to be written on the use of exclamation marks in the titles of these shows –  before spending most of his latter career mired in bankruptcy and alcoholism, which were only partially ameliorated by a successful revival of his most famous work by uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh in 1994. Mackintosh, incidentally, barely features here, perhaps because much of his most famous work (such as Les Misérables and Miss Saigon) was drawn from French rather than British sources, although he was, of course, the original producer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera: two of the most notable international hits that the British musical ever had, and two of the least successful cinematic adaptations thereof, too.

One wishes that Mordden could delve deeper into the lives and careers of the people he explores

Mordden offers some splendidly bitchy and cutting asides, of varying degrees of relevance. Edward VIII is denigrated as ‘a reckless Nazi shithead’, and Gracie Fields is mocked as ‘a dour actress with the charm of a cleaning lady’. Those who he admires more are given suitably grandiloquent treatment – ‘the word legendary should be limited to people like Gilgamesh and King Arthur; but if ever a modern-day thespian was legendary, it was Gertrude Lawrence’ – and he has a splendid knack for finding arcane marginalia that offers genuinely jaw-dropping moments of revelation. So we find the unfortunate demise of the impresario Charles Cochran by being literally boiled to death in his bath – ‘the strangest and most unforgivable death in the history of British theatre’ – and discover that the legendary actor Paul Scofield, a legendary interpreter of classical roles, appeared in the Fifties musical Expresso Bongo.

Yet the overall impression given is that of good-natured amateurishness, at least compared to the monumental slickness of Broadway musicals, that was later taken in more professional, if less distinctive, directions with the advent of Lloyd Webber. And if Mordden’s book has a final message that one takes away from it, it is to dig out the half-forgotten showtunes and rousing chorus numbers from many of the once-popular musicals that he describes and listen to them, all the while reflecting, wistfully, ‘They don’t make ‘em like that any more.’             

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