This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
When it comes to the arts, sentimentality is generally mistrusted but widely enjoyed. James Joyce called it “unearned emotion”, perhaps echoing Oscar Wilde’s definition of the sentimentalist as “one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”. Not without cause, we have come to associate the crime of sentimentality with musical theatre. If one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing, just imagine our response if, on her deathbed, she had sung the Dickensian equivalent of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.
East Grinstead become known as “The town that didn’t stare”
A friend of mine once dismissed musical theatre as the lowest form of art, and it was clear from our conversation that his disdain stemmed from a combination of snobbery and an aversion to what he saw as schmaltz. My counter-argument — admittedly a defensive one, given that I have co-written many musicals over the years — was that he ought not to judge an entire medium by the sins of a handful of its practitioners.
There are certainly writers of musical theatre who, when short of ideas, will not hesitate to deploy a strategic tear-jerker, or to shift the score to a minor key to remind us that we’re meant to be feeling something. It’s reminiscent of Stephen King’s confession that when he cannot find a way to terrify a reader, he’ll happily resort to “the gross-out”. For all that horror aficionados relish the inchmeal escalation of suspense, they’re usually just as satisfied with splatter and gore.
But what would my cynical friend make of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors? One of my favourite musicals, the show is dogged in its evasion of the sentimental trap. It is an absurd premise played straight, populated by caricatures who believe in their own authenticity, which is why even the love song “Suddenly, Seymour” ends up being more funny than poignant. For musical theatre fans accustomed to the happy ever after, it’s undeniably refreshing to watch a show in which all the major protagonists, including the hero and his love interest, are eaten by a giant plant.
There are those for whom the conventions of musical theatre are insurmountable barriers to enjoyment. If you cannot acclimatise to the prospect of street gangs breaking into pirouettes then you won’t be able to appreciate West Side Story. But even the most sceptical of audience members can surely get on board with a musical that refuses to take itself too seriously. The Rocky Horror Show dispenses with sophisticated characterisation and narrative consistency because its audience are there for the sheer anarchy of it all. Brad and Janet require no character arcs or Stanislavskian super-objectives; they just need to strip off and join in with the bacchanalian antics of a transvestite alien.
The sceptics are perhaps on stronger ground when it comes to those musicals that insist on tackling weighty subject matter. Six years ago, writer Daniel York Loh and musician Craig Adams were commissioned to create Sinking Water, a musical based on the 2004 tragedy in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives to rapid incoming tides on the sands of Morecambe Bay. There were calls for the production to be scrapped, an online petition was mounted which accused the writers of sensationalism and “crass insensitivity”, and local councillors branded it an “insult to the memories of the victims”.
The strength of feeling from local people may have been understandable, but the production was still in its nascent stage and no one could possibly have known how the real-life events would be depicted. Something like Paul Greengrass’s film, United 93, made a mere five years after the terrorist horrors of 9/11, didn’t attract this instant, guaranteed revulsion. Yet unlike cinema or staged drama, musical theatre seemingly carries with it the suspicion of frivolity, as though the medium itself trivialises the content.
Putting on a show
I have encountered similar apprehensions during the development process of my latest musical, co-written with Craig Adams, which tells the story of Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club. McIndoe was a plastic surgeon who pioneered techniques during World War II in order to reconstruct the faces and bodies of RAF pilots burned beyond recognition in combat. Unusually for his time, McIndoe insisted that the process of recovery was as much about his patients’ psychological wellbeing as their physical state.
To that end, he would allow them to drink alcohol on the ward, wear their own clothes, and encourage them to interact with the community.
The local residents became so accustomed to the sight of facial disfigurement that East Grinstead become known as “The town that didn’t stare”. When I have discussed this theatrical project with friends, many have reacted with incredulity that such a topic should be deemed fit for the musical treatment. As one put it: “Singing songs about burns victims? Isn’t that a bit … inappropriate?”
No doubt the subject matter is serious. These young men had their identities erased by fire, or what they nicknamed the “hell brew” and the “orange death”. Reading the accounts of pilots trapped in cockpits engulfed by roaring flames is harrowing; the intensity of that kind of physical pain is something that is unfathomable to most of us. But this is precisely where musical theatre has an advantage. Anyone acquainted with the genre will know that the moments in which characters break into song often coincide with states of extreme emotion. This is why “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Misérables is sung at Fantine’s lowest point of despair, after she has lost the job upon which the survival of her daughter depends.
Wordsmiths don’t get involved with musical theatre for the prestige
Similarly, the story of the Guinea Pig Club — membership of which was accorded to all of McIndoe’s patients — lends itself readily to musical interpretation because it offers a powerful example of human resilience against impossible odds. Consider the following from Squadron Leader William Simpson’s memoir The Way of Recovery (1944):
One of the most remarkable things about a face that has been mutilated by fire is that the power of expression lives on in whatever remains. A look in the eyes, a tilt of the head, or some movement of what remains of the mouth, provides the clue to a man’s nature, no matter how complete may be his disfigurement. Burns often twist a face into a false expression of misery, but one twinkle from a roguish eye is enough to dispel that myth.
Many of the pilots’ accounts that I have read have in common a certain poeticism in their prose style — there’s a subtle cadence best caught when you hear these words read out loud. It’s as though, like the war poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the Guinea Pigs can only make sense of their trauma in heightened terms.
From a dramatic point of view, rendering such sentiments in song doesn’t strike me being as counterintuitive. Brecht saw the interpolation of music in theatrical productions as a means to consciously alienate his audience, but it can also have the opposite effect, particularly when the transition from the spoken to the sung is achieved organically. I always prefer to write lyrics in addition to the script, because I consider the songs to be a natural extension of the dialogue.
The unwritten rules
Wordsmiths don’t get involved with musical theatre for the prestige. We all know that Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the score of Phantom of the Opera, but how many of us can name the lyricist? There’s a good reason for this: you leave the stalls of a musical humming the tunes, not reciting the soliloquies. But most musical theatre practitioners will tell you that a work floats or founders on the basis of its libretto.
This typically follows an established formula, which is perhaps another reason why musicals are so mistrusted should they attempt more experimental themes and stories. Of course, most of the “rules” of musical theatre are in place for good reason. Ever since Oklahoma!, the typical method is to ensure that songs move the plot forward in some way. This is partly why “jukebox musicals” (written around a disparate selection of well-known hits from a band’s back catalogue) are often so unsatisfying.
For all the earworms and toe-tappers, the narrative suffers when retrofitted to pre-existing lyrics. Of course, stand-alone songs can sometimes prove effective — “The Rhythm of Life”, for instance, achieves little to advance the plot of Sweet Charity — but, on the whole, over the course of a musical theatre number something important has changed.
Most successful shows observe the key conventions and apply their own distinctive flesh to that familiar skeleton. There’s the “I Want” song early in the first act, in which our leading character articulates ambitions that are likely to be fulfilled by the end of the show (e.g. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in My Fair Lady, “Something Special” in Closer to Heaven, “My Shot” in Hamilton).
There’s the “11 o’clock number”, typically the penultimate song, in which the main protagonist experiences some kind of personal epiphany (e.g. “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy, “For Good” in Wicked, “Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music). And vitally, there’s the lively opening number of Act Two which has scant bearing on the plot (e.g. “Masquerade” in Phantom of the Opera, “Take Back Your Mink” in Guys and Dolls, “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” in Annie); a director friend of mine described this song as a “reward” to entice the audience back to their seats post-interval.
Sweet songs are hard work
In adapting novels for musical theatre, I have often found that I can only make them work if I adhere to the convention of focusing on one principal character with an overarching goal as expressed in the “I Want” number. This may be a failing on my part, or reflective of a certain conservatism in my narrative tastes, but there’s little doubt that the spine of a musical’s plot tends to be formed from the protagonist’s driving ambition.
There is scope within musical theatre for both the trivial and the transcendental
Take the example of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which I have previously adapted in collaboration with the musician Duke Special for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast). Twain’s novel has a built-in through-line of action for the lead role, insofar as Huck is striving for freedom from a society bereft of a solid moral foundation. The satire works because those who seek to “civilise” him are hypocrites who preach the gospel of love but at the same time exploit their fellow men. It takes a boy who is uncorrupted by the received wisdom of his time to comprehend the evils of slavery.
Again, musical adaptations of Twain’s novel are treated with more suspicion than a dramatic or cinematic rendering would be. If serious subjects are to be explored in song, some would prefer them to be restricted to the highbrow medium of opera. It is as though Rodgers and Hammerstein never happened, and we have retained the expectations of the musical comedies and operettas of the early 1900s. For all that, the body of work left behind by Stephen Sondheim surely confirms that there is a place for complexity in musical theatre.
Sondheim’s determination to reinvent the genre meant that his work was not always commercially and critically successful. Sweeney Todd was a flop when it opened in London in 1980, and when Merrily We Roll Along was first staged on Broadway in 1981 it was eviscerated by the critics and closed after 16 performances. It was only on its various revivals that the show garnered the recognition it deserved. The first scene takes the daring approach of introducing us to the three main characters at their most bitter and wretched, and thereafter rebuilds their disintegrated friendships by playing out the timeline of the story in reverse.
This adds an especial potency to reprised musical themes, enabling Sondheim to interrogate the ways in which our memories are often sentimentalised or reconstructed in accordance with our current state of mind. When we first hear “Not a Day Goes By”, it is a bitter lament on a failed marriage. By the time we hear it again in Act Two, we have moved back in time to the wedding day and almost identical lyrical refrains suddenly take on wildly different resonances. It is a brilliantly executed technique, worthy of the most accomplished dramatists.
Sondheim’s work offers conclusive proof that conventions can take a back seat to innovation — a concept musical like Hair is another example, given that it has no plotline at all — but artists who break the rules have usually mastered them first. There’s little point in attempting to be subversive if you don’t understand what it is you’re subverting. Creativity tends to flourish within established boundaries, which is what Robert Frost meant when he described free verse as “like playing tennis without a net”.
It’s the glory and the strength of the genre that there is scope within musical theatre for both the trivial and the transcendental; its popularity and enduring appeal is well founded. There will always be those who dismiss the medium as a kitschified form of drama in which emotional states are caricatured rather than faithfully recreated. But if we could just allow
our preconceptions to soften even a little, we would soon realise that musical adaptations can illuminate in unexpected ways those real-life events that touch on the tragic aspects of human existence.
It isn’t demeaning to the legacy of Archibald McIndoe and his Guinea Pig Club to see their stories brought to life in musical form; it’s a tribute to the extraordinary nature of their achievements. Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment for its own sake; it’s simply that musicals have the capacity to offer us so much more.
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