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The International Writers Magazine
: The Musical - Dying on its feet?

Wherefore art thou… originality?
Alex Segal

Sit down, relax, close your eyes and take yourself back to the first time you ever stepped into a theatre. Can you remember what show you saw that day? Silly question, of course you can. Back in those days the vibe that surrounded new and original musicals were irrepressible.

From Jason Donovan and then Phillip Schofield headlining ‘Joseph’ to Willy Russell’s ‘Blood Brothers’ and the American hit ‘Grease’. For me, however, it was ‘Oliver’ at the London Palladium directed at that time by Sam Mendes. The combination of being so close to the performers along with the energetic song and dance routines catapulted me into a world whereby I wished I were on that stage there and then as the cheeky ‘Artful Dodger’. I’m sure many of you came out of your first musical theatre experience wanting to do exactly the same thing.

Fast-forward your mind to January 2005 and musicals seem to be in trouble. People love to go to a show and dance in the aisles, so it has to be entertaining but the standard seems to be waning, which is due to the significant increase of film and television stars in lead roles and the pressure on producers to make money. To present any new, truly original musical is a big risk nowadays. Confidence is sought by the need to have cast members flying around the auditorium or using the back catalogue of a famous band as the shows score, which can be marketed as reasons alone for booking tickets. Heaven forbid, that audiences should come purely because the music is superb and the performances brilliant.

Budgets are rising all the time, which in itself makes producers less likely to take a risk on some exceptional but unknown concept. And of course, one of the reasons budgets are escalating is because modern day audiences are hooked into the expectation of the spectacle and star performer. They want to see a well-known actor of the big screen surrounded by laser lighting and computerised effects during the show, and then afterwards run around to the Stage Door trying to harass the poor soul into autographs and pictures.

In the last year alone we have seen the likes of Hasselhoff, Soul and an array of ‘Where Are They Now?’ television and pop stars take to the stage generating some indifferent results. Hollywood legend Richard Dreyfuss didn’t even make it to the opening night of ‘The Producers’ before he was replaced by Nathan Lane. Sally-Ann Triplett, star of Cole Porter’s recently finished hit ‘Anything Goes’, believes that "people are starting to go because a show’s got a big set or that bloke from The Bill in it." However, I'd argue that after all that, money and stars do not always equal high production values.

Although this new wave of musicals have brought some success stories with ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ being notable examples, I'd like to see more support for original musical theatre. Pieces of art that aren't jumping on the latest bandwagons are seeking to create quality productions that aim to break new ground. But unless the support is there, those musicals won't happen. Equally concerned is musical mogul Andrew Lloyd Webber who stated on David Frost’s BBC programme that "the one thing we’ve got to get going in musical theatre is new writers. I think it’s very, very important that we get as much new talent into it as possible."

However, in the not-so-distant future ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, ‘Shrek’ and shows using the hit records of Wham and Bob Marley are scheduled to be treading the boards in London’s West End. What’s that I hear you say? You’ve got to be kidding? To be honest with you, I wish I were.

Towards the end of 2004, Channel 4 viewers witnessed the reality programme ‘Musicality’ where a panel of expert judges whittled down thousands of amateur wannabe’s to just five who then got the chance to act in a one-off special performance of ‘Chicago’ at London’s Adelphi Theatre. I must wonder if the state of the West End really is in such need of a helping hand that the only way we are going to find new and exciting performers is through a television-based talent competition. Taking nothing away from the worthy winners of the show, two of whom have already found themselves signing contracts with ‘Chicago’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’, we must look and ponder if the West End is starting to loose sight of its famous theatrical values it prides itself on.

Nevertheless, we thankfully do get a small dose of innovative and exhilarating new musicals. ‘The Woman In White’ by Lloyd Webber and ‘Bat Boy – The Musical’ are fitting examples and later this year Broadway successes ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Hairspray’ will be making their West End premieres. They make a fresh change enabling us not to have to sit through constantly corny revivals of ‘Grease’ without wanting to make us sprint for the door marked clearly with an exit sign. I dearly hope that in the future the West End can revel in a series of inventive musical extravaganzas where the public flocks to the auditorium to witness a showcase of pioneering productions.

So there you have it, my own take on the modern day culture of musical theatre. By the way, you can open your eyes now, sorry about that. Wait a second what’s this? ‘Touch My Bum – The Musical Spectacular, based on the greatest hits of The Cheeky Girls’. Oh no, I think you better shut them again. It could be a bumpy ride.
© Alex Segal Jan 2005

Bibliography
Breakfast with Frost. (2000, January). Interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber. London: BBC1.
Dress Circle. (not known). Retrieved December 22, 2004, from http://www.dresscircle.co.uk.
Musicality. (2004). Retrieved January 02, 2005, from Channel 4 Ideas Factory: http://www.channel4.com/learning/microsites/I/ideasfactory/musicality/index.html
Oliver. Official Souvenir Programme. (1994).
Theatre news. (not known). Retrieved December 25, 2004, from What’s On Stage: http://www.whatsonstage.com.
The Stage. (December 23, 2004).
Triplett, S. A. (2003). The Big Interview: Sally Ann Triplett. Retrieved December 22, 2004 from Official London Theatre: http://www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/news/biginterview/display?contentId=73723.


Alex is a Creative Arts student at the School of Creative Arts, Media and Film - Portsmouth University

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