At the end of the London run of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, a woman who had seen it more than seven hundred times was interviewed. ‘What are you going to do now?’ asked the interviewer. ‘You’ll be bereft.’ ‘It’s not a problem,’ said the woman. ‘It’s on in Belgium. I’m going next week.’ Yikes. Why are musicals so hard to stomach? Is it those queasy transitions between spoken dialogue and song? Is it the porous membrane between sentiment and sentimentality? Is it the irritating singstagram that is the chorus? Even West Side Story leaves me needing Alkaseltzer. Maria – oof. In a perfect world there would be a proscribed black list of unacceptably manipulative chord progressions (UMCPs). Fortunately the world isn’t perfect.
But there’s nothing wrong with the basic structure of a musical: a story told in speech, song and dance. Working on a production of Euripedes’ Bakkhai last year, I was reminded that theatre evolved from religious ritual:
choral singing + dancing + solo call and response
became, as narrative crept in,
choral singing + dancing + spoken dialogue,
which eventually became, peeling back the singing and dancing,
or, going in the other direction, replacing the spoken dialogue with singing, opera.
(Exhuming The Present)
It’s evident there is a spectrum of theatre from spoken word at one extreme to opera at the other, and on that spectrum there is an infinity of beautiful possibility. Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s brilliant London Road sits on that spectrum somewhere near the musical, and yet it’s radically, inspiringly different from a conventional musical. The attention to the way people speak as well as what they say is reminiscent of Janáček; and yet it is profoundly original. It seems to me to be a game-changing piece of theatre. What’s the next move? (How Do You Write A Documentary Song?)
In Michel van der Aa’s The Book of Disquiet, based on the kaleidoscopic, elusive writings of Fernando Pessoa, film sequences and spoken monologue are as important as the instrumental music and (pre-recorded) singing. The Book of Disquiet is a strange philosophical dream-world, in which narrative is subsidiary to musical and visual image, as Sam West has been discovering.
Glyn Maxwell and David Bruce’s epic Nothing, the latest in a series of ambitious commissions by the Glyndebourne Education Department, is unquestionably at the opera end of the spectrum. Based on the novel by Janne Teller, the piece starts with a philosophical idea – which of your possessions are crucial to your identity? – and becomes a terrifying narrative. The performers, cast and orchestra, were a glorious mixture of professionals and teenagers. Utopia.
Meanwhile, Laurence Osborn reports back from the Devoted and Disgruntled weekend, a wonderful joint initiative of Bill Bankes Jones’s Tête à Tête and Phelim McDermott’s Improbable. Talking about beautiful possibility, if you missed McDermott’s production of Akhnaten at the ENO….tough.