Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why aren't the hills alive with the sound of new music?

On the way home last night I passed a poster advertising a new musical called All the Fun of the Fair starring David Essex. 'Like father like son - they'll take you for a ride!' the poster proudly proclaimed ... and noting that all the songs from the show are old David Essex hits, this shows a certain degree of irony. It's no surprise that the show revolves around Essex's Gypo-chic. If it hadn't been set in a fairground, it would have been set on a canal boat. But quite how it brings together such disparate elements as Only a winter's tale, Silver dream machine, Gonna make you a star, Hold me close and Me and my girl nightclubbing is a mystery that certainly won't be solved by me going to see the show. And how many hits has Essex had? Enough to fill an entire stage show?

This is just the latest in a long line of West End shows that simply draw together the songs of a particular artist or band and slap a kind of story over the top to link them all. It started with ABBA's hugely succesful Mama Mia and Queen's We will rock you! but has, in recent years, spawned similar shows 'featuring the music of'' Take That, Frankie Valli, Frank Sinatra and many others. And, having seen a few of them, I'm left with an overwhelming urge for an original new musical.

Call me old-fashioned but I think that this is lazy, cheap theatre. The public has a huge love and appetite for musicals; look at the recent success of Hairspray and the revivals of Oliver, The Sound of Music, Joseph and Grease. We love them. Mama Mia was a massive movie last year as were the film versions of The Producers and Hairspray. But none of these were new shows. Hairspray was the musical version of a previous John Waters film. The Producers, bizarrely, was a film of a stage show musical of an earlier film of a stage show musical! At least they had the benefit of some original songs however. But where are the new Gershwins, Lloyd Webbers, Lerner and Loewes, or Rogers and Hammersteins? Hollywood, Broadway and London's West End used to churn out these fantastic shows to meet public demand. Just think how many classic musicals were produced during the 1940s to the 1960s. There were the big production numbers like The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain. There were the smaller but equally brilliant rom-com musicals of Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and the like. Later, we had the 1970s and early 80s triumphs of shows like The Rocky Horror Show, Grease, Les Miserables and Little Shop of Horrors. We also, incidentally, had the delicious cycnicism of Richard Curtis's 1989 film The Tall Guy which revolves around an attempt to stage a musical based on The Elephant Man (and called Elephant!) But what do we have now? Where's the originality? As we've travelled through the 1990s and into the 21st century it seems to me that theatre has taken the same shoddy path as television - stack 'em high, sell them cheap. It's Tesco theatre.

First came a wave of musicals based upon Disney films like The Lion King and Mary Poppins (Disney, to its credit, has always at least employed good songwriters to produce original new music). Then, just as television became an endless round of reality shows, rubbish docusoaps and cheap 'Top 100' type clip shows, the theatre created the clip=musical using a bunch of old songs. Many didn't even have the decency to try doing something new with the music like Baz Luhrman did with Moulin Rouge or Bob Carlton's clever and funny Return to the Forbidden Planet show.

It means that we've dumbed down the Musicals medium and I fear for its future. And I can't see where the next generation of Musicals will come from. Andrew Lloyd Webber has dominated the West End for two decades but it's not because there's a lack of good writers out there. It's because it's so hard and so hugely expensive to put on a new show. Spamalot came and went but at least had the backing of a Python which gave it some weight. Imagine if you or I had pitched it? Jerry Springer: The Opera was a work of near genius in my opinion but it so outraged the kind of Daily Mail reader that hadn't actually seen it but jumped on the band wagon (see Ross, Brand, BBC etc.) that it was soon doomed to leave the stage.

So what does the future hold? Sadly, more of the same I suspect. We'll see more reality TV shows finding new talent with which to re-launch old franchises. We'll have more 'musicals' based on the old song catalogues of artists and bands in their twilight years. What we really need, however, is some kind of facility whereby new shows can be offered a place on Broadway and the West End ... and let the public vote for their success by buying tickets. I yearn for some originalty. I crave a new West Side Story or My Fair Lady. Or I may just write one myself and climb aboard the lazy gravy train. I know ... how about a musical based on the songs of The Smiths called Heaven Knows I'm Miserable now? It opens with William (this charming man) whose girlfriend is in a coma and needs money for an expensive life-saving operation so he puts his hands in his gloves and hangs a DJ ...

Dear blimey, no.


StarladyJulie said...

Excuse me but how can you criticise a show without going to see it. I have seen it a number of times since last September and can say that it is a great show. It's nothing like Mama Mia or Hairspray, because it has a story and a gripping ending. Go see something before you slag it off eh?
Regards .... Julie Waller

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Julie

I'm happy to admit that it's probably wrong of me to target a show without seeing it. However the main thrust of this post was a moan about the general laziness of theatre in the same way that I am disappointed by the laziness of TV shows these days. My point is that every 'clip show' of old hits strung together - no matter how good the show turns out to be - makes it harder for new writers to catch a break. Out there in the wilderness is the next great musical but it won't see the light of day because they've decided to do a musical based on the songs of Kajagoogoo or whoever. I saw David Essex's 'Mutiny' some 20 years ago and applauded his bravery in creating a wholly unique new show. It ran for years. Will we be able to say the same for 'All the fun of the fair'? We'll see.

Thanks for popping by!

Julie said...

Hello again Stevyn,
Just a ssmall correction, Mutiny ran for 15 months. Yet again, it was a case of 'bums on seats' drowning out the ill informed and bitter critics journalistic offerings. I did know where you were coming from with your article, but surely if a show is good, people will pay good money to go and see it. The 'general public' like to be entertained and amused by a stage show. People will always pay for nostalgia because the grass was always greener in the past.
Lastly, there are talks of at least 3 theatres wanting to sign up to bring All The Fun Of The Fair to the West End. We'll see?
Regards ... Julie Waller