A dirty business

Musical theatre is not to be taken lightly. David Benedict reports in the name of entertainment

"When a sky full of crap/ Always lands in your lap/ Do a curtsey/ And tap your troubles away." The Act Two chorus number from Mack and Mabel sounds like the essence of musical theatre: frivolous fun. Yet as Peggy Lee famously enquired, "Is that all there is?". Next week's explosion of musical theatre should prove otherwise.

Performers and directors from the Coliseum (A Midsummer Night's Dream) to the King's Head (Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris) are challenging the condescending attitude meted out to musical theatre, regarded as too simple, too popular and, most heinously, rampantly unintellectual. Maria Friedman, about to hit the West End in her show By Extra Special Arrangement, is forthright on the subject.

"I think it unnerves us that we respond very simply to music. Are people frightened of feeling? Does the head have to be engaged all the time? The trouble is, entertainment is a hugely dirty word."

On discovering that she had won the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment, a director friend of hers remarked, "Oh well, it's better than nothing." It's an attitude that bemuses her. "What an extraordinary thing to say... as if entertainment were easy."

Hardly. Friedman has spent endless time finding material and rounding up the best musical arrangers in the business to create an evening of powerful new interpretations of everything from George Gershwin to Kate Bush. "For years I've sung homogenised municipal arrangements, somewhere in the middle of which there's a song. Lyrics tend to get squashed. This is my way of getting away from all that." The result, in her best work, is a degree of characterisation and emotional truth that leaves other performers standing.

At the other end of the scale, counter-tenor Christopher Robson is doing the same thing as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Whether bewigged, baroque and ballsy in Handel's Xerxes or reducing audiences to tears with the painful beauty of his Mad Tom in Reimann's Lear, Robson has been at the forefront of performance in a discipline not noted for its sense of theatre. He bemoans the conventionalism that still stalks the form. "Too many people believe opera is merely about singing. Students are brainwashed into thinking that how they sing is more important than how they perform." This is not a charge likely to be laid at Robson's door. Near the beginning of his operatic career, he worked with the trailblazing David Freeman at Opera Factory and it changed his work completely. "I suddenly saw how opera could be. Most performers are frightened by the stage, but I'm not. I want to explore what we're trying to present to the public. Within the terms of a production, I can give a different performance every night." The key to his work is that, unlike singers who wish to safeguard the purity of their voice at all costs, he is unafraid of taking risks. In contrast to the absurdity of Pavarotti wandering offstage halfway through the Act Two duet in Un ballo in maschera, Robson never sacrifices the dramatic impetus in order to sing beautifully.

It is the same attention to drama that underpins the work of Music Theatre London, who last year wound up with an Olivier Award nomination for their scaled-down yet operatically heightened La Traviata, one of the highlights of last year's Covent Garden Festival. This year, they're back with Mozart's The Magic Flute. For director Nicholas Broadhurst, it's about listening to the text as much as to the music. "By casting actors who sing and singers who can act, we are able to work with an emotional intelligence and a great deal of rigour and precision. It's that which creates the company's unique approach to ideas of character which gives the work its special quality." Such things are a ridiculously low priority in most opera houses. As Broadhurst observes, "they're usually run by musicians. Directors and designers are hired to light the set, put the cast in pretty frocks and make them sound nice."

Conductor Peter Ash is also abandoning the traditions of the opera house for the more recherch charms of the Grand Temple, Freemasons' Hall. This year's Festival extravaganza is a lavish, no-holds-barred production of The King and I. The Cecil B de Mille-sized ensemble of actors, singers, dancers and children includes a major casting coup in the form of Irek Mukhamedov as the King, a smart move on everyone's part. His ballet background should give a whole new interpretation to "Shall We Dance?".

It is this level of re-interpretation from a fresh perspective which underscores all these diverse approaches. Anyone looking to see how to succeed in the business should sample some of these diverse delights.

'Maria Friedman - By Extra Special Arrangement', Whitehall Theatre (0171- 369 1735); 'Jacques Brel', King's Head (0171-226 1916); 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', ENO (0171-632 8300); 'The Magic Flute', Donmar Warehouse (0171- 369 1732); 'The King and I', Freemason's Hall (0171-312 1990)

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