Sing something simple

Click to follow
Musicals may not be the best forum for complex political analysis on stage, but their reputation for frothy, mindless sentimentality is undeserved, argues David Benedict

"Have you ever heard anyone in a darkened theatre whisper, `Darling, they're playing our speech'?"

Neil Bartlett's trenchant observations on the power of song at last year's Birmingham Theatre Conference inspired its convener, the playwright David Edgar, to focus this year's debate on musical theatre. The British musical now reigns supreme in the West End and on Broadway, where there are just two "straight" plays running. Theatres are full, fortunes are being made, performers are gainfully employed on long contracts, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh are creating a vast and ever-increasing percentage of our gross national product. Is this not cause for rejoicing?

The majority of delegates at this year's conference thought not. Cats is more profitable than ET, but observers are worried about homogenisation as productions are cloned for the world market and spectacle triumphs over content. Musical comedy, with its distinct dialogue scenes interspersed with song, has turned into the through-sung, po-faced art-form that the Americans confusingly term the "operatic musical". The smart and genuinely funny City of Angels couldn't survive thecompetition of the blockbusters, often the musical equivalent of a Holiday Inn - the customers know exactly what to expect regardless of which city they're in. Wit has all but disappeared.

The conference delegate and critic Jan Smaczny believes everything went wrong on 26 September 1957, the date West Side Story opened on Broadway. The show's poster featured Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert racing up West 56th Street, their faces lit up with happiness, hand-in-hand, their arms outstretched. One of musical theatre's most famous and hope-filled images was, says Smaczny, advertising its funeral. Why? Because it had gone serious.

Audiences were used to boy-meets-girl shows, and the boys weren't supposed to trade in flick-knives, racial hatred and murder. Stephen Sondheim summed up the expected state of affairs in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: "nothing of Gods, nothing of fate / weighty affairs will just have to wait". Even disregarding West Side Story's formal brilliance (dance had rarely played so central a role outside of Oklahoma), its content was considered shocking. There wereromantic, summer-night scenes, but when Maria and Tony sang "Oh moon stay bright/ and make this day endless night", you knew their moon was unlikely to remain in June.

Far from becoming serious overnight, the musical has long been so. Straight theatre can obviously concern itself more articulately with the concerns of its age, but when a musical connects with an audience it does so in a way that is more intense than anything in a non-musical play. As the composer Jonathan Dove explains, "Music changes ideas into sensations". Through its use of rhythm, repetition, harmony, cadence or the stretching of dialogue over a melodic line, the musical can heighten and intensify a dramatic moment in a manner playwrights cannot even dream of.Show Boat, revived on Broadway in 1994, is remembered for its stunning score, but it is equally important for having raised the curtain on the subject of racism and miscegenation in front of unsuspecting Manhattan socialites as long ago as 1927. Cabaret (1966) is not just the story of Sally Bowles and her dreams of fame. The musical is rooted in late-Thirties Germany and the power of the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is such that people believe it to be a real Nazi anthem as opposed to a dangerously effective theatre song written by two New York Jews.

In 1983 La Cage aux Folles turned a contemporary social concern (homosexuality) into a hit, and Sondheim has built his entire catalogue on themes that make unlikely subjects for musicals: the American invasion of Japan in Pacific Overtures or a portrait of the artist Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. Even his operetta-style A Little Night Music was far from schmaltzy (he described it as "whipped cream with knives"), though none of these have exactly made their producers wealthy.

Critics still argue that musicals' plots are too contrived, their dramatic concerns too trivial, their sentiments just too, well... sentimental. Yet, whether you like them or not, musicals, and blockbusters in particular, speak very directly to vast audiences across the world. The critic Mark Steyn tells the story of Les Miserables being performed in Poland with the little girl's tricolour being replaced by the Solidarity flag. Suddenly, a piece of supposed schlock takes on the dimensions of political theatre. He even sees current affairs coverage operating according to musical comedy rules. "Nobody appears to give a damn about the Balkans unless the media focuses on someone like little Irma; that's not so very different to what's being done in Annie."

Steyn argues that the news story about the Serbian boy and the Croatian girl trying to escape from Sarajevo is straight out of West Side Story. Dismissing the preoccupations of musicals as corny or trivial does an injustice to what they do best - focus on great issues in very human ways and make them accessible to everybody. "Miss Saigon is not the Vietnam musical, but it is a love story painted against an epic backdrop that manages to say something in a very moving way about the consequences of war in human terms," he says.

When Beaumarchais drily observed that "if it's not worth saying, sing it", he missed the point. Musicals, or indeed opera, may not be able to dramatise complex argument - wisely, no one is about to write the musical of David Edgar's Pentecost - but they do provide a soundtrack of the age. The immediacy and exhilaration of the best work keeps the form vastly popular.Perhaps that's why so many critics disapprove.