How I learnt to love musicals: Michael Bywater on the purest form of theatre

Don't be a snob, says Michael Bywater – musicals are the purest form of theatre, and they're booming. But why? Could it be, simply, that they cheer us up in these recessionary times?

the recession's biting. No. The recession's bitten. Savings gone, job on the line, pension up the spout and the only sign of economic life is bankers running for cover. Change of government? As Pete Townshend wrote, "Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss".

What to do? Here's what: put on your best clothes, head up to town, and take in a show. Not a drama of domestic turmoil. Not a Jacobean tragedy. A show. A musical.

Theatrical wisdom has it that in hard times, people turn to musicals. To songs, to dances, to chorus-lines and show-stoppers. So we shouldn't be surprised at this month's London opening of a musical based on The Remains of the Day, nor that the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, said that he liked the idea, and that it had occurred to him while he was writing the Booker Prize-winning novel, but everyone thought that he was joking.

Obviously, the composer/lyricist, Alex Loveless, and his brother Chris, the director, and everyone at the Union Theatre in London, are in tune with the spirit of the times. There was a time when I would have declared that they must be deluded, mad, working towards the fall of Western high culture, and, in all probability, in the pay of Satan. The book, as Ishiguro himself says, is about repressed emotion and thwarted ambition. And in this, there's a musical?

The redoubtable critic Nicholas Lezard agrees, too. Pausing briefly to describe "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Mis as "carcinogenic", he has tremendous sport in a recent review with the imaginary chorus of servants singing "Isn't There a Lot of Silver For Us To Polish?" and the butler, Stevens, singing "My Master is a Nazi" to the tune of "My Old Man's a Dustman" before briefly congratulating Ishiguro for not being "prissy" and hoping that people will "read the original and generate a little extra income".

This is High Culture, in rollicking denunciation of the Low. The subtext is obvious: read the book; if you really can't manage the book, go and see the film; but if the best thing you can do is sit like a berk absorbing the musical, then best you bugger off, because there's no place for you here.

I'd have agreed with him for a while, when I was a serious, bespectacled lad, not much good at life, sublimating my anxieties in a loathing for the common taste.

But that was before I fell in love.

When you're in love, you're in a musical. A musical where you've waited, in vain, for the composer and lyricist to deliver the goods. But a musical all the same. The twilight torch song. The mocking chorus line. The strings-and-woodwind swoop when at last she says, "And I love you". Oh set change! Oh lighting cue! Oh coup de théâtre!

Far from being a surprise that the Loveless brothers have chosen to make a musical about a book which deals with "repressed emotion" and "thwarted ambition", it seems to me the most obvious subject. The moment where language is no longer enough, where something needs to be said, and understood, which cannot be said and understood, is exactly the meat of musicals.

And most of us have been there. Most of us have sat, sweaty-palmed, sensing that our entire existence hinges upon what we are about to say, until we are drunk enough to say it but too drunk to speak. Words collapse under the pressure of emotion. If we have no sense, we blather repetitively. If we have only a little sense, we quote poetry or put on a record: employ someone else – a professional, recollecting emotion in tranquillity – to speak for us. If we are very experienced in life, we draw the girl towards us and kiss her, though by that point the force of the original emotion may have been lost by time.

In a musical, we sing.

We sing because music is the only art that can paint, in real time, the widest sweeps of human emotion. It does so in a way words cannot. Even the most accomplished of poets occasionally has to call a halt, change register and speak plainly. At the moment where the pressure of feeling upon rhetorical register becomes so great that the edifice must collapse into silence, in a musical someone sings.

It doesn't matter whether the song is simple or complex, whether it is a plain diatonic tune over a three-chord bass or the mad glittering ornithological pyrotechnics of a Messiaen; they sing. They sing because words alone have nowhere else to go. Repressed emotion? Thwarted ambition? Of course.

Think of the famous scene in Carousel. Julie and Billy unable to declare themselves, she from shyness, he because he's a bad boy, a carousel barker, and bad boys don't fall in love. The force of unspoken emotion pushes them into one of the loveliest – and most skilful – conceits of all love songs. Not only has plain speech failed them, but even song can't quite do it, so instead they even sing conditionally:

If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I'd want you to know.
If I loved you.

This is the love that cannot speak its name, except by pretending it isn't real, and even when the song gets dangerously close to a confession, it veers away again at the last moment as they sing of how the other would go away:

Never, never to know
How I loved you
If I loved you.

The high culture/low culture argument is meaningless here. Rodgers and Hammerstein place us all where we belong, all on the same level: helpless and hopeful. We are Lear's "unaccommodated man", the "poor bare forked animal"; our kinship extends even to Auden's grandee, who "wept his pints for love like you and me". (See how I feel the need to keep my end up, citing high culture? Odd, isn't it?) The musical articulates, the plainer the better, what in our own lives we can only approach with such tentative convolutions that we're damn lucky if we're even vaguely understood, let alone requited.

Nor is it just love, though love is what most frequently and universally reduces us to silence. Songs, in the musical, speak of all that we can't articulate and all that we're unsure of. The future, the past, plans, vengeance, regret, hope, sudden realisation. It's almost a test of a musical song that it only works in context. There's nothing less convincing than a show-stopper that's been shoe-horned in, nothing more convincing than a song that comes just at the right moment. Think of "Food, Glorious Food", think of Professor Higgins singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face", think of Brecht & Weill's "Pirate Jenny". Consider Fagin explaining in monstrous burlesque how "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two", or Joel Grey in Cabaret singing "Two Ladies", or the Hitlerjugend youth in the beer garden singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". The youth who sings "Sixteen, Going on Seventeen" is saccharine but diverting in the context of The Sound of Music; take him out of context and the intro alone ("You wait, little girl, on an empty stage/ For Fate to turn the light on") is enough to bring on diabetes. Out of context, "The Worst Pies in London" or "A Little Priest" are almost meaningless. In the midst of Sweeney Todd they are horrifying in their jauntiness ("The history of the world, my sweet – 'Ooh Mister Todd/ Yes Mister Todd/ What can it be?' – Is who gets eaten/ And who gets to eat").

Repressed emotion. Thwarted ambition. All those things we cannot articulate. That is the job of the musical.

i have, i must confess, a vested interest in the form. I am currently writing a musical with those two giants of American songwriting, Leiber & Stoller. The bit I am doing is what most people would call the libretto, but what is known in the trade as "the book". What the book does was identified by the former Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, who asked me: "How do you get from one song to the next, and what happens in between them?"

That's my job. To keep you watching, and build up to the next song. What makes a musical a musical is... the music. The librettist is just driving the bus that gets you there. Publicly, we're a poor shabby thing; if the show is a smash hit, we are instantly unheard of, and if it's a flop, it is entirely our fault.

But professionally, it sets up some very exciting challenges. Not the least, in my case, is the spectre of one of the greatest turkeys of all time, Oscar Wilde by the former DJ Mike Read, which seemed to make the argument that Wilde wasn't a bad chap and what he really wanted was to be left alone with Constance and the children, though it didn't run long enough for anyone to be sure. Mr Leiber (the lyricist), Mr Stoller (the composer) and I (the bus driver) are addressing the same subject – Mr Wilde – but from, to say the very least, a rather different perspective. Being able to deploy an entire London music hall, a chorus of dancing transvestite matelots, the ruined interior of the Café Royal, another chorus of raucous high-kicking streetwalkers, a red-nosed drunken comedian – Percy "The Powder Puff" Niblo – who is, in reality, God, and a lead character who is, throughout the show, dead... these things give more joy to a writer (or to this one, anyway) than it is possible to describe.

But the delight comes at a cost. Unless the book builds up the emotional pressure so that each song comes at a moment where the only possible answer is to sing, then I have failed entirely. In the case of Wilde, there are also questions of biographical accuracy, historical precision, street slang, the law, ferry timetables, Wilde's own remarkable rhetoric and the certain knowledge that in any given audience there will be people who know far more about Wilde than I ever do, and people who've not really heard of him except that Stephen Fry played him in a movie.

And, of course, there's the duty to the musical form itself. I was brought up on them. My mother knew, and played to me, and sang from, every musical ever. It's probably why I turned against them in my callow years. A boy has to walk away from his mum before he can call himself a man. But I'm glad of them now.

One of my earliest memories is her singing "Getting to Know You" from The King and I as we drove along in her tiny mushroom-grey Austin:

Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me

Not only did the song articulate for her, more precisely than she ever could, but it also followed Hammerstein's Rule: any song in a musical is like a mini-drama that takes the character from here to there. It's quite unlike the standard three-minute pop song, which does exactly the opposite: fixes the moment in amber, unchanging, for all time. It's a luxury the musical number can't afford because, after it's over, someone has to speak.

I heard them all. So it's odd, and a great relief, to be working on a musical. The curse of "high culture" hangs over even the lowliest hack and although some of my own musical tastes may be a little rarified for most palates (I had Ligeti's Volumina, basically an extended demonstration of a man trying to kill an organ, and losing, as one of my choices on Radio 3's Private Passions), it's a huge relief to shrug it off. The matelots throw their bonnets into the air, I write, and cheer raucously, and a weight lifts from my shoulders.

There's also the delight of theatre itself. You can do things terribly simply and produce a coup de théâtre to send a shiver up the audience's spine, which, in a film, would cost $20m in special effects and elicit a shrug.

There's the pleasure of telling one of the great and horrifying tales of moral hypocrisy of the modern age. And there's the great joy of working with two men who are not only masters of their craft but who, quite unarguably, know and understand the popular taste.

If the loftiest marker of high culture is the Greek tragedy, then the musical is the nearest thing we have now. We may no longer speak a language which is of itself almost sung, rather than stressed, but here is the chorus, here the orchestra and the dancing, here, too, the masks of music-drama. The line reaches forward through the moment in the 10th century when drama stepped out of the liturgy and into the chancel; through the mediaeval guild mystery plays, the guises and the masques, the narrative of the music halls. The division between opera and musical seems to me an artificial one. You might say that a musical lowers the tone in order to raise the emotional temperature, but even that can be said of opera, too, though the man holding out his attendance at Götterdämmerung as a badge of his cultural worth might disagree.

It is, in the end, about two things: the telling of a story by whatever means are most effective, and providing a theatrical experience for the audience. And the latter is still unique. You can't get it on DVD.

Nor are there that many stories. My favourite taxonomy claims just three. Boy Becomes Man; Man Stares Death in the Face; and A Stranger Comes to Town. I suppose our musical, Oscar, comes under the second. The Remains of the Day is probably the first of them. But in the end, the musical can deal with any story, and its only real requirement is the almost inexpressible pressure of feeling. The musical is, in the end, an answer to Wittgenstein, who wrote "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." The musical demurs. "Whereof we cannot speak," it says, "thereof one must break into song."

If you want to see 'Oscar' – music by Mike Stoller, lyrics by Jerry Leiber, book by Michael Bywater – you'll have to wait. They're still writing it

Michael Bywater's five favourite musicals...

CABARET

This shouldn't really be in the list as it's not quite a musical. But the mise-en-scène, Kander & Ebb's songs and the hand of Hal Prince imprint it on the memory for ever.

CAROUSEL

Mad plot with ghosts and fairground barkers, adapted from a 1909 Ferenc Molnár play. The best musical of all time.

SWEENEY TODD

This is musical verging on opera, but with three of Sondheim's funniest numbers gleaming in the darkness like gold fillings in a pie: 'Pirelli's Miracle Elixir', 'The Worst Pies in London' and the macabre 'A Little Priest'.

LES MISERABLES

What can one say about 'Les Mis'? Schönberg, Boublil and Kretzmer's tour de force has enjoyed a quarter-century run in the West End – though it nearly didn't make it after its first staging closed just 12 weeks in.

WEST SIDE STORY

To open a musical on a dark stage with a finger-click is the act of a genius. Fortunately, everything else that follows in 'West Side Story' is the act of a genius, too.

... and five best forgotten

MOBY DICK

Thar she blows. Or do I mean 'sucks'? It did. A girls' school sixth form stage the greatest novel ever written in their swimming pool. I saw it. The set was good. Er... that's it.

MAMMA MIA

Yes, it shouldn't be on this list because it's not really a musical. It's a jukebox. But, gosh, the depths it plumbs. And I speak as one who loves Abba.

JEEVES

Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn took on PG Wodehouse. Wodehouse lost. Disaster plucked from the very jaws of triumph.

OSCAR WILDE

Wilde is such a strange character, his life such a tragic arc, his work so extraordinary, that to put on an entire show in which absolutely none of this comes across is a truly majestic achievement.

TWANG!!

Lionel Bart's stumble through the Robin Hood legends couldn't be saved by an extra exclamation mark, and nor could his money, which he invested against Noël Coward's advice. All-round bust. Sorry: bust!!!       MB

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