Over the rainbow: Wizard new British musicals

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Two new all-singing, all-dancing shows from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, both inspired by films, will be staged shortly. Michael Coveney believes they and other high-profile openings will benefit from a post-Glee hunger for musical theatre

Creatures great and small will take to the stage in the coming weeks as the two meatiest musicals of the year go head-to-head in theatres owned by their respective, and rival, producers. More than vanity is at stake; this showdown marks a turning point in our musical-theatre history.

First, later this month, in the yellow-brick corner somewhere this side of the rainbow, at the London Palladium, stands Andrew Lloyd Webber with a tribe of Munchkins, the little dog Toto, television reality-show winner Danielle Hope, and Michael Crawford, with Lloyd Webber's rewritten stage version of The Wizard of Oz.

Then, in April, Cameron Mackintosh weighs in with a pink, remote-controlled animatronic pig, and a gallery of Yorkshire folk in "austerity Britain" for a new musical version of Alan Bennett's rationing and royal-wedding movie, A Private Function, at the Novello. Called Betty Blue Eyes, it might be the rasher project of the two; it's certainly the more ambitious.

It's also significant that Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh, joined at the hip on the composer's biggest hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, should be pursuing different paths towards the holy grail of the next big thing in British musicals. Lloyd Webber has written a few new songs with Tim Rice to add to the imperishable original MGM movie score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, while Mackintosh is banking on the experienced team of composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe to bring home the bacon (without, presumably, making a pig's ear of it) on Betty Blue Eyes.

Both shows, of course, are following the trend of turning movies into musicals. That trend shows no sign of abating after the Broadway-originated big-hit transpositions of Hairspray and Legally Blonde, not to mention forthcoming stage adaptations of Shrek and Ghost.

But Lloyd Webber claims that he has re-ordered the shape of a great movie into that of a classic musical. Meanwhile Mackintosh is hoping that his Mary Poppins team of Stiles, Drewe and director Richard Eyre (Poppins, for which Stiles and Drewe wrote seven new songs in decorating the fab film score, is just now opening in Australia, having been a smash hit in London, New York and all over America) will revitalise British musical comedy.

So, to find out more, on a sunny, late January afternoon, I am sitting in a top-floor studio apartment in Clerkenwell, London, as Stiles and Drewe play through a few of their songs at a grand piano for me.

This is George Stiles's London home, which he shares with the Wizard of Oz lighting designer, Hugh Vanstone. The dome of St Paul's is clearly visible, as a world of rationing, queues, defiant street parties, and the intrusive age of swing, jitterbug and more local suburban aspirations is most plangently evoked.

"Betty Blue Eyes, Betty Blue Eyes," they warble, "when I look into your two eyes, I see the heart and soul of God's creation... there were never two more true eyes, Betty Blue Eyes..." It's a lyrical, lilting love song, to a pig that has been abducted for the purpose of fuelling a wedding feast, though the animal's grim bodily habits have already infused a suburban kitchen area with unwanted aromas.

Bennett's 1984 film, directed by Malcolm Mowbray, is set on the eve of the royal wedding of 1947 between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The event had already prompted two previous tie-in films: cosy Here Come the Huggetts, starring Kathleen Harrison and Jack Warner; and an MGM musical (no, not 1939's The Wizard of Oz), Royal Wedding, in which Fred Astaire romanced Jane Powell across the same celebratory weekend among a group of British aristocrats.

A Private Function starred Michael Palin as the meekly mortified but fantasising chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, and Maggie Smith as his pushy wife, Joyce, the Lady Macbeth of Ilkley ("I'm going to throw caution to the winds and have a sweet sherry"); now they are to be newly embodied by Reece Shearsmith, of League of Gentlemen renown, and Sarah Lancashire, once of Coronation Street.

This sounds like perfect casting but, in the way of all theatre, the wider process has been surprising and complicated. It began, astonishingly, and oddly, in America. There, writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, renowned for television, and no doubt touting for "projects," had adapted and extended Bennett's film script without any certainty about the musical side of it. They were both credited playwrights, and old friends of Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz, who was told by Stephen Sondheim, godfather of all modern musical theatre, that there were only two people who should write the score.

"They weren't available, so they came to us," says Drewe, drily. "We didn't show the score to Cameron until we'd finished it and had it read with friends. We were looking for enhancement money with the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and he suddenly said that he'd pay it... with a promise of his usual draconian methods!"

The movie had been bought out as a commercial property, so Bennett's input has been one of benign (at least they think and hope) approval. The author would certainly be happy about Richard Eyre, a trusted friend and director, being on board. And Stiles wrote the music for a successful revival of Bennett's Habeas Corpus during the Sam Mendes tenure at London's Donmar Warehouse.

As far as the adaptation is concerned, Stiles and Drewe have not exactly soft-pedalled on Gilbert's foot-fetishism, mixing his fantasy of setting up a surgery ("a place on the parade: imagine it!") with a down-to-earth list of complaints – hammer-toes, bunions, calluses, corns and verrucas – that makes you wish you had a serviceable pair of trotters instead of those not-so-funny feet.

"We had a surreal meeting with Richard Eyre yesterday," says Drewe – who read zoology at Exeter University, where he met Stiles, who was taking a music degree and running the Gilbert and Sullivan society – "about how we were going to record and insert pig noises. Richard does, no question, the best-ever pig sounds, especially snuffling and happy honks."

There was a time when Cameron Mackintosh was planning to have a real pig on stage; this porcine Liz Taylor of the sties would turn up in a pink Cadillac every day at the stage door. Eyre soon disabused him of this notion, having survived (just about) working with live pigs on one of John Cleese's Secret Policeman charity balls 20 years ago when the hired, and not so little, piggies (pork-)belly-flopped off the stage and stampeded through the auditorium; pigs get unhappy, and unpredictable, in a strange environment.

The pig-of-a-musical songs in Betty Blue Eyes, addressed to a harmless robot in a satin-pink skin, will not only satisfy vegetarians, they will also extend the British musical-comedy repertoire of pig songs initiated, ironically enough, by Lloyd Webber in his 1986 rewrite of his own By Jeeves (lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn): there's a wonderful pig-chase interlude, and the funniest ("It's a Pig") lyrics since the first flush of Lloyd Webber's association with Tim Rice on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Drewe is certainly the most literate and wittiest of a whole tranche of talented lyricists (Don Black, Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, Richard Thomas) following Rice. And it's one of the great show-business lucky coincidences that Betty Blue Eyes – does that title confuse sado-masochistic buffs who thrilled to Béatrice Dalle's neurotic sexual behaviour in the French art-house movie Betty Blue (with, incidentally, a great film score of its own)? – will open, with appropriate and totally accidental wittiness, just two weeks before the next royal wedding – in newly austere times, of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But, in the end, the show is less about a pig than the story of a marriage. And, in this version, Joyce is a frustrated organist with all the Wurlitzer fantasies this might involve. Eyre once said that people break into song on stage – or should do – when words are no longer enough. With this in mind, Stiles has composed a score that seems to both underpin and legitimise – "ground" is a word he likes – the show in hardcore, pastoral Britishness:

"I hope we've done a fusion of all the composers I most admire: Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton, Sullivan, but mixing pastiche with homage. I was classically trained – with a chair and whip!" (an oddly Bob Fosse allusion, this) "and I'm also a church organist and a flautist, so I cover the musical waterfront, you might say. This is definitely the world of Pathé News and Eric Coates.

"Cameron makes me a better composer," says Stiles – could you want a better testament? – "because he's like a limpet, clamping down on anything that's slightly flabby, and he's the same with the words: he goes straight to the heart of it, saying, 'I'm bored in that bit,' and, 'OK,' we say, 'we'll try and do better'!"

Stiles and Drewe have worked together for 28 years. They represent the top end of what is, post- Lloyd Webber, the best and most fertile area of the British musical-theatre market. And yet they are unknown, their shows are not "recognised" and I can't even sing you a single one of their many excellent songs.

They operate in a musical-theatre sub-culture that thrives among aficionados and what Nick Allott, Cameron Mackintosh's lifelong number two, memorably designates as that enthusiastic but limited audience of tall, thin men with moustaches who love show-tunes. Such an audience packs out the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, and the first weeks of the latest musical, until the members decide it's not really for them. This is the problem.

Lloyd Webber has done his bit and moved things on from Sandy (The Boy Friend) Wilson, Julian (Salad Days) Slade and Lionel (Oliver!) Bart; but can anyone honestly propose that any of the British musicals in the past 20 years – after Lloyd Webber's Evita (with Tim Rice) and Phantom, plus the Mackintosh-inspired Les Misérables – have matched those nostalgically remembered mini-masterpieces?

You can't, but Stiles and Drewe still operate in that world. Drewe is suddenly goaded into saying something about musical theatre, generally, after I say that none of it ever gets on Top of the Pops (as was), or Radio 1.

"Do you realise that Lily Allen is doing a musical version of Bridget Jones's Diary? Her kind of songwriting is as theatrically promising as Tim Minchin's has already proved with the RSC's smash-hit new musical version of Roald Dahl's Matilda" – which I've not yet seen; though it will soon be unavoidable, even though it sounds like a revamped copycat version of the hugely popular, Billy Elliot.

Billy Elliot was the result of a partnership between Elton John and playwright Lee Hall. It won't necessarily lead anywhere, any more than will the current Matilda alliance between Minchin and one of our best contemporary dramatists, Dennis Kelly. But folk are spotting and rediscovering the potency of musical theatre in these shows, and if Betty Blue Eyes takes off, we might at last hover on the brink of a cultural renaissance. Yet can musical theatre ever be cool?

It can, and it will, according to the musical theatre agent Stuart Piper, who tells me that "we really are in a new era, where musicals are "hip" among young people, marking a huge cultural shift from ten or 20 years ago; it's happened in a climate of post-Glee, musical-theatre, reality TV [take a bow Lord Lloyd Webber] and the renaissance of Hollywood musicals."

Stiles and Drewe take this renewed public enthusiasm for musical theatre even further back, to Stephen Sondheim – whose brilliant Company, for which he wrote lyrics and music, shook up London theatre in 1970. Sondheim is the great enhancer for musical-theatre practitioners, even if his shows don't perform all that well at the box office. He's the justifying artist, the intellectualised link with the unselfconscious days of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Ivor Novello (let's have a new look at his best stuff, soon) and Leonard Bernstein.

The book, or libretto, is always the real problem, and the true challenge, in musical theatre. This toe-stubbing fact haunts and harries Andrew Lloyd Webber. The brilliant musical pasticheur Sandy Wilson stopped writing, more or less, because he ran out of ideas to make a musical; dramatists, please get in touch!

So, A Private Function was looked on by Stiles and Drewe in the first place as a special gift, almost. Their first musical, which they don't wish to see revived, or de-mummified, was Tutankhamun; they know where the bodies are buried.

But they hit pay-dirt with Cameron Mackintosh on a Rudyard Kipling adaptation, Just So, in 1984 (Stephen Spielberg acquired an animation-feature option that never happened) and followed through with their delightful Hans Christian Andersen Ugly Duckling musical, Honk!, in 1993; that show's revival at the National Theatre in 1999, directed by Julia McKenzie, launched them into the big-earning league; it's being produced all over the world all the time.

And Honk! was a very English undertaking, prefiguring Betty Blue Eyes, even, in its silly upper-crust use of anthems, patriotic satirical songs and charming ballads; no wonder Downton Abbey television writer Julian Fellowes (a noble Lord, like Lloyd Webber, these days) was such an obvious choice of librettist on Mary Poppins. In between, the pair have produced a concert version of Peter Pan and are now working on an updated, original pantomime with "rap and street music", Soho Cinders, as well as a score for the stage version of Robert Harling's 1991 camp soap-opera Soapdish... and they have a new idea with Julian Fellowes, and ongoing talks with hot populist choreographer Matthew Bourne.

So will Betty Blue Eyes be the genuine breakthrough so much needed by its composers and the musical-theatre community at large? It looks possible. Stiles and Drewe are active participants in an underground, labyrinthine world of try-outs, workshops and concert platforms that are always diligently supported by Rice, Lloyd Webber and other luminaries such as Don Black, Charles Hart, Howard Goodall (who has himself written such amazingly beautiful scores as that for The Hired Man and The Kissing Dance, and whose current Love Story is yet another example of a great score in search of a good book) and playwright Christopher Hampton.

I spoke to Andy Barnes, a former policeman who runs an Arts Council-funded, low-profile development network called Perfect Pitch. Some of their stuff involves indubitably talented practitioners such as Dougal Irvine, Conor Mitchell and Craig Adams: they are the Stiles and Drewes of tomorrow, make no mistake, but I don't think we're going to hear about them much till the theatre establishment takes them as seriously – as they deserve to be – as the new David Hares, Nina Raines or Jez Butterworths.

Barnes, no doubt mindful of the serious lack of new Oscar Hammersteins, Jerome Kerns or Julian Slades, told me that new musicals are no longer written; they're "created."

Presumably, soon, they will be created on computers. But, in the meantime, and before we have to suffer that, we can enjoy, and profit from, the dramatic face-off this early spring between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, the maestros of what is commonly bruited as our "modern British musical".

Years ago, Mackintosh told me that he'd said to Lloyd Webber: ¨Whatever happens, whoever the money people are, we'll still be here when they've gone, because we love what we do." And I believe they will be.

Wizard sounds like a marvellous make-over, even for those sceptical about tampering with a perfect movie; Betty Blue Eyes might be the real deal, a porky promise of ham-strung happiness. But – and this is the question that still remains – what next?

'The Wizard of Oz' previews at the London Palladium from 7 February and opens on 1 March (0844 412 2957; www.wizardofozthemusical.com); 'Betty Blue Eyes' previews at the Novello Theatre from 19 March and opens on 13 April (0844 482 5170; www.bettyblueeyesthemusical.com)

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