Singin' through the pain

West End drama is in crisis, but more musicals are opening in London all the time. Can they save the day? Michael Coveney takes a look across the footlights
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When the ballet star Adam Cooper blew on to the stage at Sadler's Wells last night as the pin-up of the silver screen immortalised by Gene Kelly in the MGM classic Singin' in the Rain, he unofficially heralded the start of a frenetic season of musical-theatre productions in London this autumn. The West End is bracing itself for the arrival of three big new musicals in the next few months: The Woman in White, The Producers and Mary Poppins.

Something for everyone there, possibly: the first is a Victorian spine-chiller with Michael Crawford as the wicked Count Fosco and a new score by Andrew Lloyd Webber; the second is based on Mel Brooks' hysterical cult movie and stars the brilliant and zany Lee Evans; and the third - well, it's just "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious".

As these wannabe blockbusters gear up, the question - apart from, can we bear the excitement? - is this: can they save the day for a depressed West End where shows are closing more quickly than local post offices? After all, there are only 22 other musicals playing in London. Can the market possibly stand any more pull on its purse? Does its pleasure principle need quite that much stimulation?

The current wisdom is that the West End is enduring one of its worst slumps in years. Tourism is still down after the September 11 attacks. The congestion charge keeps cars, and therefore theatregoers, out of the city centre until too late in the evening. And ticket prices are still unreasonably inflated by telephone and agency booking fees.

But the recent rapid turnover has been primarily in plays, not musicals. Thoroughly Modern Millie was supposed to run for longer than its loss-making eight months, but perennials such as The Lion King, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chicago and Mamma Mia! are still making their producers a mint. The one exception is Beautiful and Damned, the F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald song-and-dance show, which is sinking fast after reviews suggested that F Scott's alcoholism and Zelda's madness were nothing compared to the audience's suicidal tendencies at the interval.

Besides, we love our musical flops. Life would be poorer without memories of Which Witch, the Norwegian musical that scored a resounding nul points; or Bernadette, the tale of a budding saint greeted by her incensed mother with the line: "You've been down at that grotto again, haven't you?"; or the one about the travelling executioner who sent his clients to The Fields of Ambrosia, "where everyone knows ya."

Nick Allott, the managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, the producers of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and now Mary Poppins, rejects any talk of crisis or feeling the draught. "All the indicators are that the long-running shows will continue to do well, and that as long as no one starts throwing poisonous gas canisters around on the Tube, the autumn is going to be fabulous. Phantom is playing to 90 per cent capacity and has an advance of £1m. Les Misérables is playing to 85 per cent. Even a show like The Rat Pack - Live from Las Vegas, which has a tiny break-even figure, is taking between £80,000 and £100,000 a week."

Alarmed by this outburst of good news, I ring David Ian, the chief executive (Europe) of Clear Channel Entertainment, which is co-producing The Producers, at his holiday house in the Dordogne. Lounging poolside, toying with a pre-lunch cocktail, he irritatingly confirms that musical theatre is in good shape. "It's going from strength to strength. I run 21 theatres in the UK, big 2,000-seater jobs, and they're packing out with the tours of Cats, Chicago and Grease. The advance on The Producers is just north of £1m."

As a landlord, Ian is just north of happy about the performances in his other London houses: the Dominion (We Will Rock You - "sold out last night"); the Lyceum (The Lion King - "an advance just north of £3.5m") and the Apollo, Victoria (Saturday Night Fever - "fantastic business"). The Producers is capitalised at £5m, and will cost £250,000 a week to run. If it plays to east or west of 80 per cent capacity (that is, just north of 75 per cent) for 10 months, the show will have earned back the investment.

Sonia Friedman, the producer of The Woman in White (which seems only fair, as her sister Maria is singing Marian Halcombe opposite Crawford) in collaboration with Lord Lloyd-Webber's Really Useful Group, is delighted that everyone else seems to be doing so well. Her show is capitalised at a relatively modest £3.75m and has already taken £3m in advance bookings. This is her first big musical, having made her mark as a drama producer, first in the subsidised sector and then in the West End.

"Plays don't make much money any more," she says. "We play-producers have a bit of thinking to do now on how, where and what we produce. But Andrew [Lloyd Webber] is on an absolute creative high, and I know he feels this is his best work in a very long time. The landscape of the book - a Gothic, romantic thriller - makes this possible. And it's just a joy to work with my sister. We simply feed off each other."

What is this jolly madness that produces so many money-spinning musicals - which are invariably greeted by critical raspberries? Musicals (unless by Stephen Sondheim) are mere entertainment for the masses (and not often that, chorus the critics), while straight theatre is art, worthy of serious appreciation.

But is this correct? Only a fool, surely, believes that a great musical is inferior to a great play. Apart from the money side of the business, could musical theatre possibly be about that endless quest for the perfection of shows such as West Side Story or Oklahoma!, where the drama is enhanced and then surpassed by the music itself - and that strange effect in all music theatre when, as the poet Heinrich Heine said, "words leave off, then music begins" - a thought more precisely nailed by the director of Mary Poppins, Richard Eyre, when he says that people on stage burst into song when mere words are no longer sufficient?

The great critic Ernest Newman described the opera house as an institution differing from other human asylums only in the fact that its inmates have avoided official certification. The same is true of the madness in musicals, both on the creative side and in the auditorium.

What "does" it for you? Violetta in her death throes in La traviata? Christine descending to the Phantom's lair in the Lloyd Webber musical? Mama Rose in Gypsy declaring that, at last, "Everything's Coming up Roses"? Or just a stage full of hoofers tapping in synchronised frenzy aboard an art-deco ocean liner in Cole Porter's Anything Goes?

Tony Kushner, the American playwright and author of Angels in America, addressed a conference of producers in New York soon after his latest show, Caroline, or Change, opened in May. This challenging and acclaimed new musical about a black maid in a Jewish household in Louisiana in 1936 (with a score by Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the new songs for Thoroughly Modern Millie) has not been a sell-out hit (although it's doing OK), but neither are most of Sondheim's musicals - and he's one of the outstanding musical artists of our day, period.

Kushner recalled a transcendent experience at a concert performance of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, "feeling the entire audience of jaded, battle-weary adult New Yorkers levitate out of their seats, borne aloft on a cloud of compound vapour in which terror and glee and sheer sensual delight were indescribably and perfectly blended... it was ecstasy, pure and simple, and we've all felt it in the presence of great musical theatre - Bacchic joy, and as close to irresistible and universal as anything other than Shakespeare and Mozart."

A recent BBC poll revealed not only that London theatregoers preferred musicals to plays, but that what they really preferred to musicals was... more musicals! I once inadvertently referred to an early Rice and Lloyd Webber collaboration as Jesus Christ Superstore. The way things are going, the West End could indeed become a hypermarket of hype. But what people like Michael Boyd, the new artistic director of the RSC, forget is that the West End is all about making money. Occasionally that includes good art. Mostly, it doesn't.

Justifying his decision to present an RSC season in November on prime West End territory (the Albery in St Martin's Lane), Boyd told Time Out this week that the RSC had a duty to save the West End from itself - "only producing big musicals" - by joining in with a measure of seriousness. I must have missed something, but I thought that the whole point of a subsidised RSC was that it was an alternative, or antidote, to the West End, not part of its future - let alone its salvation.

A West End that produces only big musicals is not necessarily a bad thing, however, unless you think big musicals are necessarily a bad thing to start with. And here we enter the tricky area of snobbery and pretentiousness. When that talented director Phelim McDermott was interviewed a few years ago in this newspaper about his marvellous musical Shockheaded Peter, he regretted that storytelling in society had been turned into Cats, oblivious to the striking vaudevillian similarities between his show and Lloyd Webber's, which were at least as great as their dissimilarities in tone. And we all know people who throw up their hands up in horror at the very thought of "musicals", but are first into the stalls for La bohème.

This is a very British form of cultural snobbery. In New York, La bohème was recently playing on Broadway, both in Puccini's version (in a triumphantly seductive production by Baz Luhrmann) and in its Greenwich Village, Aids-age updated reincarnation as Rent, a show that certainly fulfilled one of Sir Tim Rice's conditions for a successful musical in having at least 10 really good new songs or numbers. Curiously, Rent didn't succeed in Britain, partly because it was so "New York," a caveat that might be applied to The Producers in a few months' time.

The great irony about The Producers is that a stage hit (the show opened three years ago in New York and is still running) has been manufactured from a film about a pair of schmucks putting on the worst play they can find, only for it to become the smash hit they don't want (as that means paying back the investment they planned to embezzle). Along with another Broadway smash, the kitschy Hairspray, based on the John Waters movie, The Producers signals a fightback for smart, witty musical comedy in a global market still dominated by Cats, Phantom, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon.

Mary Poppins is more obviously aimed at the family market catered for by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Poppins is the fourth Disney musical based on its own cinematic back-catalogue, following the stage versions of the animated favourites Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, as well as the Tim Rice/Elton John rewrite of Verdi's Aida ("We've sorted the show's grey area - the music," chortled an ebullient John at the launch).

This time, though, Disney is in bed with Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who held the stage rights to the original Mary Poppins books by PL Travers and has sent the Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes back to the library to fillet them. Mackintosh has also commissioned a bunch of new songs and lyrics from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, long-standing friends and colleagues, and called up his own dream team of director Eyre, designer Bob Crowley and choreographer Matthew Bourne.

The Broadway boss Gerald Schoenfield of the Shubert Organisation predicts that, if the show takes off here like Mary and her brolly do over the London rooftops, it will be "off the charts" in New York. Broadway was saved from disaster in the Eighties by the intervention of Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber with their string of crowd-pleasing, sung-through hits, and now Mackintosh is poised to talk the more indigenous Broadway language of musical comedy, a form he has loved since the day he saw Salad Days as a seven-year-old. He also produced The Witches of Eastwick - a fair-to-middling success as a musical - 50 years later.

Lloyd Webber is sticking to his operatic guns with The Woman in White, which is very much, in musical terms, a sequel to Phantom. The original Phantom, Michael Crawford, will presumably find a way to flesh out Count Fosco that corresponds both to the character's size (immensely fat, "he looks like a man who could tame anything") and his delayed entry - in the novel, he is first mentioned on page 149, and he doesn't appear until another 70 pages later.

Still ringing the changes on his lyricists, Lloyd Webber has gone this time with the Broadway writer David Zippel, who wrote the lyrics on that splendid Chandleresque spoof thriller City of Angels. His director is the ubiquitous Trevor Nunn, whose talent for giving people a good time in the theatre knows no bounds - and few time limits. Nunn's productions of My Fair Lady and Anything Goes were tremendous, but very long. The man never knows when to let us stop enjoying ourselves, though Sonia Friedman is confident that the show will be done and dusted in three hours.

Jonathan Miller once identified the most exciting moment in musical theatre as that when the lights dim, the conductor lifts his baton in the spotlight and the orchestral noise rises from beneath the stage. These days, even when you see the band (not often), you don't see where the noise is coming from, because it's relayed through a sound system.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom as Pyramus sees a voice and hears his lover Thisbe's face. He speaks truer than he knows in the case of theatrical communication. Most actors in musical theatre now sport little microphone warts on their foreheads, and their voices emerge from somewhere else entirely.

Lloyd Webber's orchestrations and electronic instrumentation demand this system, but a show like Anything Goes simply doesn't, and a wonderful effect like the orchestra at the start of the second act swinging into full view on the upper deck is spoilt, as the musical sound isn't travelling in the same plane.

Two summers ago, Anything Goes was presented at the delightful new Grange Park opera house near Winchester. In a 400-seater horseshoe auditorium, every word and note was audible without the intermediate hiss or cackle of a microphone. In the West End, such intimacy is impossible, certainly in big houses such as Drury Lane (2,200 seats) or even the smaller Palace (1,400 seats).

You can enjoy musicals in London in intimate circumstances: for example, the fine new chamber production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the 380-seat Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall), or the low-budget Snoopy! The Musical, which has just opened at the New Players Theatre. But these shows do little for the overall health of the industry, or the buzz of anticipation in a big-theatre city.

All eyes and ears will be on the big three shows this autumn and winter. First off the rank, though, is Singin' in the Rain, the quintessential feel-good musical. And, from the middle of next month at the Shaftesbury Theatre, there is a bizarre-sounding show about a live bat-child captured in the hills of West Virginia who develops the hots for his captor's daughter, with violent results. No, No Nanette it ain't. So what exactly is this Bat Boy? According to the posters in the front-of-house display - "Another Bloody Musical".

'Singin' in the Rain' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737) to 4 September