Musicals: a new golden age

From 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Spamalot', to 'Cabaret' and 'Caroline, or Change', London's stages are thrilling to the sound of some of the best musicals ever mounted. Who could ask for anything more, says 'The Independent's' captivated theatre critic Paul Taylor

The West End is alive with the sound of musicals. It is not the first time that there has been a gold rush of "tuners" in this sector. But, in a reviewing career of some 20 years, I can't remember a time when I felt inclined to call a gold rush of musicals a golden period, as I do now.

These recent openings cover a wide spectrum, from the desperate, coked-up hedonism of the Weimar Republic in Rufus Norris's consummate re-imagining of Cabaret (at the Lyric) to the delirious Forbidden-Broadway-meets-the-Morte-D'Arthur pantomime atmosphere of Monty Python's Spamalot at the Palace Theatre, and from the hormonally hot and amusedly honest stage transfer of Dirty Dancing to the broom-borne, less-than-honest pieties of Wicked with its speculative prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

From next month, the London Palladium will be alive with The Sound of Music itself. And, supremely, there is, at the National, the holy grail of shows itself, a brave, beautiful and breakthrough new musical, Caroline, or Change, which finds an original angle for its treatment of black civil rights in the US in 1963.

Though the Palladium Sound of Music is rather a latecomer in the season's hectic calendar of openings, it is the work that marked the start of my (I hope) discriminating love affair with the musical genre. I was nine when the massively successful film came out and, boy, did it speak, or rather sing and dance, to me.

A cradle (now lapsed) Catholic, I was in the process of being both schooled and swamped by nuns. So I identified with Maria. My mother had died when I was two, so naturally I identified with the motherless children and also with the stiff, grief-repressed Captain von Trapp. Indeed, I seem to have identified with just about everyone in the musical apart from the 17-going-on-18 blond youth who becomes a Nazi. Though scorned by tough nuts including Pauline Kael, the film was an emotional and aesthetic education to me.

I remember having to fight back tears at the corny but heart-twisting moment when the Captain signals his emotional thaw by taking over from the children in the last verse of their exquisite rendition of the title song. At last, he begins to recognise that they are human beings again. Even to the infant Taylor, it was clear there was no way you could achieve a comparable effect in a straight play.

I particularly loved Maria's amusing assertiveness-training exercise in "I Have Confidence" when she leaves the Abbey and travels to the von Trapp household. What tickled and touched me was the combination in this solo song-and-dance number of complete solitariness and nutty, robust exhibitionism as the released novice nun endeavours to steady her nerve ("Besides which you'll see/I have confidence in me!").

Scratch a genuine fan of musicals and you usually discover someone who cannot resist performing his or her favourite numbers when alone. And "I Have Confidence" felt and still feels to me like an analogue of this morale-boosting clandestine activity. At nine, I used to practise executing Maria's joyous sideways kicks and occasionally do them to this day.

The Sound of Music remained with me at university. When I joined the team that wrote Balliol College's 1977 Christmas entertainment - King Lear: the Musical - it was almost inevitable that I would rewrite the lyrics of a certain famous song, which now became "How Do You Solve A Problem Like King Lear?": "He's in a flap,/ He's torn the map,/He's shown the best the door./He cannot dance,/He's pissed off France,/ For England he can bore./A not-so-merry monarch,/Whom we safely can deplore/King Lear is not an asset to this country ... I will not say a word in his behalf:/King Lear makes me barf!"

Ten years later, my personal problems not quite as resolved as Maria's (I guess that "somewhere in my youth or childhood" I must have done "something distinctly average") I began to write for this paper.

In my capacity as The Independent's man in the stalls, I have often found my faith in the musical genre severely tested, since there is nothing like the boom-or-bust gamble of a big-budget tuner for making producers put their shirts on surefire stinkers.

How else can one explain the unmitigated horror of Bernadette (1990) where the apotheosis of the little saint looked to have been staged by the candelabra's biggest fan, Liberace. (I described the show in these pages as "holy unacceptable".)

Or how else fathom the reasoning behind The Fields of Ambrosia ("Where everyone knows ya"), a 1997 musical about an itinerant specialist in electric-chair executions, a kind of Avon Lady of death.

The marvellous thing about this season's crop (with the exception of the self-deceived Wicked) is its range and richness. There is a presumption among critics that straight plays are more important than musicals and that the latter take up room in the West End that would be better devoted to the former.

In practice, this prejudice often proves to be well-founded. I think it is accurate to say there is a higher proportion of bad to good musicals than there is in any equivalent ratio in the world of straight drama. With more elements to bring together and synchronise, musicals are technically harder to pull off.

What is heartening at present is not just the quality of the recently opened tuners, but the fact that they have arrived when excellent plays are also thriving in the West End, from Tom Stoppard's superb Rock'n'Roll and Peter Morgan's enthralling Frost Nixon through to first-rate revivals of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke, David Mamet's The Cryptogram and John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father. True, it would be very good to see smaller West End houses (such as Wyndham's and the Noel Coward) being used to take risks with new drama. But I do not think that, as is sometimes suggested or implied, musicals corrupt the taste that would otherwise be clamouring for high-minded straight plays.

The main charges against the musical creatively and commercially are that a) the genre has a tendency to become hermetic and disconnected from the world outside, generating a kind of peevishly invidious spirit among the hard-core fans and, b) that there are too many lazy stage adaptations of films and other pre-existing products.

But this season there are two shows that splendidly sidestep such accusations. Spamalot, a musical that disingenuously advertises itself as a "rip-off" of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, gleefully and good-humouredly satirises/celebrates the inward-looking, self-referring and incestuous tendencies of the genre. It gives Arthur and his knights a potty ambition that works in parallel with their grail search: the desire to bring a big-budget show into town.

And there are delightfully daft numbers like the supposedly romantic duet "The Song That Goes Like This" which have no content whatsoever other than a barmy ongoing commentary on their own purely technical procedures. "Now," warble the clasped lovers vacuously, "we can go straight/Into the middle eight/A bridge that is too far from me/I'll sing it in your face/While we both embrace/And then we'll change the key".

As for the reviewers who castigated Dirty Dancing for being a mere carbon copy of the iconic 1987 movie, one wonders why they failed to consider the key role of physical presence in theatre. It makes all the difference to the frisson-quotient of the event that one could more-than-theoretically join Johnny and Baby in their mamboing. And I should not be at all surprised to hear punters are now doing just that, especially in the elating finale when Johnny defiantly returns to face down his snooty detractors and leads the company in formation kick-ass choreography.

My own favourites among this season's vintage are the two that reach forward to embrace the dangerous outside world at a time of epoch-making political shift. Caroline, or Change, with splendid book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and a dazzlingly eclectic score by Jeanine Tesori, is that rare commodity: a truly great new musical, while Rufus Norris's version of Cabaret is a prodigiously imaginative revival of a great classic musical.

Intrepidly pushing further than the Bob Fosse movie and the acclaimed 1990s stage version by Sam Mendes, Rufus Norris and choreographer Xavier de Frutos lift the lid off the id of Weimar Berlin (with a knockout Sally Bowles from Anna Maxwell Martin).

They produce stunning, historically astute effects. James Dreyfus's mad Teutonic Prof of an MC scoffs currency during the relocated "Money" song, gorging on notes that, in an era of hyper-inflation, probably have more nutritional value than the substances they would buy. The disturbing slide from decadent Weimar into the Third Reich is viewed with an unblinking gaze. For example, the Nationalist naturists in the first half are ironically recalled and judged at the end in the echoing nakedness of the Jews waiting to be gassed in the death camps.

The lovely Caroline, or Change manages to create a world that marries theatrical magic (the appliances in the basement kitchen in Louisiana have the human personalities of black showbiz artistes) and highly intelligent politics (the show is insightful about how two races - the blacks and the Jews - have related to each other in America in the struggle for civil rights).

And it pointedly subverts some of our central expectations of the genre - for example that the title heroine will be white and have an "11 o'clock number" where she defiantly asserts herself. It's a salutary shock to the system that here the named female character is a middle-aged black maid and single parent whose climactic song is a desperate plea to God to destroy her aspirations and even her identity ("Take Caroline away cause I can't be her,/take her away I can't afford her") so that she can go back and clean for the family that has insulted her and so she can feed her children.

The civil rights marches have to move on without her, though including her teenage daughter. In their acumen and their dazzling imagination, Cabaret and Caroline, or Change give one a surge of hope for the future of musical theatre.

Still to come is The Sound of Music which, if even vaguely true to form, will resound to the noise of at least one critic blubbing, while also opening next month there's Trevor Nunn's fascinating-sounding conversion of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess into a West End musical.

People of all ages will be spoiled for choice in selecting a Christmas treat this year, with the new crop of shows adding to established hits such as Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins. For aficionados of the musical form, though, you could say that it's Christmas already.

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