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.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss