"If Tony Kushner had written Angels in America as a musical, it could have been done in three hours." Lyricist John Dempsey is only half joking. He sees the musical as having limitless potential, the most surreal dramatic form there is. "Kushner was practically writing a musical with that show. It had an operatic, surreal quality with a kind of musical theatre structure. But his dialogue is so musical it would have ruined it."
Dempsey and composer Dana P. Rowe are tweaking their latest show, The Fix, which receives its world premiere with a hot cast at the Donmar on Monday night. The pair have been writing together for nine years, ever since they met up at university in Ohio, and in that time they have developed a sharp eye for the all-important, but thoroughly underestimated business of structure. Together, they act as a walking contradiction of the notion that the musical genre has had its day. As Rowe points out, "Anything you can do in a straight play, you can do in a musical". Dempsey, too, sees possibilities and not restrictions.
Since Rodgers and Hanmmerstein reinvented the musical with the creation of the musical play with Oklahoma, the form has remained frozen. Even last year's much admired Rent, for all its much-vaunted subject matter of an HIV love story with mixed-race lesbian and gay sex, is completely old-fashioned. There's even a happy ending. Its rock idiom (undercut by standard pastiche numbers) has few genuinely theatrical songs of plot movement, and even producer David Geffen's famously deep pockets haven't persuaded enough people to buy the album.
Dempsey and Rowe inevitably point to Sondheim as virtually the only person who has consistently pushed back the barriers and realised the potential of the musical. The Fix, however, is not some Sondheim clone. It took the producers three years to stage Dempsey and Rowe's last show. Cameron Mackintosh snapped up the rights to this one a week after hearing the demo tape and just five months later, Sam Mendes was rehearsing it. More impressive is the fact that Mackintosh is eyeing up a West End theatre for the hoped-for transfer.
The story of the corrupt machinations of a dangerous political dynasty, it sounds like The Chappaquiddick Singalong. "No," says Rowe, "it's The Manchurian Candidate without the warmth." And then he goes and spoils it all with a wicked grin.