David Lister: The Week in Arts

Theatrical snobs should leave musicals alone
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I like musicals. I know. In the current climate that makes me the man in the Bateman cartoon: the mad arts commentator who enjoys musicals, while all around arts worthies are in despair about the way musicals are driving straight play out of the West End. The demise of legitimate theatre is at hand.

And what a tide of despair there is. Commentators and theatre producers have lined up to denounce anything with a tune. And this week at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the Standard's editor Veronica Wadley made a speech saying she would continue to campaign against the influx of musicals and their effect on straight plays. A little perverse, you might think, from a paper that also makes the award for Best Musical. But that's showbiz.

Just how dire is this threat? I decided to do the maths. In the official West End theatre listings there are 20 musicals listed, and 21 straight plays. That's not exactly a swamping. Among the straight plays currently showing are works by Tom Stoppard, Patrick Marber, Alan Bennett, Eugene O'Neill, Michael Frayn and John Mortimer. So it's not quite the cultural desert some would have us believe.

And that is just the official West End. The subsidised theatre is never counted in these statistics. But if you include the National Theatre, Royal Court, Almeida and RSC, then that ups the straight play count considerably. Then there are London fringe theatres such as The Bush, which champion new writing.

So I am tempted to think that certain people are protesting too much. But beneath the protests is a more worrying idea - the notion that musicals are inherently a bad thing, or at least a slightly vulgar and unworthy thing.

Why is this? The fact that a show is a musical doesn't mean it is somehow more trivial than "legitimate theatre". The human relationships and politics explored in the brilliant revival of Cabaret are not diminished because there are songs and dance. Of course, some musicals are simply there for a bit of fun - an evening of Motown songs, for example - but then some new writing doesn't live up to the sacred flame that seems to surround those two words in theatrical circles.

Musicals introduce many people to theatre at a young age. West Side Story was the first show that West End producer Bill Kenwright saw. It inspired him with a love of theatre and he went on to produce musicals and Shakespeare and new writing. To him they are all theatre. They are to Trevor Nunn, the former head of the National Theatre and RSC and a great and prolific director of musicals. They are to me too.

There's a strange theatrical snobbery in the condemnation of the current crop of musicals. They have by no means driven straight plays out of the West End; they have added to the West End's variety.

But there is a way to shut up the doom-mongers. It seems to be artistically correct these days to condemn musicals. But no true arts lover would dare criticise opera. I suggest that some of these musicals simply call themselves operas. Connie Fisher could henceforth be described not as a cheery TV competition winner but as a soprano, a diva. With what gravitas the words would suddenly endow her. "Doh Re Mi" would no longer be a ditty but a fully fledged aria.

It's just the word "musical" that has created this burst of theatrical snobbery. There's not a lot wrong with the actual product. And, with 20-plus straight plays in the West End of London, there's not a lot wrong with the health of "legitimate" theatre either.

Illusions shattered

I find it touching that the Hollywood star Cameron Diaz confesses to having difficulties with one line in her latest film, The Holiday. The director, Nancy Meyers, wanted Diaz's character to say the line: "No one has time for sex." Diaz, who is going out with pop star Justin Timberlake, simply couldn't cope with the frightening implications of the line.

"I don't think it's true," she told The Independent's interviewer. "I don't want to perpetuate that thought and theory. I don't want people to think it's OK to be in a relationship when you're not having those kinds of relations with the person." Ms Meyers simply said to Diaz: "You're a very lucky girl, Cameron. Just say it, please. I'm older. It's true."

I've heard of directors intimidating actresses. But to shatter an illusion so cruelly shows a hard heart. Poor Miss Diaz now has before her the spectre of herself and Mr Timberlake in a middle age bereft of passion. It's a wonder she had the emotional strength to complete the scene.

* Yusuf Islam, formerly Sixties pop star Cat Stevens, has his first record out for 28 years. But he very nearly did feature in a major live performance during that time. In an interview in America this week, he revealed that he was scheduled to play at the original Live Aid concert in 1985, and wrote a song specifically for the occasion. However, he showed up without a guitar and the organisers were "a bit worried by that". Then, recalls Yusuf, "Elton John overran and so I said 'no problem' and walked away."

Yusuf Islam had become a very religious and spiritual man by the mid-1980s, and what could have better demonstrated his stoicism? One pictures him quietly slipping away from one of the biggest music events of all time, muttering "no problem" and going home.

I doubt somehow that Elton John would have acted in similar fashion, if Yusuf Islam had overrun.