When a musical works, what a joy. Is there any better form of entertainment? Last weekend a little gem quietly came to the end of its packed run at the tiny King's Head theatre in north London. Two days ago the most daring revamp of a screen musical for 25 years opened at a cinema near you.
One Touch of Venus (at the King's Head) and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge have a lot in common, even though one was produced on a shoestring and presented on a stage smaller than my living room, and the other cost more than $50m and was shot in a succession of huge studios in Australia. Both succeed brilliantly because they take the audience on a journey that is both magical and mystical. Reality doesn't belong in the world of the musical; escapism and fantasy are the key. Plus bucket loads of emotion and commitment.
The plots of both musicals are, frankly, twaddle. Kurt Weill wrote One Touch of Venus in 1943, basing it on a ludicrous story by one FJ Anstey. It concerns a statue of Venus purchased by a wealthy American art collector, which miraculously comes to life and falls in love with Rodney Hatch, a barber. It's the only musical comedy written by Weill, and boasts witty lyrics by Ogden Nash and SJ Perelman. They are an utter delight - sharp, acerbic and a laugh a minute, full of wry commentary about everything from modern art to politics.
Baz Luhrmann takes Paris at the turn of the century as a starting point to use anthemic popular love songs to form his lovers' spoken, as well as sung, dialogue. As in his version of Romeo and Juliet, the two besotted protagonists are doomed. She's got consumption and is fated to die on opening night. He's a penniless writer whose passion threatens to undermine the whole show. By turning a song such as "Roxanne" into a passionate homage to the tango, and by transforming Bowie's "Heroes" into a duet between his leads, Luhrmann has struck gold.
We live in an age when television jingles probably form many children's first big sentences and when pop classics like Queen's "The Show Must Go On" or Elton John's "Your Song" have been heard by most of the people in the world. So it's safe to assume that they can be cut up and reworked to form a new language to communicate moments of passion that work in any language and to the biggest audience. They constitute a cultural common denominator that is not to be sneered at. Moulin Rouge is like a roller- coaster. There are over-edited, indigestible, over-exciting bits, redundant repetitive bits; it's rather like going through the long-rinse cycle in the washing machine. But it's never boring. An unforgettable experience.
If you fancy being an "angel", the producers of One Touch of Venus are still hoping it will be able to transfer to the West End. But they need more cash.
One Touch received rave reviews. But when a musical bores, is there a worse pain you can inflict on your backside? I am not in the My Fair Lady fan club. Under Trevor Nunn the musical has actually been lengthened. Now the scene in which Higgins teaches Eliza posh diction is interminable. Yes, it has great tunes, but how corny is that choreography? And, I'm sorry, but Jonathan Pryce is no more than dutifully workmanlike in anything he does.
The worst evening I have ever spent in the theatre was at the premiere of a god-awful load of rubbish entitled Thomas and the King at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket in 1975. Based on the relationship between Thomas a Becket and Henry II, with music by John Williams, the man who wrote the scores to Star Wars, Jaws and Close Encounters, it proved beyond any doubt that tunes don't guarantee success. The book, written by Ed Anhalt, was so pedestrian that my theatre companion, Zandra Rhodes, was asleep and snoring 20 minutes in. I followed her shortly afterwards. Imagine our horror at the interval when we discovered that we were sitting in front of Mr Anhalt himself. At the after-show party we had to meet all those responsible in a receiving line, at the end of which I could make out the champagne and lavish buffet. I managed to come up with the phrase "It's been a completely memorable night" followed by a lot of hand- shaking.
Sure enough, in the broadsheets the next day the knives were out in full. In either The Daily Telegraph or The Times, the critic felt no need to sound as politely ambivalent as me. "I want to name names," he ranted. "I want you to know the people responsible for this utter travesty." It closed in a matter of days.
Another musical disaster was the 1986 film Absolute Beginners directed by the unbelievably arrogant Julien Temple. He managed to turn Colin MacInnes's brilliant novel about the mixture of jazz, Mods, reggae, black and white in London at the end of the Fifties into a pastiche of Singin' in the Rain. Mind you, Patsy Kensit is no Martine McCutcheon or Nicole Kidman. So, just be thankful that, this week at least, the musical is truly reborn.
Beasts at the museum
Aren't award ceremonies the weirdest rituals? Martians must look down on us, observe these exotic, almost nightly gatherings and mistake them for religious services.
The other night I attended the GQ magazine Men of the Year awards at the Natural History Museum. The vast Victorian gothic hall has become a favourite venue for these occasions. Sadly the acoustics might be great for dinosaur skeletons but they don't work in favour of acceptance speeches, no matter how elegant. Of course any organisation can dream up awards these days, get the public to vote, draw in some sponsorship, and hey presto! You've got a glittering function with champers flowing and a full list of B-category celebrities in attendance.
But one thing all awards ceremonies have to include is a high priest or MC, who is usually Jonathon Ross, clad in a garment designed by himself or the Ross family pet. This time it was a Widow Twanky screwed-up cotton suit in beige and cream deck-chair stripes, worn with a fuschia shirt. On these occasions, Mr Ross never fails to deliver a string of unfunny, tasteless blokey jokes and then hands over to a procession of bimbos, who are given the task of reading out the citations. Big words, involving more than two syllables, tend to be a problem. I sat next to the editor of GQ, the charming Dylan Jones, who told me I was being "mean". Well, if you are going to give an Entrepreneur of the Year award to Stelios (Mr easyJet) Haji-Ioannou, why does it have to be presented by the Einstein of the B cup, Caprice?
Perhaps I was only irritated that, at 54, I am now about 30 years too old to present anything to anyone any more. From Lisa B to Jodie Kidd, they tottered on and off again, while I contented myself with reminiscing about all the happy Saturday mornings I had spent as a child in this very hall, a member of the museum sketching club. To this day I can still turn in a very creditable watercolour of a stuffed tern. Trouble is, botox and bosoms count for more in the world of GQ. My man of the year, incidently, is actor Jim Broadbent, who plays Zidler, the impresario of the Moulin Rouge. Mr Broadbent's version of "The Show Must Go On" steals the film. I've been playing it ever since, to get me through life's daily torments.
On holiday in Italy, I picked up a great bargain for about a pound at a flea market in Rapallo: a paperback from 1933 entitled Enquire Inside - for everything you want to know in your domestic and social life. It has become my bible, though plainly written for men. Under "Etiquette - visiting" is the following vital information: "Ladies should not remove their gloves when making afternoon calls; this would suggest a long stay". Another gem, pertaining to table manners: "The idea still lingers that it is proper to eat cheese with a knife. The idea is wrong. Cheese is eaten by balancing small fragments on bread or biscuit, held there by the aid of butter." The 2001 version of this tome would be a slim volume indeed.Reuse content