2002 - the year of the musical?

By Paul Nelson

I DON'T think I'm all that wrong when I say that, not that long ago, say 20 or 30 years, the very idea of doing a MUSICAL?! at the Royal National Theatre would have had people handing back their medals and knighthoods at Buckingham Palace.

Look at it now. They have just had a stunning critical success with, of all things, Anything Goes (pictured), a show that, in retrospect, seems to have been destined to a chequered history, based, as it was on a shipwreck, and cursed by the fact that a real big one happened just before the play opened.

Prior to that, they have paid tribute to, among others, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Frank Loesser.

These matters are for historians, not me. The musical side of the theatre, long ignored in revivals, except for Broadway successes, presents a whole load of questions as to suitability. Who would have thought that Romeo and Juliet could ever have inspired West Side Story? The list of unlikelies is a very long one.

Looking back on the output of the theatre for 2002, I am forced to draw several conclusions and the main one is that we, in the 21st century, are seriously lacking in playwrights who can command an audience that can sustain a run of their play for more than six months.

When did we last have a Boeing Boeing? A Blithe Spirit? Both enjoying massive long runs.

Nowadays, it is nearly always musicals. It is as if the public hasn't got the attention span to sit for two hours and be entertained by a play. Possibly the films and television have had lot to do with that. Whatever, it is a sad comment on us, the audience.

I still think there is nothing like a well-constructed play, be it comedy, thriller or anything else, but apart from revivals where can one find such an entertainment? Nowadays, the long runs are for the musical theatre. With such huge expenses, producers need an extremely long run in order to recoup their initial outlay, as they pursue spectacular effect after spectacular effect.

The critics at Bombay Dreams all mentioned the fountain scene, for The Lion King it was the amazing effects and animal puppets. Splendid artefacts, but hardly a substitute for what one could call the real thing, a story that could hold your attention.

Another innovation is the recent phenomena of cast changes being announced in the Press as if they were national events. Usually, these cast changes involve someone with no stage background at all, their public interest arousal either being something in their private lives or based on a fleeting television appearance.

At best, this is messy, at worst, it is destroying appreciation of theatre, which although the word encompasses freaks and sideshows, should also embrace something on a grander scale that might enlighten the receiver, and make him go home inspired to write or create something original himself, instead of being shown that a fast buck can be made just around the corner by fooling as many people as possible.

It is, therefore, with little surprise that of the theatrical entertainments of the year which were to me the most satisfactory, by and large they were musical entertainments, the alternatives being rare specimens.

Always remembering that I am not Superman and cannot flash around all the theatres in London, my choice of the best has to be limited.

Nobody who saw it could not help but turn into a fireball over the sheer bravado of The Maias at the Greenwich Playhouse. This excellent play, taking on a virtually unknown novel by a Portuguese writer, which happened to be a perfect observation of his life and times, was turned into an evening that was never to be forgotten and must be ranked at least as first rate (click here for review).

Screaming with adrenaline and oestrogen, the Union Theatre revived and gave us an unforgettable example of male jocks out for the night, out for trouble and basically rooting for England, as well as their football team in Arrivederci Millwall, a joyous yet telling examination of football loutism tinged with sympathy. Their gung-ho jingoism not far removed from their national loyalty (click here for review).

This Is Our Youth, at the Garrick (pictured right), and still at it, presents in a delightful fashion the moral obligation we all have to our past. Hell, we were kids once, and here they are again, aren't they? Or are they us? Well, yeah, and it's a knockout (click here for Paul Nelson's review, or here for Jack Foley's notice of the revival).

Still on a serious note, and with superb performances, Life After George at the Duchess, took the audience's breath away. A deeply plotted play, it demanded the attention that today's audiences have lost. An absorbing play, beautifully staged, it gave Stephen Dillane and the rest of the cast an opportunity to see what we are missing in the theatre today. What a satisfactory evening (click here for review).

One that sneaked past almost everyone but me was The Lodger, a dissertation on the life of Ivor Novello, a talented and romantic composer who is crying out for a revival if ever there was one.

The play was presented on a shoestring at The Jermyn Street Theatre, not a venue to be sneezed at these days, and was actually magnificent in its tiny way. Tiny because of the size of the venue (click here for review).

There were, of course, magnificent performances in plays that didn't make the grade, noticeably Judi Dench in The Royal Family, in which, one felt she had been cast to redeem an otherwise disastrous evening (click here), and Googie Withers in Lady Windermere's Fan, another salvage job (click here). However, we have to move as I have indicated, into musical theatre for the real gritty that is theatre these days. Alas, most of them revivals.

Leading the parade was Happy End, which gave us the thrill of seeing two artists well matched in a relationship that, while not love-hate, was at least love-suspicion. Alasdair Harvey and Tracey Wiles electrified a brilliant show set in a pub (and performed in a pub). I can only wish that Brecht and Weill could have seen it. It was a show they had virtually washed their hands of and abandoned, but one which they didn't actually realise was, in itself, a sensation. The cast and production team made a meal of it which we all enjoyed (click here for review).

It would be a shame not to include The Singing Group, a touching, yet obvious, story of a gang of diverse people brought together by the temptation of singing together. The Chelsea Theatre needs to beware that if it goes on presenting plays like this it will lose its identity as an avant-gard theatre and become trendy (ugh, that word). (Click here for review).

Even the heatwave could not stop audiences from going to see the revival of Cabaret at the Union Theatre. With literally in-yer-face French knickers, this tiny theatre made the play explode with sordid insouciant sex, while Nazis gladly used this titillation as a smokescreen and part of their excuse to seize power. The show came to life like never before (click here for review).

In an entirely different vein, amidst a welter of biographies, each seemingly more endless than the last, Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill brought us a picture of Billie Holiday that etched itself into the very soul of the beholder (click here for review).

On the cabaret stakes, The Donmar Warehouse presented a tiny bundle of unstable radioactivity, Kristin Chenoweth, who thankfully only brought the house down. She has more than enough talent and energy to be a weapon of mass destruction. Certainly there was little left of her audience after they had stopped cheering and applauding.

Our own Gay Soper flew the flag with her own inimitable act at Pizza on the Park, and later at the Dulwich Art Gallery. It is high time this unique artist grabbed the attention of those who create legends. She is, after all, already a star.

Again on the revival arena, The Landor Theatre did its bit with Anything Goes (incidentally pipping the National at the post by at least six months; click here for review) while, in the meantime, giving the long overdue British premiere of The Apple Tree, a memorable show and one which produced a stunning piece of star metal in Suzanne Toase (pictured left), who can only be described as a Scud. She is unerring and devastating (click here for review).

Not to be missed and still running as I write, is Stomp at the Vaudeville (click here), and if, like me, you want to see a really good play well performed, then go to the Strand and see the revival of Mrs Warren's Profession where you will find Brenda Blethyn awesomely heading a flawless cast (click here).

Happy New Year, sorry you missed some of the above, maybe next year you will take just that bit more notice of Indielondon. In our independent way, we think we know what we are talking about.