Slick and professional popular productions have many merits, but the gap between Les Mis and opera is very wide
West End theatre may not enjoy the most discerning of critical acclaim, but it is in the middle of a boom. The Society for Theatre Research counted 13.5m attendances at West End theatres last year, with ticket revenue of £470m; that amounts to more people than attended a premier league football match, and it was the best year since records began. And two-thirds of those West End theatregoers went not to stage plays, but to musicals. Can 9m people really be wrong, as my scripture teacher used to ask? What is it about musical theatre that makes it so -wildly popular, expensive though it is?
I have wondered very much. For one thing, I have never been to a musical, or hadn’t until this last month. Admittedly I went to West Side Story with my mother as a child, but for various reasons I don’t count that. Nor did my mother; she would not have dreamt of taking me to what she considered a musical. I admit too that I went to an amateur production of Brigadoon in a garage in Henley-on-Thames as a child, with a former nanny, which hardly counts either. It’s furthermore true that I have seen Porgy and Bess in the cinema and The Wizard of Oz on video (several times), and that in a fairly normal life it’s also impossible to avoid seeing clips of this and that or hearing various hit songs. We had an au pair who used to play LPs of horrible musicals, like Make Me an Offer, The King and I, Salad Days and South Pacific, all of which I hated. And I went years ago to a production of Hello -Dolly!, which quickly flopped, with some friends who had invested in it; I loathed that too.
Meanwhile, however, I have come to love opera, which, after all, is a form of musical theatre too. Perhaps the differences are not so very great. Perhaps, unless one hates all popular music, it is merely snobbish to assume that musicals are not worth going to. In any case, I though it was time to confront my prejudices. I went first to Chicago, the very long-running Broadway musical, which has won countless awards and was choreographed by the legendary American Bob Fosse. Then I went to see Les Miserables, the world’s -longest-running musical, now in its 23rd year, which is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of that name. Les Mis is not American: its composer and original lyricist are largely French, the English lyricist is South African, with help from the English poet James Fenton, and it was directed by the legendary Englishman Trevor Nunn. Most people would agree that these are forms of musical theatre at its best.
Oh dear. Both productions had outstanding merits, within their idiom. But the idiom is all wrong. To generalise from the particulars listed above, musicals are very much too loud. At times I longed for earplugs. The -music is unmemorable, manipulative and repetitive, and sometimes very derivative; the beat is oppressively heavy and unsubtle, and there’s a superfluity of vulgar oompah. Many performers seemed to me to be singing slightly flat, as lots of crooners do; it’s clearly deliberate, but it doesn’t appeal to me, and I really don’t know why it’s considered a good idea. The singers are miked-up, possibly because their voices are often weak: surprisingly few of the stars had really exceptional voices, and some of the women had voices that were painful to hear.
The way that women musical theatre singers produce their notes sounds ugly to me; it seems forced, strained and chesty. I realise that this is deliberate, and I don’t like it. It’s entirely different from operatic voice production; compared to the best and clearest of operatic voices – which are, in Lotte Lenya’s expression, fleischlos or fleshless – this seems to me to be an all-too-fleshly abuse of the singer’s vocal chords and of the listener’s ear. Of course, for the “can belto” songs and the comic female bruiser numbers, it’s fine. But for the lyrical sentimental solos, it can be genuinely horrible. Add to that a cute little Cinderella-girl singing a lame melody childishly flat and you have something which confirms all my prejudices.
Both productions had, admittedly, outstanding qualities, and the audiences absolutely loved them. I saw Les Mis next to a chauffeur from Merthyr Tydfil, bringing the Mayor up to London for a palace garden party, who was there for the fifth time, and knows the music by heart. Buoyed up by the enthusiasm of the man from Merthyr, I did love some aspects of it. The star, Drew Sarich, has a beautiful voice, and a very commanding presence musically and theatrically; he made the show moving at times. And as theatre it was hugely slick and magnificent, with inspired direction and sets throughout, especially in the lowlife crowd scenes (which classic opera usually does abysmally badly), particularly in some heart-stopping Géricault-like moments of death and blood on the people’s barricades.
As for Chicago, it was equally slick and professional, but in the American style. The dancing is technically superb. Yet as my neighbour the horticulturalist from Northants said, she didn’t fancy a single man. For all the exquisitely choreographed bump and grind – and this show is about sexual display: lap-dancing for the respectable – Chicago was completely sexless, as in coldly, unfeelingly professional. I found the music unpleasant. But the show did begin to intrigue me as a postmodern gender-bending exercise. The leading women were carrying on like female impersonators, and I kept asking the lady horticulturalist if this one or that one was a man; in the end it turned out that one actually was and had been singing falsetto throughout as a newspaper sob sister, so I wasn’t entirely wrong. It is so difficult to know, in an unfamiliar idiom. However, musical theatre is an idiom that I think I intend to keep unfamiliar.