Two musicals - Spring Awakening and A Little Night Music - have been rapturously received. Can so many be wrong?
“How often do you see something genuinely revolutionary on the West End stage? Or genuinely half-revolutionary? Not so often you can afford to look away when a phenomenon like Spring Awakening hits town.” How true, I thought, in response to this astonishing accolade in Time Out about Spring Awakening, which opened at the Novello in mid-April. So I went to one of the opening performances in London. After all, I thought, Time Out was hardly likely to risk its sophisticated, edgy reputation on something that wasn’t, as it claimed, “very special indeed”.
Another unusually hot ticket that same week, also a musical, was the press night of Trevor Nunn’s interpretation at the Garrick Theatre of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. It, too, was rapturously received, but not by me, and I was left wondering, in the thundering applause, whether there was something wrong with musicals or with me.
Spring Awakening is a drama of youthful sexual longing and rage struggling against adult repression. The musical is closely based on the 1906 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, set in a society which, unlike ours, was extremely repressive in every way. This production has a period setting, complete with Edwardian knickerbockers. It races through old-fashioned teenage sex, abortion, paternal abuse, suicide and reform school, as well as masturbation on stage performed by the most beautiful boy in the adorably young and enthusiastic cast. The general message is parents bad, kids good. Kids will bring about a better tomorrow, especially if they’re allowed to express themselves sexually. And if that’s revolutionary, I don’t know what the word means. As far as I am concerned, the music is barely tolerable – a mixture of soppy ballads and low-grade pop, belted out with more volume than talent.
A Little Night Music is also, in Nunn’s production, a period drama with lush costumes and sets. It’s based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, which itself was based on an 18th-century Marivaux play. It is a chocolate-boxy assortment, including a country house, a nest of gentlefolk, champagne, adulteries, heartbreak and summer night reconciliations, aiming without much success to be as magical as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Musically, it leaves me almost entirely cold but there is something extremely touching about the central drama between two elderly people, both still very attractive, who rediscover each other despite many summer evening obstacles. This is beautifully achieved by Alexander Hanson and Hannah Waddingham (who has only one song). Maureen Lipman is wonderful, apart from her singing voice (which she overcomes with great panache), as an autocratic grande dame with great aphoristic lines.
The most striking thing about both productions is that the singing is so bad. That is astonishing, given that London is flooded with talent of every kind and there must be excellent sopranos on every street corner. Yet one of the lead characters in Night Music has a voice that, from the first metallic shriek, is positively nasty to hear and the best one can say of the rest is that one or two of them have voices that are quite pleasant. There was not a single particularly good singer in Spring Awakening. And the music itself in both seems to me very third-rate.
Spring Awakening’s music is mostly just noise. Sondheim’s, although much easier on the ear, moves from derivative to schlocky to dull. I’ve always thought him incomprehensibly overrated as a musician. According to the programme notes, he does not care for Mozart; a composer who does not care for Mozart is a man, in my view, who cannot truly care for music. His real talent is for words – lyrics and dialogue are often sharp and elegantly witty – and it is striking that his long, centrally important scene in the second half is entirely spoken, rather than sung. The admirable lead character, the ageing beauty, has one solo song – Send in the Clowns – which was composed for someone who could barely sing.
No doubt both productions will be smash hits. But I find it hard to define why or what exactly it is I object to. The words that come to mind – middlebrow, sentimental, vulgar – are insufficient. Plenty of things that are middlebrow or sentimental are excellent – one could describe most opera as both. And the word vulgar has become almost meaningless, serving only to make the person who uses it look like a snob and a fool. Perhaps the right word is crude – unsubtle, inept, too obviously manipulative, too conventional, too anxious to please and too aggressively over-determined, both emotionally and musically. But, as my scripture teacher used to ask us unbelievers, can so many millions be wrong about it?